Theatre times: ‘Dublin by lamplight’

This evening was an evening of magic. My very first time attending the Abbey Theatre Main Stage to see the Corn Exchange company’s revival of ‘Dublin by lamplight’.

The Abbey Theatre is the national theatre of Ireland which devotes itself to showing work by Irish writers – both old and new. Less mainstream, more experimental pieces get shown on the Peacock Stage – this is the smaller theatre in the basement of the building. The main stage is a much larger venue. And it represents the pinnacle of achievement in Irish theatre.  If you’ve played the Abbey main stage then you are a theatrical force to be reckoned with. DAHling. True enough, the Bord Gais Energy Theatre is a far larger venue than the Abbey. Its schedule however, is largely devoted to West End Musicals. It is the type of venue which sells buckets of popcorn and barrels of cola at the interval. The Abbey is far snootier.

I was feeling all sophisticated with my ten euro ‘early bird’ front row ticket. Theoretically the show does not open until Tuesday. Saturday and Monday are merely preview performances. Which is a strange notion – a show that is a revival of a show, and which is only playing for two weeks really ought to be ready before the first show. I wasn’t complaining – I was paying a mere tenner for the privilege.

‘Dublin by lamplight’ was written by Michael West. It was originally staged in 2004 and directed by Annie Ryan. 2004 was the centenary year for the Abbey Theatre. ‘Dublin by lamplight’ told a fictional tale of the setting up of the national theatre in the turbulent times of 1904. This fictionalised version while chaotic and farcical is not much of an exaggeration on the real life beginnings of the Abbey.

The play is told in a commedia dell’arte style. The six characters are all heightened versions of stock characters – a dissolute, fey leading man Martyn Wallace (played by Paul Reid); a fading leading lady Eva St. Jean (played by Karen Egan); the theatrical producer Willie Hayes (Louis Lovett); his brother -the leading man in the first play to be staged in the ‘Irish National Theatre of Ireland – Frank Hayes (Gus McDonagh); a serving wench and costume assistant Maggie (Catherine Ennis) and carpenter Jimmy Finnegan (Colin Campbell).

It is an absolute triumph of a play. Hysterically funny and tragic at the same time, this is not a subtle piece of theatre. Wearing garish make-up each character is a caricature of a certain type of person in the theatrical world. Each character narrates their own story, while speaking to the audience at all times. It tells the tale of this motley crew of people all attempting to establish a national theatre and perform the premier of a new play ‘The Wooing of Emer’ – a tale about Irish mythical legend Cuchulainn. It is set against the backdrop of growing resentment of the colonial power in control of Ireland; the king’s visit and a rising republican sentiment.

Between them they don’t have a pot to piss in but they struggle to get the show up and running.

It takes a much darker tone after the interval, while remaining hilarious until almost the end, when the sorrow of these characters’ situations is emphasised.

The cast was solid throughout – each bringing a sense of believability and pathos to their role – despite being almost caricatures. In particular I loved Karen Egan and Paul Red’s performances. My least favourite characters were Maggie and Jimmy. This had nothing to do with the actors – both of whom gave wonderful performances. It’s just that I am heartily sick of the Irish theatrical trope that requires any play set in Dublin to feature plucky young urchins with thick Dublin accents, a sharp wit, and a desire to overcome their humble circumstances. These characters are meant to be lovable. Personally I would much rather see a character from the country trying to survive in Dublin – these people have always existed. Allegedly true blue, salt of the earth Dublin characters,  with their tiresome pluck are preferred.

This is a small complaint (although theatre makers really ought to learn that true blue, brave little vagrant Dubs, are not necessarily much loved heroes outside of the Pale – I live near Talbot Street – walking zombies are an equally true reflection of the native population I feel. Just one that is not represented on stage.)

The piano accompaniment throughout the play by Conor Linehan is threatening and atmospheric. This was one of the best evenings at the theatre I have enjoyed in a long time.

It is playing in the Abbey until April 1st. I would highly recommend it.


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