Au Contraire: Exploring Brexit in English and Irish Theater

There's a desire to respect their differences and to work out where they go next -- together or separately.

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Photo: Once © Patrick Redmond, Landmark Productions.

The ongoing debate about Brexit has had many unintended consequences — but one of the most distressing has been the deterioration of the cooperative relationship that Ireland and the UK have painstakingly developed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Irish reactions to the 2016 Brexit referendum have generally alternated between shock and schadenfreude, but there has also been evidence of a renewed threat of republican terrorism. Meanwhile, in Britain (and especially in England), the political impasse caused by the Irish border has produced bewilderment if not hostility — with one Tory MP suggesting that the threat of food shortages might focus Irish minds, while a BBC presenter wondered why Ireland couldn’t just re-join the UK altogether. For two countries with so much in common, it has been painful to discover how little we really understand each other.

Yet there has also been evidence of a desire to redress that mutual incomprehension in at least one setting: the major theatres of both countries.

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That impulse has been most apparent in London. One of the decade’s biggest hits so far is Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman, which recently transferred from the Royal Court to Broadway. Set in a Northern Irish farmhouse in the early 1980s, this Troubles-era thriller has attracted some criticism from Irish commentators, who worried that its inclusion of banshees and whiskey-swigging children might reinforce negative stereotypes. But what has been overlooked in those discussions is how Butterworth both humanizes and re-politicizes the Troubles — showing his belief that it’s a part of the history and life of the UK that needs to be understood much better.

Meanwhile, the National Theatre recently revived Translations, Brian Friel’s most famous play. Originally intended as both a commentary on the Troubles and a possible way through its most intractable issues, Friel explores what happens when a British army mapping expedition arrives to a small Donegal village in the 1830s. Its major conceit is that, although every word heard by the audience is in English, we are intended to imagine that some of the dialogue is spoken in Irish — the overall suggestion being that national identity doesn’t have to be inextricably linked to cultural symbols, such as language. At a time when much was being made of the colour of our passports, Friel’s play seemed newly relevant — but it was also very poignant to observe Irish and English characters who couldn’t seem to understand each other even when using the same words. The NT’s Translations wasn’t just an attempt to explore the shared history of our islands; it was directly addressing our present difficulties.

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In Ireland, there has also been a renewed interest in English drama. At Dublin’s second major theatre, the Gate, newly appointed artistic director Selina Cartmell (herself born in England) has programmed work by Nina Raine and Lucky Kirkwood, whose plays Tribes and The Children were both unfussily re-set from England to Ireland. Changing the location of the play might not seem like an example of cultural engagement, but it’s important to understand that choice in a historical context. The tendency on the Irish stage has usually been to see Englishness and Irishness as binary opposites: “au contraire” was Samuel Beckett’s famous response when asked if he was English). The Gate’s implicit suggestion is that the two nations have so much in common that these plays can be shifted from one place to the other without changing the dialogue or characterization. That decision has felt quietly revolutionary at a time when there’s so much focus on our differences.

Another fascinating development has been a new Irish engagement with Shakespeare. For much of the 20th century, Irish theatres were reluctant to stage Shakespeare, fearing that Irish actors would be unable to measure up to the “correct” way of performing his work — a fear that ignored the long history of great Irish Shakespearean actors, not to mention the diversity of performance styles within England itself. But since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a series of new productions that display immense confidence in the idea that it is possible to develop a distinctly Irish Shakespearean performance tradition.

That confidence was seen as especially prominent last year when there were three major productions of Shakespeare’s plays in Ireland: an uproarious outdoor Midsummer Night’s Dream in Kilkenny, an outstanding production of Hamlet that featured the Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga in the lead role at the Gate, and a lively Richard III by the Galway-based Druid Theatre. All three featured actors spoke in their own Irish accents, each was culturally rooted in an Irish context, and none seemed to display evidence of any lingering post-colonial cultural cringe.

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But again, those decisions did lead to small misunderstandings that are nevertheless very revealing. Reviewing Druid’s Richard III, for example, the Guardian’s Michael Billington (in otherwise positive remarks) described the production’s conclusion as “perverse” because it implied that the defeat of Richard by Owen Tudor merely replaced one tyrant with another. Were the play staged within the British tradition, in which Shakespeare’s history plays are usually expected to be more or less historically accurate, then Druid’s decision would indeed seem perverse. But in an Irish context, the conclusion made sense: the ascendancy of the Tudors, after all, led to the reconquest of Ireland and thus to many of the divisions that we still grapple with today. Druid’s production was therefore a celebration of England’s great playwright but was confident in coming at English history from an Irish perspective.

Such productions demonstrate that Ireland continues to regard England as a close and valued neighbour, but that it is no longer looking across the Irish sea for validation or a sense of how things “should” be done. But likewise in productions like The Ferryman and Translations we can see that the dismissive attitude to Ireland that has characterized the Brexit debate thus far is not at all indicative of attitudes in the UK more generally. There is of course a long history of interaction between the British and Irish theatres, and this looks certain to continue into the future — however Britain’s relationship with the EU (and thus with Ireland) evolves in the years ahead. In an otherwise frustrating time, it is encouraging that in at least one part of our culture, we’re seeing a desire to understand each other better, to respect each other’s differences more, and to work out where we might go next, whether together or, as now seems increasingly likely, separately.

Patrick Lonergan’s Irish Drama and Theatre since 1950 is available from Methuen Drama.