After a tremulous start to 2022, by late spring of this year, Irish theatre began to fully emerge in post-pandemic celebration, with a return to large casts and full-capacity houses. The beginning of summer saw regional arts festivals filled with new Irish and touring international work, while postponed productions demonstrated the benefits of extra development and rehearsal time.
However, Covid was still breathing down artists’ and audiences’ necks. ANU Production’s The Wakefires at the Cork Midsummer Festival closed before previews were finished due to Covid infections, while the Abbey Theatre’s big summer show Translations had a rolling cast of stand-ins. Even so, by the time the back-to-back theatre festivals kicked off in Dublin in September, there were directors with multiple projects premiering, simultaneous opening nights, and reviewing timetables of three-shows-a-night. So what did this avid audience-member make of 2022′s live performance trends?
This was the year of ... The Dancer
The boundaries between dance and theatre continued to dissolve in 2022. In the new Teaċ Daṁsa production, How to be a Dancer in Seventy-Two Thousand Easy Lessons, an autobiographical play with minimal dancing from Michael Keegan-Dolan and Rachel Poirier, choreography was less important than dramatic catharsis. In ThisIsPopBaby’s explosive, emotional Party Scene, about chemsex, text from Phillip McMahon and choreography from Philip Connaughton made for a meaningful and memorable collaboration between movement and story.
CoisCéim brought textual body and a full-on sensual approach to their completely unique combination of live performance and VR experience in the Ulysses-inspired Go to Blazes, led by scent-mistress and dancer Justine Cooper. Actress Genevieve Hulme-Beaman, playing Lucia Joyce, embodied the best parts of Edna O’Brien’s Joyce’s Women at the Abbey Theatre, while dancer Kévin Coquelard’s remarkable manifestation of Hans Christian Andersen’s inner turmoil in Theatre Lovett’s The Tin Soldier at the Gate Theatre brought brilliant expression to the interior life of the classic fairy-tale writer.
The year of … The Live Band
Sound design continues to be complemented by original composition in Irish theatre, with the added edge this year of live musical accompaniment. In Louise White’s Animals at Project Arts Centre, musicians Elis Czerniak and Dylan Lynch were cast as characters in the chorus of farmyard beasts, providing comedy and atmosphere with their electronic post-punk score.
A live band led by Alma Kelliher were key in reinventing the idea of the traditional Irish wake in ThisIsPopBaby’s raucous and riotous Wake (which also involved excellent choreography from Phillip Connaughton, including a tap dancing solo from the choreographer himself in a bow tie and thong).
Emmet Kirwan’s excellent Accents was a confessional scored by Eoin French with key contrapuntal conversation between Kirwan and the onstage electronic instruments. At Smock Alley Theatre, the anarchic accompaniment of punk band False Slag helped to anchor the chaos of Georgia Cooney’s fine performance as narrator in Luke Cassidy’s Iron Annie., while Junk Ensemble employed a three-strong band of female musicians to provide a key musical backdrop to their Sylvia Plath project The Cold Sings.
The year of the ... Classic Irish Revival
The Abbey and the Gate played conservative hands in the hopes of tempting audiences back by scheduling big productions of classic Irish plays. Owen Roe gave a towering performance that measured up to the play’s history and the historical material in the leading role of Thomas Dunne in The Steward of Christendom, under the direction of Louise Lowe, at The Gate. Director Jason Byrne managed a series of explosive portrayals of toxic masculinity on the small Peacock stage with Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark. On the main Abbey stage there were revivals of Marina Carr’s Portia Coughlan led by Denise Gough, Brian Friel’s Translations, in a co-production with the Lyric Theatre, and Conor McPherson’s The Weir, currently playing the Christmas season, as well as the Irish premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ indescribably bonkers An Octoroon, based on Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon.
