Dublin Theatre Festival turns 60 this year, not that artistic director Willie White is particularly focused on commemorating such longevity, announcing that “Anniversaries are a pain in the arse.”
Instead, the sixth edition of the festival to be helmed by White, is marked like every other year, with two-and-a-half weeks of shows, from Ireland and abroad, spread across Dublin and its environs. 17 days, 31 productions, 13 world premieres, and 18 stages.
This year, though, it arrives at a time of change in Irish theatre. Two of the country’s biggest theatres, the Abbey and the Gate, are under new direction. A host of young companies and emerging artists are gaining momentum. There’s a general feeling of evolution in the air. Evolution that the festival, with its crucible of national and international talent, serves as a catalyst for.
At the Abbey, Dermot Bolger’s adaptation of Ulysses (★★★★), a version originally penned in 1994 and dusted down here by the Abbey’s new co-director Graham McLaren, is unexpectedly joyous.
It attacks Joyce’s modernist masterpiece with a refreshing lack of veneration, creating something that’s at once authentic and accessible. Joyce scholars might have palpitations, but everyone else feels welcomed into Leopold Bloom’s Dublin with open arms. It’s still bewildering at times – this is Ulysses after all – but it’s a different sort of bewilderment, a rollicking, rejuvenating confusion. It has a perfect director in McLaren, who converts the Abbey’s main space into Davy Byrne’s pub, populating a chequerboard transverse stage with audience members arrayed at tables, among whom the exuberant cast wend and wander throughout. He matches Joyce’s inimitable, eclectic literary style with an equally eclectic theatrical flair: dance routines, puppet shows, exuberant songs abound.
An entirely different adaptation is at the Project Arts Centre, where novelist and playwright Belinda McKeon, in collaboration with Corn Exchange artistic director Annie Ryan, has crafted a dazzling reimagining of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, boldly updating it and, in a stroke of genius, splitting the character of Nora into two separate roles: a mother and a daughter, superbly played by Ryan herself and Venetia Bowe.
The emotional landscape of Ibsen’s play is just about visible beneath the surface of Nora (★★★★), which smartly and smoothly relocates A Doll’s House to the minimalist home of an art-dealing power couple in the year 2025, when some unspecified, worldwide political trauma has radically constricted the public roles of women in society.
So many contemporary adaptations of Ibsen – witness Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler – can fudge context beyond comprehension, jettisoning his taut dramaturgical logic. McKeon has built a world, and a family, in which the social politics of A Doll’s House make complete sense, and if she’s a touch heavy-handed in establishing the fearful, anti-woman dystopia outside Nora’s home, it’s a price worth paying.
At Dun Laoghaire’s Pavilion Theatre, Sebastian Barry’s two-hander, On Blueberry Hill (★★★), etches out the beautiful, bleak, but ultimately life-affirming story of two inimical murderers forced to share the same prison cell, the snail’s pace narrative passing between Niall Buggy’s barnacled Christy and David Ganly’s humble, heavy-hearted PJ in great, five-minute chunks.
But despite two delicately textured performances from Buggy and Ganly, and despite the captivating lyricism of Barry’s writing, Jim Culleton’s production for Fishamble sags. At 85 minutes long, the structure, monologue chunk after monologue chunk, grows wearisome, and the sombre stillness of Culleton’s barebones staging, initially portentous, becomes frustrating.
Hamnet (★★★), a co-production from Dead Centre and the Abbey that popped up at the Berlin Schaubuhne’s FIND festival earlier this year, has the opposite problem: startling form, but disappointing content. A Beckettian hybrid of Hamlet and The Sixth Sense, performed by an 11 year-old boy (the impressively confident Ollie West), it imagines the purgatorial afterlife of William Shakespeare’s only son, who died young, just three years before Hamlet was first performed.
Bush Moukarzel and Ben Kidd’s staging in the Abbey’s studio space is head-scratchingly tricksy – a white-square, mirrored by a live-streamed camera feed, peppered with technological coup-de-theatres – but their text veils a lack of genuine profundity and purpose behind a vogueish, stripped-back sparseness. It’s a compelling concept, but that’s all.
Similarly, The Second Violinist (★★★), the second opera collaborated on by Enda Walsh and composer Donnacha Dennehy after 2015’s The Last Hotel,  is visually stunning, but suffers from a shapeless, ethically dubious narrative.
Playing out thrillingly on Jamie Vartan’s multi-level, Scandi-chic set against an enormous, panoramic display screen, it follows the life of an unreachable concert violinist, who’s obsession with 16th-century Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo leads him into manic depression and murder.
Vartan’s design, Walsh’s direction and Dennehy’s frenetic score evoke a fine, febrile atmosphere throughout – one that Londoners can savour when it arrives at the Barbican – but there’s a two-dimensionality to The Second Violinist’s overlaid storyline, and a squeamishness in the way it presents domestic violence, then apparently sympathises with the perpetrator.
There’s much more on offer. There’s ANU’s new immersive show, The Sin Eaters, which slickly populates a disused docklands factory with the ghosts of persecuted Irish women. There’s Shane Mac an Bhaird’s Melt, which tells a surreal, symbolic tale of life in the Antarctic at the Smock Alley Theatre.
There’s Playboyz, Martin Sharry’s reimagining of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World. There’s the Irish premiere of Nina Raine’s Tribes. There’s new shows from young Dublin companies TheatreClub and United Fall, alongside touring work from the RSC, the Edinburgh Lyceum, Australia’s Ranters Theatre, Japan’s Kamome-Za, and other international companies.
And, amid the encouraging hits and inevitable misses, there’s a real sense of an increasingly varied and increasingly daring Irish theatrical landscape.