Interview With Knives in Hens Director Alan Gilsenan

Posted October 30, 2009 in Arts & Culture Features

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Reuniting the team behind What Happened Bridgie Cleary, Knives in Hens is “a raw, brutal, dangerous play about love, desire and the power of words”. Set in a God-fearing, pre-industrial rural community, a young woman comes to terms with an ancient hatred, an unexpected betrayal, and a growing awareness of her place in the world. Director Alan Gilsenan talks here to Totally Dublin about his reasons for returning to the Irish stage and what changes he’d like to see.

It’s been 5 years since you worked in theatre (What Happened Bridgie Cleary). What tempted you back?

I’ve been developing one or two big scale projects over the years, working quietly on them. But when I read Knives in Hens playwrights like Lorca, Genet, Bennet sprung to mind in the world David Harrower creates. Very strange, enigmatic, theatrical. What I love about theatre is the live, primitive, ritual of it, which you can never achieve in film. This play seemed to feed into that theme.

It reunites you with much of the team from last time round, Catherine Walker and two time TONY nominee Joe Vaněk. Was this in place before or after you joined the production?

It all came at once. Catherine had done Blackbird very successfully, with Landmark, (another Harrower play), and she had also done Bridgie Clearey with me. There is something nice in the team of Joe and Catherine, who I knew, but then also people like Lorcan and Vincent who are new to me.

Smock is easily one of Dublin’s finest theatre spaces. Was the chance to work in a theatre that offers such artistic freedom part of the appeal?

There’s something about the play and that space that works. When you walk into Smock it resonates with the past. It connects to a sub-conscious level of our past, which the play deals with, so it seemed like a perfect match.

What problems do you think face Irish theatre in this day and age?

There is a huge element of conservatism and complacency in Irish theatre. I know there are practical and financial reasons for that but there is also an artistic conservatism. There is an upsurge of young companies doing some very exiting stuff, trying to break that mould and I think the influence of other art forms such as the visual arts, music, dance coming into theatre is very exiting. But the established theatres are slow to respond. There is a crushing level of deadening conservatism to it.

Money is a problem but imagination is a bigger problem. In the conventional Irish theatre scene there is a great paucity of imagination. Paucity of risk and creativity. And then they ask why they aren’t getting audiences into the Abbey. If what you do is deadly dull and full fills every bodies stereotype of theatre well then nothing is going to happen.

If you’re involved in something its very easy to get insular and think how important and fantastic it is and how were having a marvelous time. But in fact the audience comes in and sees the same old crap.

You are known as both a theatre and film director? Are you more comfortable in either medium?

No. As much as I badmouth theatre there is something when it works it really works and there is something very attractive about it. I must say I feel very comfortable with the purity of it. You’re dealing with writers, actors, and designers. The stuff itself. With film there is so much nonsense before you get to the thing you are supposed to be doing.

You are greatly admired for your work as a documentarian. Do you prefer working in fact or fiction?

I don’t have a great faith in fact, which might seem like a pretty odd thing for a documentary maker to say. To a degree our lives are interweaving fictions. We spins stories about ourselves, our experience our lives. It’s nice to deal with real people and real stories but there is something attractive about being able to manage the artifice like you do in fiction

Knives in Hens opens at the Smock Alley Theatre on Monday November 9, 2009, with previews from Wednesday November 4th. It runs until November 28th.

Words: Caomhan Keane


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