Unknown Pleasures: looking at Fregoli’s Pleasure Ground

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[This show has been sitting at the back of my brain since the end of August, and a review has been gestating ever since. Apologies that it’s so overdue, but it may as well surface before the show heads to Dublin and Boyle…]

Fregoli Theatre Company have been a mainstay of Galway’s theatrical scene for a good number of years. One early memory that I have of experiencing Galway theatre was watching At A Loss at the Jerome Hynes One Act festival as a precocious eighteen-year-old first year student in college, and telling its director (and Fregoli’s artistic director) Maria Tivnan after the show that I really liked the piles of boxes that she used as a set. (Well, I was eighteen at the time, of course I’d focus on the boxes.) One striking thing about that show was its jumps in time, its jumps between characters with very little effort, and its very minimalist design — those boxes were dumped on stage by the cast at the outset, thus creating their own set. That show was performed soon afterwards under the official Fregoli banner for 2009’s Mosaic of Dreams, where it was positioned alongside other one-acts that expressed a similar style: an ensemble of actors shifting between characters, space, and time, and a spartan set that would facilitate and assist with this stretch of the imagination. Given that the company have been a ubiquitous presence on the stage over the last number of years, when they were announced as the Michael Diskin bursary award winner one couldn’t help but be surprised that they hadn’t been on the Town Hall Theatre main stage yet, or that they hadn’t performed a two-act play before. And the play that the company brought to the stage was Pleasure Ground, a new play by one of its ensemble members, Jarlath Tivnan. The play in performance espouses Fregoli’s usual performance style and ethos, but given the longer running time and larger performance space, the company are allowed to experiment with other forms, resulting in the company’s most ambitious, and most mature, production to date.

Our storytellers for the evening are four twentysomethings, either returning to or stuck in their own respective Ballygobackwards – the gentle, Riverdance-loving farmer Brendan (Peter Shine); the unfulfilled shop attendant Linsey (Kate Murray); the successful actress Aisling (Eilish McCarthy); and the corrosive businessman Evan (Jarlath Tivnan). All of them congregate for a funeral of a man none of them really knew, not even his ex-girlfriend Aisling or his former best friend Evan. Whereas the first half largely focuses on the four’s personal narratives and their own connections, tangential or otherwise, to the dead man David, and also largely relies on the familiar shifts between characters/space/time, the second half turns this on its head. The four characters find themselves at the local playground, the Pleasure Ground, for the second half of the play, and it’s here at this playground that the play takes a turn for the realism – the play never once leaves that particular time and space from then on, nor do the actors alternate between different characters at will. What’s most important here is how these four people connect, and in some cases reconnect, with each other in the moment. When you think about it, connections, whether they are lost or found, are what’s key to the play – Brendan dreams of asking the Aldi checkout girl on an date (‘Her name is Eva… she’s German I’m sorry, but I think she’s grand’); Aisling tortures herself over the emotionally unavailable David; Evan mourns the loss of David’s friendship, long before he committed suicide; and Linsey embarks on an affair with David’s dad, promising Aisling that she’ll be ‘ending it’ very soon, but we’re not sure if she actually will. But the most important connection, it seems, is the one that the four create among themselves, as they address their petty rivalries and hostilities over cheap Aldi biscuits and alcohol over one night. Linsey takes Brendan under her wing, and gives the lonely farmer the courage to ask Eva out. Aisling and Evan share their grief over losing David. There’s a sense that these characters might just begin to move forward — but, as the play closes, it’s ambiguous as to whether all of them will.

The play is uproariously funny, with some very strong performances – young Brendan’s discovery of Riverdance (‘LOOK AT THIS MAN DADDY, HE’S WEARING WATER’) and his love of Aldi are comic highlights, and Shine’s absolute sincerity as an actor is crucial for this to work. His desire for the simple pleasures in life contrasts with Murray’s Linsey, who holds McCarthy’s Aisling responsible for ‘stealing’ her dreams of becoming an actor – Murray flits between absolute frustration and complete naivety, and her comic timing is just as evident as her ability to draw pathos. It could be said that Tivnan plays the least sympathetic character, but it soon becomes evident that Evan’s viciousness in dealing with other people is a self-defence mechanism – his pain at losing David to Trevor, ‘the Other Best Friend’ is something that has pained him for years, and his guilt at not returning David’s call in the lead-up to his death continues to plague him. McCarthy portrays Aisling as a woman whose own pain is kept under wraps, and which slowly begins to unravel, thus challenging Linsey’s resentment of her.

Pleasure Ground is essentially a snapshot of the Irish millennial generation, and Tivnan captures this not just through highlighting these characters’ own nostalgia for the past (he throws several cultural touchstones at us, not just Riverdance but the killing of Billy Meehan in Fair City forms the cornerstone for a rather excellent gag), but also through exploring their own complicated relationships with family, friends, lovers, each other, and with a stifling landscape that they all call ‘home’. It’s rare to see a show like this on a regional stage outside of Dublin.

Pleasure Ground is a funny, heart-breaking, honest play that deserves to be seen. It’s touring to Dublin and Boyle in December, and it really is worth your while seeing this show. Get your tickets for this one, trust me.

