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Theatre of 2023: A year split between the muted past and vigorous present

Productions of classics appeared to be aimed at long-time theatregoers, yet this year the Arts Council warned of a decline in young people attending plays

Letting go is hard. You may have wondered, as you made your way to the first big productions of 2023 – to the Abbey Theatre’s Tartuffe or Ghosts, or to the Gate Theatre’s The Price – why venues were programming plays as if it were 10 years ago. Was this really the same time of year that in 2022 featured An Octoroon, Portia Coughlan and Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster?

The muted productions of classics by Molière, Ibsen and Miller felt designed to appeal primarily to long-time theatregoers, yet this was a year when the Arts Council warned of a worrying decline in the number of young people attending plays and other events. It also looked familiarly homogenous: in an echo from before Waking the Feminists, the Abbey’s smaller Peacock auditorium once again became the only platform for a play written by a woman, in this case Deirdre Kinahan’s An Old Song, Half Forgotten.

A slip back in time?

Things improved greatly in the second half of the year, but until then it looked as if the clocks were turning back. In their nominations, the judges of The Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards singled out the two white actors in An Octoroon, a play that, with a mostly non-white cast, gutsily wrote black trauma back into theatre history. The shortlist prompted the production’s creators to call for more diverse judging panels, and for The Irish Times to pause the judging process.

There were multiple signs of an industry refusing to imagine how things could be different. When Enda Walsh announced a break from playwriting, in an interview with this newspaper in 2021, people could have speculated about who would fill the vacuum; Walsh has been the playwright with the greatest influence across the industry, judging by frequent large-scale productions of his plays and operas. Instead of seeing a different voice being elevated, a re-evaluation of the writer’s secondary plays commenced, with Landmark’s revival of Bedbound and the Gate Theatre’s showing of The New Electric Ballroom.


When festivals began to unveil programmes for the summer, there seemed to be a cross-industry slip back in time. The headline plays were overwhelmingly created by white men. “Not good enough,” wrote Brenda Donohue, a researcher and activist who helped steer Waking the Feminists towards tangible change, on social media.

The real play of the year

Toy Show The Musical. Photograph: Ste Murray

There was one play that succeeded in capturing the attention of the nation. Amid revelations about RTÉ’s top-up payments to Ryan Tubridy, the spectre of last year’s Toy Show the Musical appeared when the project was revealed to have lost €2.2 million. The ambitious scheme, which sought to distil the appeal of the broadcaster’s Late Late Toy Show into an all-singing, all-dancing stage production, needed to usher 75,400 pundits through the foyer of Convention Centre Dublin to break even. In the end, 11,044 tickets were sold.

It was far more pleasurable to report on the Gate Theatre’s immaculately cast musical Fun Home, which, we imagine, will with little argument be agreed to be the best production of 2023. Winning praise from all quarters when it opened, the musical chronicling the childhood of the American cartoonist Alison Bechdel is a masterpiece of perspective: how best to remember a withholding father who was a closeted man in the small-town United States of the 1970s?

If Bechdel’s graphic memoir – the musical’s source material – was a meticulous creation, folding family secrets and uneasily reconcilable feelings into an admirably neat narrative, the Gate’s production was similarly eloquent, a sweet-sounding tear-jerker that railed against a wider society of shame.

A world of dangers


Another play worth seeing at the Gate, in its first year under Róisín McBrinn and Colm O’Callaghan, was The Loved Ones, the venue’s co-production with Rough Magic. Erica Murray’s excellent drama, centred on a grieving family who discover one of their own had an affair with a college student, showed Ronan Phelan, who has also directed large-canvas musicals and Shakespearean comedies, to be equally at home with intimate drama. As a history of Ireland’s treatment of single mothers dovetails into the play’s action, its characters become wary of a present world where the cycle of shame continues.

Some of the dangers we saw this year felt new and frightening. The fantasy adventure in Mirrorball, Replay Theatre’s bold musical for young audiences, was a transmuted version of events that took place at last year’s Belfast Pride, when a group of people protested the drag artist Matthew Cavan’s performance at a Drag Storytime event, making utterly unfounded accusations against him. In the play, Cavan’s drag-queen persona, Cherrie Ontop, is chased by anti-LGBTQ+ protesters into an extradimensional refuge. Janice Kernoghan-Reid’s compassionate production lingered on sad contemplations by intimidated artists thinking of quitting their vocations, but it also lent urgency to art and creation as radical ideas when a climate of hatred is depressingly resonant.

The nightmare that is Dublin’s spirallingly expensive rental market provided the backdrop to Bellaray Bertrand-Webb’s superb comedy Dog Shit, which followed a group of young theatre creatives in the city, but it ultimately became a portrayal of an absurd industry. Its characters accused each other of privilege, of selling out, all the while questioning how to survive as theatre artists in the capital, making the play a salient standout at Dublin Fringe Festival.

More than a best-laid plan

There was a time when Garry Hynes’s idea for a marathon Druid theatre-company production of Seán O’Casey’s Dublin trilogy seemed only a best-laid plan; 15 years ago the Abbey Theatre seemed as if it may have scuppered the enterprise by buying the performance rights to the plays. Finally, however, Hynes’s poignant epic about Dublin residents on the edges of the revolutionary period arrived on stage – including, for its Dublin run, the Abbey’s.

The messiness of marriage

The national theatre, still weathering a costly governance review following complaints about alleged incidents involving the Abbey’s then codirector Graham McLaren, was at its best when presenting two deep plays exploring marriage. Marina Carr’s Girl on an Altar was always going to end in revenge, being a reimaging of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. The play’s innovation was showing the messy struggle of a husband and wife to fully let go of their union, embracing and separating from each other in Annabelle Comyn’s compelling staging, either making love or having hate sex.

The theatre followed it with Somewhere Out There You, Nancy Harris’s play about a whirlwind marriage proposal that throws a family off-kilter. There was something satisfying in seeing its characters becoming wary of packaged ideas about happiness, choosing instead to act on instinct.

Similarly, when the lovers in Irish National Opera’s swooning Der Rosenkavalier grew pessimistic after failed relationships, there was a well-earned wisdom in realising that maybe to love someone is to have the pluck to approach them, to accept their emotional baggage, or even to let them go.

Original ideas

In an era when franchises seem to have a stranglehold on cinema, projects with original ideas should be celebrated. When Dublin Fringe Festival invited the trailblazing American cabaret artist Justin Vivian Bond, a transgender pioneer, to stage Only an Octave Apart, their show with Anthony Roth Costanzo, it was heartening also to see, elsewhere in the festival, Ois O’Donoghue’s brassy debut, Hyper, an enjoyably flip, ultimately stirring tale of trans self-expression.

Also at the fringe was Dagogo Hart’s eloquent drama Mmanwu, about a widowed poet in Nigeria reflecting on how best to raise her son as a single parent. Tasteinyourmouth’s immersive play You’re Needy (Sounds Frustrating) gave us a startling wellness-culture nightmare. Cathal Cleary’s Blue Thunder impressed as an absorbing family drama.

During Galway International Arts Festival, Brú Theatre’s play Not a Word was an affecting ode to Irish emigrants who never returned. Junk Ensemble’s exploration of witches in the dance performance Powerful Trouble made for a thrilling story of rebellion and craft at Dublin Theatre Festival.

Next weekend brings back the Christmas opening, with Hammam, Louise Lowe’s Civil War play, which will transform the Abbey’s Peacock auditorium into a destroyed O’Connell Street. On the one hand, the production is highly anticipated. On the other, December 23rd is a time when, as the dogged critic Dorothy Parker once remarked, “every self-respecting citizen ought to be in his home”.