“We need you and you need us,” says actor Niamh McCann. She’s speaking via Zoom, of course, but is discussing something that won’t, miracle of miracles, be happening just on a screen, but rather as part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival.
Organisers were frantically trying to work out what the latest Covid restrictions mean for the event, and while some shows have been cancelled, they’re confident that some parts of the reconceived festival can take place.
Meanwhile, McCann has expressed the essential element of theatre that has not been replicated in the livestreams and broadcasts that have clamoured for our attention over the past few months, as venues themselves sit dark. It is the interpersonal experience, shared by audience and performer, in the never-to-be-repeated moment.
“Like my neighbour was saying to me yesterday, they were sick of not having something to look forward to, of nothing spontaneous happening. So many of us are missing that liveness, that human need to have the unexpected.”
Anu’s work has always been deeply intimate. As Ireland’s leading site-specific company they have taken audiences, often tiny ones, on pathways and down corridors, showing us marginalised lives on the margins of the city, or excavating Dublins past and present.
But in the year of Covid, that essential characteristic of their work stands as emblematic for theatre, for why, as McCann says, we need it.
The company’s work for the festival, The Party to End All Parties, will take its cast and audience again onto the streets of Dublin. “That dynamic,” McCann says, “is going to throw up things we don’t know. And we have to embrace that.
The work has its roots in a photo director Louise Lowe has long considered: showing a packed O’Connell Bridge on the night in April 1949 when Ireland officially became a republic. Her original intention was to create a piece inspired by that photo, and how it represents a moment of change, of imagination, of looking forward.
Events, of course, have conspired to reduce her vision of a teeming, crowded, choreographed piece, with “lots of bodies on top of each other”. Now, there will be three performers, and an audience of two at a time. But events have also pushed to the fore in all our minds ideas of change, time, and our relationship to where we live and how we live.
“When the festival asked us to make something that responds to the now, and had a live element in it, that image came back to me,” Lowe says, also, of course, via Zoom.
“You just could not imagine a city now looking like that, and we don’t know when we will see that kind of mass gathering again in Dublin. So, we’ve stood back a little. We’re trying to keep the intimacy and communion with our audiences, and we took a lot of inspiration from the city now. The piece is set in contemporary time, but it jumps back to April 1949.
“Moments of crisis are often moments of change,” Lowe says. During the pandemic, and with Brexit on the horizon, we are “invited to consider ourselves again in terms of our Irishness, our connection to the city, to ourselves, to the here and now,” she says. “Who are we? Why are we? What do we want? For our country and ourselves.”
As Lowe expands on the themes of the piece, the allusions flow: to Finnegans Wake and its circular time; to Dublin Mean Time, which held until 1916, putting the city some 25 minutes ahead of Britain; and to little pieces of Dublin history, like the Ballast House “time ball”, once visible on high across the city, before standardisation of GMT. But, she reassures, the audience “don’t have to get every reference – I hope they come out with a sense of renewal, of hope, of the idea of reclamation.”
“In many ways in this,” she continues, “the audience is the scene partner. So you have to trust that not only the ideas are coming across but that it’s interesting enough for the person to want to be present, inside it. That they feel comfortable enough within the story that’s being told that they are free to respond as they want to.
A number of shows at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival are for audiences of a mere handful or less, while others use phones, will be available online, or will be livestreamed – The Party to End All Parties among them. One performance will be broadcast for free. Live streaming does at least have the virtue of once-offness, of risk and uncertainty – will the signal hold? – that is fundamental to the frisson of the theatrical experience.
“That was the biggest change for us, the notion of streaming,” Lowe says.
“For the very first time, we will be live streamed across the world, which is scary in a lot of ways. It’s not good enough to just video it. The conceiving of it to be engaging via a digital platform is something very new for us and will no doubt pose challenges.”
Covid restrictions also meant the show had its genesis online: actors never meeting, but rehearsing on video calls, individual pods of designers, and so on. But for McCann, it still comes down to the essential connection with the viewer, as with all the Anu productions she’s played in.
“It is so fundamental to this work,” she says. “That connection, and how the work grows and changes, by the person, by the hour, by the day, is huge for us creatively … quite thrilling.”
- The Party to End All Parties is at the Dublin Theatre Festival on dates between September 22 and October 10; live stream date TBC. Full details at dublintheatrefestival.ie
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The Abbey Theatre’s contribution to the festival will take audiences around the grounds of IMMA, at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham. A cast of 16 actors and 10 musicians will bring to life Patrick Kavanagh’s titular long poem, almost 40 years after it was first staged at the Peacock. Caitríona McLaughlin and Conall Morrison direct.
A Covid-proof production before we even had to worry about such things, Theatre for One was a hit at the 2019 Cord Midsummer Festival. Writers Marina Carr, Stacey Gregg, Emmet Kirwan, Louise Lowe, Mark O’Rowe and Enda Walsh have contributed original five-minute plays to be performed by a single actor for an audience of, you’ve guessed it, one.
Pan Pan’s response to Covid restrictions takes the form of an audio cinematic experience at the IFI, based on the late poetry of Samuel Beckett, and performed by some of Ireland's leading actors. Samuel Beckett, taken to a nursing home in Paris at the age of 82, wrote Comment dire, translating it as “what is the word” and writing on the manuscript, “Keep! for end”.