The year of ... new voices and new audiences
The famously conservative Gate Theatre continued to break down audience barriers by giving a platform to a beatboxing crew from London for Frankenstein: Making a Monster, an extraordinary reinvention of Shelley’s book by a group of young music lovers from South London, which brought a visibly new energy and diverse young demographic into the theatre. At the Dublin Fringe Festival, the 2021 artist development network WEFT already seemed to be paying dividends. The 2022 programme was rich with work from new black artists, who brought new black audiences into the theatres too, most memorably with Samuel Yakura’s The Perfect Immigrant and Hive City Legacy: Dublin Chapter. The increased diversity of audiences had a trickle-down effect evident in the Dublin Theatre Festival too, which gave a sold-out work-in-progress showing of actor Kwaku Fortune’s debut family drama, It’s Cool in the Shade, which was developed in Smock Alley’s Baptiste Programme, another initiative to provide support and encouragement to black artists.
The year of ... Ulysses
As James Joyce’s masterpiece celebrated 100 years in print, Irish theatres joined in the commemorations. A collaboration between Landmark Productions, ANU and MOLI, Ulysses 2.2 proposed 18 multidisciplinary artistic experiments, many of them anchored by theatricality. Branar offered young audiences a chance to engage with the ideas in Episode 2 of Joyce’s book in You’ll See at the Cork Midsummer Festival, extending the experiment nationwide through a filmed version. Fintan O’Toole and Viko Nikci used VR for The Promised Land to create a theatrical immersion for one at the GPO, based on Episode 7, while Louise Lowe directed Lolling and All Hardest of Woman, based on episodes 5 and 14, simultaneously at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Barry McGovern spent Bloomsday week reading the entire book live at the Peacock Theatre, Corn Exchange paid tribute by remounting Dubliners at Smock Alley Theatre, while Declan Gorman toured nationwide with his own autobiographical Joyce tribute, Falling Through the Universe.
The year of ... opera everywhere
Irish National Opera outdid themselves in ambition and accessibility this year, from the five-star comic classic Don Pasquale to the four-hour marathon William Tell and the 45-minute VR community opera Out of the Ordinary, as well as Alice’s Adventures Underground on cinema screens. The Lyric Theatre in Belfast also excelled, hosting a brilliant production of the family-friendly Sondheim staple Into the Woods, from Northern Ireland Opera, and an ambitious new jazzy opera from Conor Mitchell, Propaganda. Performance Corporation even offered opera at the edge of the island in Disappearing Islands, in a site-specific composition from Ellen Cranitch and Tom Swift.
[ Don Pasquale review: Bringing laughter from 19th century Italy to 21st century Donegal ]
The year of ... Shakespeare
At the Kilkenny Arts Festival, Rough Magic found a brilliant conclusion to their three-year Shakespeare project with an outdoor production of The Tempest, starring Eleanor Methven as Prospero, with Denis Clohessey’s magical soundscape and Alan Farquharson’s set transporting audiences’ beyond Kilkenny Parklands. At the Dublin Theatre Festival, meanwhile, Dan Colley’s unsettling Lost Lear mapped Shakespeare’s tragedy on to an ailing actress in a nursing home. Using puppetry and live video mapping, this was an astute exploration of dementia and deteriorating memory grounded by a stunning performance from Venitia Bowe.
My top five shows of 2022
The Last Return: political potency cloaked in polished satire from Sonya Kelly at the Galway International Arts Festival; it tours to Roscommon, Limerick, Clare, Donegal, Meath, Cork and Kerry in 2023.
Good Sex: this made for great theatre from Dead Centre and Emilie Pine, who refreshed their clever metatheatrical play about intimacy on every night of its short five-night run at the Dublin Theatre Festival.
No Magic Pill: Raymond Keane’s production of Christian O’Reilly’s probing play about disability activist Martin Naughton at Galway’s Black Box embodied accessibility in form and theme.
Absent the Wrong: Dylan Coburn Gray made bold dramaturgical choices in a challenging, gripping three-act exploration of the legacy of institutional adoption in Ireland at the Peacock Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival.
An Octoroon: Outrageous, provocative and very, very funny, Antony Simpson-Pike’s production starred Patrick Martins as a shape-shifting playwright forced to perform in his own racially charged play.