The Smock Alley Theatre’s Scene + Heard is an annual festival showcasing never before seen Irish theatre, a chance for budding writers and actors to bring their talent to the stage. The plays are all in short one act formats, with individual performances lasting no longer than thirty minutes, presented in pairs as part of a double bill. The format lends itself naturally to the ability of an audience member to accumulate the various themes and tones of aspirant creators. What is plaguing (or delighting) the minds of young Irish writers and directors? Is there a prevailing vision there at all?
With this in mind, I ventured into the recently restored theatre to get a sense of it for myself. The Old Boys School, the side theatre where most of Scene + Heard’s programmes are staged, is a compact space no more than six rows deep on the ground floor, where the crowd seamlessly gives way to the stage. It is small, but that does not do it justice. The steep tiered arrangement of the upper echelons, coupled with one’s approach to the seating from behind the stage, so that you circle it as you find yourself a place to sit, elicits strange evocations – part Bentham’s Panopticon, part selenocentric orbit. Perhaps during Scene + Heard it is, fittingly, analogous to a womb or cradle, an attempt to nurture ideas in infancy.
The writers, for the most part, are attempting earnest work, even if the emotional weight of any given play’s message is inevitably sprinkled with dashes of the Irish humour to give the crowd some momentary acquittance. My view stems from a handful of the short form plays I attended in week two of the festival, that cast a wide enough net in terms of subject matter so as to gain a vantage of the wider scene. I have chosen three worthy of further examination.
The first was Follower Count, a two-cast play written and starring Ella Skolimowski. Here we have a newly returned Jesus Christ seeking the advice of a social media expert in order to grow his popularity for our contemporary age. The setting is inherently absurd, and plays on the naivety of a Christ character, painfully out of touch with the present state of the world, to generate some laughs.
There are, as you have most likely assumed, lines in the play to denigrate the now toothless Catholic Church. Refreshingly, though, there is more on offer here than bludgeoning the cold corpse of the church. Christ’s naivety emphasises a dualism – the innocence of Christ is used to not only as an emphasis on the antiquated messages and modes of Christianity, but equally casts a light on the hollow narcissism of the social media age. The idea that the devil is in data, that destructive tendencies are present in our indulgences, and that we still have things to take from the solemnity of Christ’s message, was tucked away under the novelty of the play.
Following this was something altogether different – ALVA. A sci-fi horror directed by Ciaran Gallagher, written by Sean Mac Dhonnagain, in which an astronaut fights with obscure alien creatures sabotaging his ship as he desperately speeds towards home. This play was having some fun, making clever use of lighting to immerse the stage in darkness to mimic power outages, with the close contained Old Boys’ School theatre walls creating that necessary sense of entrapment.
The fear here, as with any contemporary piece, is that that a shoved-down-your-throat message of cuddly inclusivity with the ‘other’ will take place as a resolution. Such a plot development has, of course, long since become trite and tiresome – and lacking in genuine drama. Again then, it was uplifting that there is no conclusion here that the aliens are simply misunderstood benevolent beings bringing only peace and enlightenment – they are a threat and do require will and resolve to defeat.
This then gives the play the space to focus on the more grappling issues. What keeps our lone astronaut going? How does he deal with the loss of his companions? What is the meaning of isolation if you can still interact with an advanced AI – the eponymous ALVA. Written with full-knowledge of where its central drama lies – not with the resolution of the ‘other’, ALVA’s resolution lies instead with the ‘self’ in the face of adversity.
A final production worthy of mention is A Long Way Down, written by Oisín Robbins and starring Conor Quinlan, Denis Haugh, and Gerard Howard. Here we have entered something akin to the Sophoclean age, with the introduction of a third actor on stage. This is more in the line of traditional Irish play – the bleak rural setting of midlands Ireland serving as mirror to the barren void which has become the lives of our two young protagonists, for whom the ‘long way down’ is a purposeful leap toward death and escape. Although more forceful and aware of its sombre tone, A Long Way Down does, like Follower Count, acknowledge the vacuous life represented by too many of Ireland’s youth.
Unable to find meaning and incapable of finding worth, the idea of the grand suicide has taken hold over the minds our characters. True, elements here are playing off the current push for men to open up about experiences of mental health, yet the play realises that simply opening up will not be a panacea for a life lacking in authenticity and purpose. Where A Long Way Down works best is in its emphasis of Irish myth and nature as the only truly meaningful vision in the eyes of the young men.
The curlew’s call is the haunted sound of approaching death; the sight of swans evokes the Children of Lir, with the added blow that if they were indeed those children returned, they needn’t have bothered. The Ireland of that myth is draining away, a nation of Celtic mysticism staring at its own suicide, just as are the characters of A Long Way Down.
In conclusion, we cannot say with any confidence that we are emerging into a decade of renewed artistry in Ireland, but the Smock Alley Theatre, through the Scene + Heard festival is providing a platform whereby a tone of the aspirant playwright can emerge. What was found in the festival of 2020 was work of endeavour, passion, willing to purposefully explore a dramatic truth, and not merely hide behind the worn-out tropes that gained supremacy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Let us hope that passion and earnestness can once again recapture the wider theatrical landscape.