Irish Women Making Shakespeare #WakingTheFeminists

Aisling O'Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes).
Aisling O’Sullivan as Henry V in DruidShakespeare (dir. Garry Hynes). Photo by Matthew Thompson.

Okay, so this is a quick post (out of so many scheduled blog posts — long gestating theatre reviews and other thought pieces come to mind). So the #WakingTheFeminists movement has jumped into hyperspeed, with a public meeting called for this Thursday at 1pm at the Abbey Theatre. I’m concerned that the Abbey are calling it a debate when they clearly know that they have to address gender inequality in the theatre, but that’s by the by. Anyway, I’ll be at the meeting, and if you’re in Ireland and concerned about this, I hope you will be there too.

Perhaps it is because I am so very predictable, but I began to wonder how many female theatre practitioners, or any practitioners who are not white cisgender men, have directed canonical works at theatres at the Abbey. More specifically, I started thinking about Shakespeare performance directed by women based in Ireland, and at the Abbey.

Hear me out here — sure, we don’t have a tradition of performing Shakespeare so entrenched as that of the UK’s. But the reason why I’m so interested in Irish Shakespeare in relation to #WakingTheFeminists is how, more than ever, Shakespeare performance and its criticism must be feminist, and it must be intersectional. Feminism and Shakespeare/early modern performance aren’t necessarily exclusive terms — I think of Harriet Walter and the Women’s Group at the RSC in the 1980s (ask any feminist Shakespearean about Clamorous Voices and you will receive an enthusiastic response), I think of Maria Aberg’s productions for the RSC over the last few years, I think of Walter’s collaborations with Phyllida Lloyd and Clean Break at the Donmar. And in terms of research, I think of the work of Sarah Werner, Susan Bennett, Kim Solga, Pascale Aebischer, Nora Williams, Miranda Fay Thomas, and Sophie Duncan. There are more of us than you think.

To illustrate what I’m trying to say, I’m copying in Solga’s definition of early modern performance studies (which is what I, and many others, refer to our field as). It’s a definition that speaks to feminist activism, that speaks to the present day:

Early modern performance studies examines the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries by exploring in rich detail the cultural contexts in which that work was made, and also thinks about contemporary productions of early modern play texts within the cultural contexts of the producers (that is, you and me). Our culture has a seemingly tireless fascination with four-hundred year old plays; my work asks why that is, and digs deeply into the kinds of contemporary messages (for example, about men and women, about violence, about space and place) we use those plays to communicate to one another now.

I guess what’s most relevant about that quote is the latter part: how early modern performance speaks to the here and now, and what messages we send out through the production of these plays. And it is my belief that you cannot stage Shakespeare, or any early modern play, without critically engaging with its misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and the dominance of its male characters. This is not a world where The Merchant of Venice can be performed as a Good v Evil romp, or where you can play Othello or Aaron in blackface, or where you can brush over the attempted rape in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, or where you can take Kate’s last speech in The Taming of the Shrew for granted. A feminist approach towards performing Shakespeare is absolutely crucial and necessary for the theatre. Not every Shakespeare performance gets it right, or thinks about it that much, however — but it’s been done before, and it can continue now.

So, what about Ireland? Druid and Rough Magic are the first to come to mind. I could write all day about DruidShakespeare being one of the most radical and wonderfully feminist Shakespearean productions I’ve seen in a long time, but I won’t because that’s for the thesis. Lynne Parker’s directed Macbeth for the Lyric (and as for the Lyric, let’s not forget Mary O’Malley), as well as directing The Taming of the Shrew as set in rural Ireland for Rough Magic. Selina Cartmell’s work for Siren includes her landmark Titus Andronicus and Ben Power’s A Tender Thing, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. We’ve also got some fantastic actresses who have played Shakespearean roles too: Natalie Radmall-Quirke, Aisling O’Sullivan, Derbhle Crotty, to name a few. That’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a start. (There’s a lot to be said about the cultural politics of staging Shakespeare in this country, and how this ties in here, but that would take even longer and… look, wait until I finish my thesis, okay?)

As for the Abbey, I decided to have a look at the statistics. In its history, there have been twenty-four Shakespearean productions, including Joe Dowling’s upcoming Othello. Some of the artistic directors have had a bash: Dowling and Patrick Mason, for example, as well as other directors such as Jimmy Fay, Jason Byrne, and Wayne Jordan. But out of those numbers, only one woman has directed Shakespeare for the Abbey over 110 years of the theatre’s history: that’s Cartmell, who directed King Lear in 2013.

I’m not saying that men can’t direct feminist Shakespeare (in fact, Jordan must be applauded for his productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet — the latter performed at the Gate — and their sensitivity towards patriarchial and heteronormative power structures). But only one female director, in so long a history? That’s embarrassing, really.

That needs to change. Feminism can reinvigorate Shakespearean performance, that’s clear. And there needs to be more room for women, for other genders, to explore how this can be possible. And on Thursday, the Abbey has the chance to make that space, because Irish Shakespeare performance, and Shakespeare performance in general, is not the provision of white cisgender men.