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Festival will be fun and accessible but challenging

Dublin Theatre Festival, 27 September-14th OctoberLorraine Courtney 

A giant neon smiley, an immersive dance installation and an Oscar Wilde reworking will form part of this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. The festival is now over half a century old and is the longest-established theatre festival in Europe. It began with a Bórd Fáilte idea to extend the tourist season and was founded by Brendan Smith in 1957. Willie White is this year’s director. White was previously director of the Project Arts Centre and his challenge is to sustain the festival despite the end of Ulster Bank’s sponsorship, tightening of the Arts Council subsidies and dramatic falls in ticket sales.

White admits that he’s still learning a lot about how the festival works. “My vision is to do the three things that it says above our door (Dublin, theatre and festival) very well: to create a programme that celebrates Dublin and captures the imagination of its citizens, to present theatre that is exciting, adventurous and contemporary and to foster a genuine sense of festival that plays an important part of the life of the city”, he says.

An outdoor installation, Public Face III, will mirror the city’s mood with a gigantic neon smiley face. Using sophisticated software developed by the Fraunhofer Institute to read facial expressions of passersby, this interactive installation will capture the humour of Dublin and Dubliners in real time. It’s an interesting notion to use the city more imaginatively and with flair. After all, theatre in theatres is so last century.

There’s plenty in the programme that won’t frighten the pantomime horses, but there’s plenty to challenge, too. The festival has always been much more than just about theatre – arguably one of the most significant events in defining Irish culture at any given time. There’s always a backbone of home-grown work, giving the festival a very solid Irish identity.

The festival launches with the world premier adapted from James Joyce’s short story collection and the production is about as ambitious as it gets. Discussing his stories Joyce wrote, “My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis”. The journey through the paralytic stasis of Dublin leaves the audience – physically, if not intellectually or emotionally – right where it began and takes on new meanings today.

New writing is well represented with a play by Emma Donoghue: The Talk of the Town. Maeve Brennan was the Irish girl who took Manhattan and was described by The New Yorker’s fiction editor, around 1969 as “the best living Irish writer”. However, her career ended up in obscurity and madness. When Brennan died in 1993, she left behind several collections of short stories and a novella (not published until 2000), not a huge output, but this play captures her quiet brilliance and peculiar genius. There’s also some new writing by Declan Hughes at the Gate with The Last Summer and Neil Bartlett’s new adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for the Abbey. It is a fresh take on the cautionary tale about an increasingly decadent young charmer whose hidden portrait undergoes a ghastly deterioration while the man himself retains his striking, ageless beauty.

New York’s legendary Wooster Group makes its first Dublin appearance with Hamlet. Under the direction of Elizabeth LeCompte, the technical team of the Wooster Group has massaged a filmed version of the 1964 Richard Burton “Hamlet”, within a multimedia investigation of performance ghosts and contemporary perception. The mesmerising ghost of Richard Burton, at the height of his fame, materialises and dissolves again and again as the actors, including the inexhaustible Scott Shepherd in the title role, try to give flesh to the fading phantoms behind them. The production becomes an aching tribute to the ephemerality of greatness in theatre.

It is one of three New York productions, joined by Elevator Repair Service, who follow 2008s phenomenal Gatz with their more recent literary adaptation, The Select (The Sun Also Rises), based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel and an autobiographical multimedia piece by Zachary Oberzan. But for the most part, the festival relies on the familiar, the reassuring and the safe: Theatre Lovett, Anu Productions and Pan Pan are all here. The Druid Theatre Company present their cycle of Tom Murphy plays: DruidMurphy.

There is an inclusivity about the festival that is enormously heartening and unique – this isn’t  just an elitist bun-fight for culture vultures. We should celebrate it and admire its ability to renew and reinvent itself.

 

• The Talk of the Town by Emma Donoghue at Project Arts Centre. Oct 1 – 14

• Dubliners by James Joyce at Gaiety Theatre. Sept 27 – 30

• Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend by Stefanie Preissner at the Project Cube (Fringe). Sept 6 – 15

• Hamlet by William Shakespeare at the O’Reilly Theatre, Belvedere. Oct 4 – 7

• Politik by The Company at Samuel Beckett Theatre. Oct 3 – 6