The World and Irish Theatre – are we open enough to influence from the outside?

Recent press articles on Irish contemporary theatre have reflected the limited scope of this discussion, ignoring the fact that in today’s global culture, nothing exists in isolation – and theatre least of all. For an adequate appreciation of contemporary Irish theatre, we need to see beyond the cultural confines of this country. 

I have tried for the last ten years to interest Irish theatres in the work of the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, who is the world’s most performed contemporary playwright, with some nine hundred productions in forty-four countries in the past fifteen years. In England his work has finally won critical acclaim with I Am The Wind at the Young Vic in London, and he is included in the Daily Telegraph list of one hundred living geniuses. Yet in Ireland few people are aware of his existence.  

Having first heard of Jon Fosse in the 1990s, in Bulgaria, where one of my own plays was being produced, I contacted his agent in Stockholm and was able to secure the English translation rights for three of his early plays, on the understanding that I would also do my best to place them in Ireland. 

 Working with Fosse’s material, I was particularly inspired by the poetic quality of his language. Fosse writes in New Norwegian, a man-made language based on dialect, very expressive and favoured by poets. It reminded me of Irish, and I had a sudden vision of presenting a Fosse play, not only in English but also in Irish, back to back. Seeing our two cultural traditions reflected through the medium of a third might even highlight intriguing differences between the two! I enlisted the help of bi-lingual playwright, Máire Holmes, and together we set to work. Fosse himself was keen on the idea – he has a great affinity with Ireland and had spent some time living in the Gaeltacht, in Spiddal. 

 The EU came in to fund the project, as by now Fosse was a big name on the Continent, and in 2001, a rehearsed reading of our two language versions of Fosse’s first play, And We Shall Never Part, was presented at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. However, our great ambition to make Ireland the first English-speaking country to embrace Fosse fell on stony ground, and so did my subsequent efforts, over ten years, to interest Irish theatres in his work.  

 Some of the theatres told me outright that they would not consider putting on a foreign new play at the expense of an Irish playwright: a policy of support that I could only sympathize with. On the other hand, it overlooks the benefit to Irish playwrights from the stimulus of an occasional breath of fresh air from outside. And it ignores the fact that, as long as it’s fairly and critically assessed, external influence has a lot to offer. It doesn’t have to be emulated – even when rejected, it adds something to the existing dynamic. 

 There is of course another, more powerful incentive for Irish theatres to concentrate on home-grown produce: the need imposed by our present system for Irish productions to travel abroad. Success – in terms of commercial viability – has come to be measured in success overseas. And for that to be made possible, theatres need to provide material that appeals to foreign audiences – at this moment in time. In other words, follow the market and cultivate what outsiders perceive as “The Ireland Brand”. 

 In his excellent book Theatre and Globalisation, Patrick Lonergan warns about the danger of turning theatre into brand. Branding, he says, stresses the concept at the expense of artistic merit. It reaffirms prejudice and preconceived notions, and restricts our national identity. Moreover – it undermines the main function of theatre: to act as a genuine exponent of our status quo: there to broaden horizons, deepen understanding, challenge convention, and open new doors. 

 Like everyone else, I am delighted and very proud to see the success of Irish theatre abroad. But in order to maintain our position on the international stage, I believe we need to focus, less on our brand, and more on our place in the world. And to do this we shall have to look, not just out from within, but also, occasionally, in from without.