In this year’s welcome note to the Dublin Theatre Festival, artistic director Willie White foregrounds the violent tumult that marked 2016, invoking the defiance of artistic (and other) communities in Paris and Brussels to continue making art in the face of fear and outrage. As a response to murder, violence and terror, it might seem insufficient to some. But as White puts it, “to continue to engage in artistic dialogue when political discourse [has] failed” is a powerful means of exercising freedom, and one which is within the grasp of every individual at a time when the impact of global politics is so momentous and seemingly beyond the influence of the average punter. Within that context, art with an audience is one of the few remaining unregulated public platforms for making statements.
White has diversified the programme of this year’s festival (“some people question whether that counts as theatre” he remarks of one piece in the line-up), so that the festival takes in opera, contemporary dance, performance art, and film, alongside more traditional theatre pieces while also including a strong thread of new work. This collision of forms and prevalence of new work within what is one of the country’s more traditional and formal festivals — it’s common for loyal DTF customers to make the trip into the festival box offices to book their tickets in person, a tendency that hints at the pre-millennial profile of repeat festival-goers — reflects White’s commitment to allowing space for new ways of imagining our collective future.
Una McKevitt’s Alien Documentary is one of the 25 pieces in this year’s festival programme (a number that doesn’t include “in development” showings or theatre for children). Reading the blurb for the piece, you’re still none the wiser about its content. Something about the price of mackerel, and something about the likelihood of aliens existing, and something about three men having a chat. It’s the last point that’s important though. Two years ago, McKevitt set out with an unusual intention – to try to capture the essence of male conversation, with the belief that men are more supportive of each other than is perhaps commonly believed.
“I was interested in how men talk to each other and their banter. I think generally men are very supportive of each other in conversation — they’re always looking to make things funny and have a laugh… Part of charm is making other people feel charming and men do that really well for each other.”
At a time when the feminist agenda has cannibalised the media, with the advertising industry latching on to what is a worthy movement like an opportunistic leech and newspapers shamelessly churning out feminist clickbait, it’s unusual to find something that foregrounds male relationships in such a gentle way. Two years in development, Alien Documentary takes multiple interviews with men, as well as media stories, as its source material. McKevitt’s starting point was a number of conversations she’d had or overheard in the pub, conversations that stayed with her.
“There was this idea of slightly darker elements of Irish society that are prevalent but not really discussed. My idea was to try and create a conversation where the men had either been affected by these issues or had been, I suppose, the protagonists of [them]… Things that happened to people that they might talk about at three in the morning when they’re drunk, and then they wake up the next morning thinking, ‘I wish I hadn’t shared that’. So I’m trying to put those kinds of difficult personal histories into a situation where the men engage with them and digest them and move on.”
McKevitt’s approach seems to be an experiment in seeing what happens when you change the context around a traumatic event — whether changing how the event is treated, or ignored, has an impact on the effect it has on the individuals involved.
“I wanted to see what it was like if they revealed those [experiences] in an everyday work situation, and the men were able to embrace those revelations, respond to them, with humour and understanding. It’s like a utopian world where the things we brush under the carpet in Irish society aren’t… there are very strict narratives over certain things that happen in our society and we’re challenging that a little bit.”
I suggest to Una that it’s unusual, or less common, to have this focus on the detail of male relationships and their dynamic at this moment in time – the zeitgeist is firmly focused on the female experience.
“The idea of going out and trying to make a feminist piece of work now, there’s just so much going on, I wouldn’t even know where to start. Feminism is very visible, it’s very present, it’s doing its own work.”
I tell Una I’ve had conversations with male friends who have been defensive and even angry in the face of some of the feminist conversations happening at the moment. I suggest that some men are confused because the value system they were raised in, the values that were endorsed by the status quo, is being overturned and they’re being told they’re wrong in lots of ways.
“You’re at a disadvantage if you’re being told that you’re better than everyone else and that you’re entitled to more things. It’s not true, it’s not real, so you’re walking around with this horrible misconception your whole life and the world is constantly going to be proving to you all the time, whether there’s feminism or not, that you’re not better than anyone. It’s a shackle to be shed. It’ll make people happier. It does in your life, when you lose any sense of your own superiority.”
