DUBLIN — Not that long ago, Boston theaters were falling all over each other looking for Irish plays, even bringing the legendary Abbey, Gate, and Druid theater companies to the city with everything from “Medea” to Martin McDonagh. These days, hardly anything.
So if the mountain won’t come to a lover of Irish theater, it was about time for said lover to go to the Dublin Theatre Festival, a glorious fall display of theater that’s classic and contemporary, Irish and international. (This year’s dates are Sept. 26 to Oct. 13.)
The big 2018 draw was Ruth Negga — a.k.a. Tulip O’Hare in “Preacher” and Mildred Loving in “Loving” — playing the title character in “Hamlet” at the Gate Theatre, and she didn’t disappoint. (It’s coming to New York in February.) But some of the most memorable moments for a first-time visitor to Dublin were the smaller theaters and lesser-known actors, the pints, and the paintings.
Yes, it’s true. The Guinness does taste better across the pond, with more character and aftertaste. I’m primarily a wine drinker but, boy, that first Guinness at the Parnell Heritage Pub & Grill could convert me. Parnell’s was the pub we wound up in on a Monday night, when the festival was dark. It was a good day to find and acclimate ourselves to the Airbnb at the Steelworks — an excellent budget alternative to Dublin hotels — on the northern edge of the River Liffey, a 15- to 30-minute walk to just about everywhere we wanted to go.
Parnell’s is around the corner from the Gate in Dublin’s north side, which turned out to be my favorite part of the city in terms of the theater, art, and food. The fish and chips and shepherd’s pie were just what you’d want from an Irish pub, not to mention the pint, and the accents around us were international. With three floors, though, the higher you went, the more Irish the accents, and the smokier the air. Looking for local color is fun, but can be dangerous to your health.
The next night we were back for Negga at the Gate which, like the Abbey, was in full Shakespeare mode, the Abbey partnering on “Richard III,” with another theater that’s become an essential part of the Irish theater scene, the Druid Theatre Company from Galway. The Druids, under the direction of Garry Hynes, have been the primary champion of Martin McDonagh, bringing the original “Beauty Queen of Leenane” to Broadway and the revival to, among other places, ArtsEmerson.
Not wanting to overload the schedule with Shakespeare we went for “Hamlet” over “Richard.” Tulip O’Hare as Hamlet? How could you not. The Gate itself, founded in 1928, is a staid white-brick building that exudes tradition, but there’s nothing staid about its character, with its history of championing great modernists like Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
And there was certainly nothing traditional about its casting of Negga, whose heritage is half-Irish and half-Ethiopian — as Hamlet. This wasn’t an exercise in gender-bending — this Hamlet was not a she. And though it was a fully assertive performance, it does give a different perspective on things to have someone 5 feet 3 inches tall playing the part. More melancholy and less macho; quite a nice take on the character.
There’s also something special about listening to Shakespeare being pronounced with much more of a lilt than the English do — a “tree” instead of a “three” here, an uptick there — it highlights the poetry of Shakespeare beautifully.
A big difference between Irish and British theater on the one hand and American theater is the age of the audience. Could it be, duh, the cost? We paid the equivalent of $50 a ticket for “Hamlet.” Good luck sitting in the second balcony for a Broadway show at those prices. At the Gate, Negga was literally almost in my lap (sitting on a railing right in front of my seat). And the age range makes a difference. You don’t feel like you’re on a cultural death watch going to the theater in Ireland or England, but that you’re attending something that’s still a vital part of the national identity.
And need we add that Dubliners are friendlier than their counterparts on Broadway? The box-office attendant was so outgoing that when I asked her for dinner recommendations near the theater, she raved about Chapter One in Parnell Square, a completely different experience from the pub. When you read about the rise of Irish restaurants, it’s places like Chapter One that people are talking about. Housed in the basement of the former home of George Jameson — guess what he’s famous for — it’s not only an elegant, colorful, and mouth-watering dining experience, but the snoot-free staff works particularly hard to get you to the Gate on time, even offering to pick up your tickets in advance.
