Remember how it felt to be going to the theatre? Until we can get there in person again, critic FIONA CHARLETON is enjoying stellar performances online …
Where were you when you realised that Covid-19 wasn’t just an excuse for George Lee to scare the daylights out of us? I remember the moment exactly: it was Wednesday March 4 2020, opening night of Nancy Harris’s terrific play, “Our New Girl” at the Gate Theatre. On my way out, I overheard someone saying that the HSE had just confirmed that there were now six cases of Covid-19 in Ireland. As the buzzed-up crowd spilled onto Parnell Square, I felt a sudden jolt of panic. And George Lee was nowhere to be seen.
Eight days later, the Gate’s doors closed, as did every theatre in the country. Our National Theatre went dark overnight, its successful run of “The Fall of The Second Republic” coming to an abrupt end. In Cork, The Everyman postponed “The Sea Trilogy: Three One Act Operas”, and Druid cancelled their much-anticipated Dublin run of “The Cherry Orchard”. And that was just the opening scene to this three-act pandemic tragedy.
But as the world turned to Zoom, so did creative artists and a new dramatic genre was born: online theatre. Initially, I was unconvinced. Surely the beauty of theatre is the live, communal experience? Online productions sounded suspiciously like ropey TV and if that was the competition then Normal People was winning hands down.
One of the first Irish production companies out of the traps was the irrepressible Fishamble with their streamed production of “Inside the GPO” by Colin Murphy, filmed in the GPO in 2016. It was fascinating but watching it from my sofa felt vaguely disconnecting. Viewing via computer made it harder to enter the fragile world of a play.
“Our approach to this hybrid model is changing as the pandemic has continued,” said Fishamble’s artistic director Jim Culleton, as evidenced by their powerful, summer production of Deirdre Kinahan’s “Embargo” streamed live from the Pumphouse in Dublin Port. Their latest venture, “Mustard”, by talented actor/writer Eva O’Connor, was broadcast last month as part of New York’s Origin Irish Theatre Festival. According to Culleton, Fishamble’s aim now is to “look at ways to capture the best of live theatre, but push what can be done digitally, so it is not just a matter of a straightforward filming of the theatre experience”.
Actor Ross Gaynor didn’t waste any time. With James Stafford, he set up an online events venue called The Lock Inn. Armed with an Arts Council grant to collaborate with Bewley’s Café Theatre, Gaynor believes “with the right governmental support and funding, online theatre can be the answer to world domination for Irish theatre”. And judging from the figures that tuned into the Abbey Theatre’s online offerings last year, he might be right. While the Abbey’s average yearly audience is around 123,000, over 300,000 people tuned in to productions such as “Dear Ireland” and “This Beautiful Virtual Village”, with almost half the audience joining from overseas.
But can online productions engage like traditional theatre? For anyone who saw Dead Centre’s Dublin Theatre Festival show “To Be A Machine”, the answer is yes. Jack Gleeson’s compelling performance streamed live from the Project Arts Centre challenged us to evaluate this new genre. Gleeson even made a point of artfully playing with the fact that he was acting to an empty auditorium, drawing us in with imaginative use of the chat box.
Recreating the social aspect of theatre is crucial. The Lock Inn often conduct Q& A’s post performance. Landmark Production’s live streaming of Mark O’Rowe’s “The Approach” included a post-show discussion chaired by Louise O’Neill with O’Rowe and cast members Cathy Belton, Aisling O’Sullivan and Derbhle Crotty.
So, join me in giving this new hybrid a chance and support Irish theatre. Go one step further, get friends to tune in at the same time, crack open the wine, and Zoom afterwards for a post-mortem. Let’s face it, that can be the most entertaining part.
TRY THEATRE ONLINE
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