By Rory O’Sullivan
It is fitting that after a year mired in controversy, particularly over its relations with Irish actors and directors, the Abbey Theatre should choose ‘Drama at Inish’ for its Christmas show. Plays like this almost invariably swaddle audiences in a cotton wool of nostalgia for the easy days they depict, but which no one has ever lived through. For the Abbey that sense of nostalgia must be overpowering, since the playwright, Lennox Robinson, was one of its venerable institutions. After the deaths of Yeats and his collaborator, Augusta Gregory, Robinson became the world’s window into the Irish Literary Revival, telling war-stories at university debates just as David Norris does now. He looked and walked and talked just like Yeats. He also served as the Abbey’s General Manager for much of the 1910s and was on its Board of Directors for his whole life afterwards; according to some versions of the theatre’s history, it was largely because of Robinson that the theatre stayed open during some of its most difficult times. He was competent, careful and likeable: three rare qualities in a building full of artists.
He was also genuinely a good playwright – but not a great one. His works tend to have beginnings, middles and ends; the characters are consistent and usually a little interesting, and the writing is mostly clever and original; but there is never much in the way of theme. The plays are full of stereotypes telling jokes or parodying something, and if there is any drama at all it is safely smothered in marriages at the end. They can be good fun, but nothing is ever at risk in them; they are the kind of plays that Ibsen built a career by destroying: ‘A Doll’s House’ without the famous twist.
‘Drama at Inish’ is a little more complicated than that, but not much. Set entirely in a hotel in ‘Inish’ – a mid-West Cork town equivalent to Schull – it begins with the arrival of an actor and actress from Dublin, Hector de la Mare (Nick Dunning) and Constance Constantia (Marion O’Dwyer), who have come to perform highbrow works from the theatrical canon in the town’s pavilion every evening for the tourist season. They have been hired by local business magnate John Twohig (Mark O’Regan), whose sister Lizzie (Aoibhinn McGinty) runs the hotel, in the hope that a departure from the usual circus-fare will draw holiday-makers to Inish and away from the towns nearby.
The characters are mostly parodies: the actors are snobbish and self-absorbed, Lizzie is a spiteful middle-aged spinster, and John is a drunk. His wife, Annie Twohig (Helen Norton), is overall a sensible person though without much personality, but their son, Eddie (Tommy Harris), is madly in love with Christine Lambert (Breffni Holahan), the city-slicking woman who comes down every year to audit the business accounts.
The shows turn out extremely popular, but soon the townspeople begin to behave like the characters in the plays. Eddie goes existential, reads Turgenev and threatens suicide; Lizzie becomes a Medea shouting recriminations at Peter Hurley (Marcus Lamb), her childhood friend, now the local TD, who apparently jilted her years before for another woman; a confused Peter points out that Lizzie and his wife have been friends for years. Near the play’s end, Peter breaks the party whip and sinks a government bill after seeing Ibsen’s ‘Enemy of the People’ the night before. When the chaos becomes too much, John and Annie dismiss the actors and invite the circus in for the rest of the Summer.
‘Drama at Inish’ itself is the sort of play an English Professor teaching Robinson would instinctively choose to lecture on: a play about what it means to perform and watch plays. On that particular topic, playwrights can usually manage to speak with some insight; here, the problem is not that the work lacks thematic moments, but that it doesn’t at all know what to do with them. One of the gags involves John Twohig ranting that he had worked hard to provide wealth and a house for his wife and son; “A Doll’s House?”, Constance Constantia asks with a ‘checkmate’ kind of a look; “Exactly”, John replies, as if it was obvious, and keeps ranting. Like the townspeople of Inish, the play skips uncomfortably over any moment where a theme threatens to jump in and complicate things. One of the subplots contains a revelation of a secret and possibly aborted pregnancy; ironically, it is so brushed-over that an audience could leave the theatre forgetting it occurred at all.
This fear of its own subject matter leaves the play with nowhere to go once its basic premise has been unfurled. The last act is little more than a series of dull and pointless vignettes involving characters we have never seen before: a journalist, a garda and a dumb-and-dumber sort of a local. The dismissal of the two performers at the end is businesslike and stilted; O’Dwyer tries to wring what she can out of Constantia’s half-drunken monologue, but there really is nothing much in it.
The show’s director, Cal McCrystal, spent his publicity hours telling rte.ie and ‘The Irish Times’ that none of this is really the important thing, and that if people laugh the show succeeds. He usually works as a comedy consultant for big films, and was brought in to direct as a kind of subject-matter expert, to the great chagrin of the actors and directors in dispute with the Abbey; who, ‘The Irish Times’ say, cited it as yet more proof of the theatre’s neglect of Irish talent. But McCrystal seems to have done the play some good: it often is funny, and strikes many notes other than the loud, frantic caricature that poor comic performances often hammer dead. Marion O’Dwyer’s performance is the best, lampooning the character of Constance Constantia without ever losing her. Ian O’Reilly (of Moonboy) also impresses in the middling-to-minor role of Michael, the coal boy; he has one big scene and pulls it off with good welly.
The comedy falls flattest when it reaches for Paddy-ism, which has always been the critics’ big objection to the play; the performance dials it up with some cartoonish Cork accents and a great deal of Irish dancing after the interval and at the play’s end. Robinson was from Douglas but was upper class and wrote for the audience that was attending the Abbey in 1933. The Paddy-isms may have gone down well then, but they are past their sell-by-date, as are Mrs Doyle-style ‘you’ll have some more’ jokes and persistent unwanted advances upon women by men like Eddie’s towards Christine. Christine does agree to marry Eddie in the end but it is nearly impossible for an audience from this century to understand why. Some things in this show have simply dated. McCrystal bizarrely changed the play’s setting from the 1930s to the 1960s, which spruces up the costumes – designed by Sarah Bacon – but affects nothing else and would slip unnoticed by anyone who did not carefully read the playbill. But the change solves none of the problems that date the show, most especially its gags.
Overall this is a nice production of an old play with smart dialogue, a few gags, and little else to work with. It is a bit like watching one of the staged sitcoms of 1990s-era American television – ‘Friends’, say – but more nutritious because it is an evening out at the Abbey. Sometimes it is funny, and sometimes not; if you are looking for something pleasant to do with your grandmother then this will not disappoint you. But every aspect of ‘Drama at Inish’ begs the question: is that enough? Compare the cultural impact of Lennox Robinson with that of another old Abbey playwright, JM Synge, and you have history’s answer.