I wonder why the piece is called Alien Documentary. It’s in part a comment on the form of the piece, which draws on documentary material from McKevitt’s research. It’s also a reference to one of the characters, based on a friend of McKevitt’s who’s an avid believer in not being alone in the universe. For Una, the possibility of aliens is an alluring one, not least because coming into contact with an alien species could bring about the utopian vision of clearer communication that Alien Documentary pictures.
“I called it Alien Documentary because it’s an oxymoron — you can’t really have a documentary about a species you haven’t met yet. But also, part of what my friend says is that the governments all know about these aliens but they don’t tell us because it would unite us. The world is kept functioning by people arguing with each other over their imagined differences, whereas if we had an alien invasion we would be united because it would make it clearer to us that we’re all the exact same.”
The Dublin Theatre Festival begins on Thursday 29th September and runs until Sunday 16th October at venues across the city. You can see the listings on page 84 of this months Totally Dublin and on dublintheatrefestival.com.
Una McKevitt’s Alien Documentary will be performed at Project Arts Centre (Cube) from Tuesday 4th to Saturday 8th October and Wednesday 12th to Saturday 15th October at 7.45pm. There are also matinees at 2.45pm on Saturday 8th, Sunday 9th and Saturday 15th October.
Four to see at this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival:
Tchaikovsky in the midlands
All kinds of tantalising details in the mix for this one: an extended development period in Longford in a former barracks building (catered by the culinary genius of Katie Sanderson); an original score by Irish band Slow Moving Clouds; the introduction of Nordic and Irish cultural influences into one of the quintessential classical ballet narratives; and, rumours of live animals on stage. All of this under the guidance of dance visionary Michael Keegan Dolan (of Fabulous Beast fame).
Swan Lake/Loch na hEala – Michael Keegan Dolan
Thursday 29th September – Saturday 8th October, 7.30pm
Sunday 9th October, 6.30pm
No performance on Monday 3rd October
Post-show talk with members of company on Tuesday 4th October.
Conceived and written by visual artist and shepherd Orla Barry. Barry has exhibited work throughout Europe and Ireland and now lives in Wexford tending her flock of pedigree sheep. Breaking Rainbows is in part inspired by Orla’s farming experiences and what this has taught her about the modern disconnection from the natural world, an urgent issue against the current backdrop of environmental upheaval.
A new work, Breaking Rainbows is part performance, part video installation, and sees one room of Temple Bar Gallery & Studios flooded with a year’s production of wool from Orla’s flock.
Breaking Rainbows – Orla Barry
Thursday 29 & Friday 30 September & Saturday 1 October, 6pm & 8pm
(Video installation of work open Thursday 6th October – Saturday 5th November in gallery)
There’s great mileage got out of Beckett’s writing, with seemingly endless stagings of his work in the city. But whether you’re a die-hard Beckett fan, a Beckett cynic or a complete Beckett illiterate, you should seize this rare opportunity to witness Barry McGovern interpreting the words of one of modernism’s favourite writers. McGovern has been performing Beckett for much of his career (he stars in the excellent Gate Theatre-produced RTÉ/Channel 4 series Beckett on Film), so expect great things from this interpretation of a Beckett novella by an artist who’s finely attuned to the music and rhythm of the writer’s prose.
First Love – Gate Theatre
Wednesday 12st – Saturday 15th October, 8pm
Matinees: Saturday 15th & Sunday 16th October, 3pm
Booze and bingo and The Plough and the Stars
With the centenary year that’s in it, the ever-strident THEATREclub do their version of The Plough and the Stars. It’s a four-and-a-half hour odyssey that promises a “a bar, a live band, maybe bingo”, drawing on a research and development period that included former IRA volunteers.
THEATREclub don’t shy from interrogating touchy issues and this promises to be the most epic-in-scale of their works yet (the blurb is strewn with show warnings: “strong language, loud sound effects, high intensity lighting”). Brace yourselves.
It’s Not Over – THEATREclub
Tuesday 11th – Saturday 15th October, 6pm
Matinee: Sunday 16th October, 2pm
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Images: Colm Hogan, Sarah Fox, Orla Barry