A good place to combine both art and food are Dublin’s museums. A lot of museums have upped the ante on their restaurants, and the two we visited had exceptional lunches. Oh, and the art was pretty yummy, too.
The National Gallery of London’s portrait gallery was closed for renovation, which you would think would be a major deterrent. Frankly, with the permanent collection (free), a special exhibition of “Roderic O’Connor and the Moderns” and right, lunch, it was a full day.
The French Impressionists have had such a lock on what we think of as great art of the late 20th and early 21st centuries that it’s always eye-opening to see that other cultures were right there, too. Irish art in general is at once more eerie and romantic — I was particularly struck by the Yeats room. Not William Butler but Jack Butler Yeats, the great poet’s brother. J.B. was also a friend of Samuel Beckett’s and a playwright-designer who worked with the Abbey Theatre. In cinematic terms, his work progresses from John Ford to McDonagh – from sentimentality to uncompromising modernism — but from one period to another it’s obvious that W.B Yeats wasn’t the only great artist in the family. The smaller Dublin City Gallery, back in Parnell Square North, combines the mostly modern donations of Hugh Lane with a smart selection of contemporary art and, yes, another luscious restaurant, Hatch & Sons, a self-styled Irish kitchen.
The theatrical event of the night was a dreary production of “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” in which the cast members took turns portraying Stephen Dedalus. If the idea was to show that we are all Stephen Dedalus, well, nice try. Ironically, though, it was one of the more memorable events of the Dublin stay since it was in the coastal town of Dún Laoghaire — that’s Dunleary to you.
It’s 7½ miles south of Dublin, but easily accessible by train, which we were guided to by the gregarious folks at a Dublin visitor bureau. We had a great walk along the East Pier where Liam Neeson and his pals had promenaded, serenaded by musicians on the bandstand, in “Michael Collins.” It was followed by a not-so-great hamburger on the deck of “The Forty Foot,” which adjoins the Pavilion Theatre. The theater, itself, is richly atmospheric, offering its patrons a fine assortment of theater, movies, and music – as well as a homey bar. It’s definitely a place to patronize, along with the town.
For all the classicism of the plays, the theater festival’s emphasis is on contemporary issues, both in terms of anti-nationalist politics and opening up the form to new artists and audiences. That seems to be even more the case this year as there are “reimagined” classics like “The Playboy of the Western World” at the Gaiety Theatre and the excellent playwright Marina Carr’s take on “Hecuba” at the Project Arts Centre, and a redubbing of Pier Pasolini’s “Salò,” reset in Ireland, at the Abbey. If I were returning this year, I’d also be particularly intrigued by “Last Orders at the Dockside,” set in an Irish pub, at the Abbey, “Total Immediate Collective Imminent Salvation” at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Druid Theatre’s “The Beacon” at the Gate, and “Us/Them” at the Pavilion. For details and a full schedule, check out dublintheatrefestival.ie.
Last year, the night after Dún Laoghaire, an adaptation of the John Huston-Arthur Miller film, “The Misfits” was produced as sparely as “Portrait,” but this one was superb. It followed the script of the 1961 film fairly closely, but adaptor-director Annie Ryan and her company, the Corn Exchange, have a more feminist spin on matters. The actors were all considerably harder-edged than Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. Clark’s notes in the program make it obvious she was searching for the dark edge of the American heartland, in particular the men who were left behind, along with “the feeling of the abyss in the American psyche right now.”
She and the cast found it. Even in Dublin, there is much talk of Donald Trump, none of it much good, from what I overheard. And the production of the play makes you realize how close the playwright was to forecasting the toxic mix of sentimentality and machismo that the Corn Exchange was successful in exploring.
The play took us to Smock Alley Theatre in Temple Bar, easily reachable by an atmospheric walk along the River Liffey. It was our last night in Dublin, and if the play made the world of American politics seem a little too close, we delayed returning to that world the only proper way – by stopping in a pub after the play for another superior pint of Guinness.