We talk to Annie Ryan, Artistic Director of Corn Exchange ahead of the opening of The Fall of The Second Republic at the Abbey Theatre.
“This is a play that is trying to speak to the feelings of rage, frustration and powerlessness that has become the norm as you casually scroll through your twitter feed. It’s about the importance of free press, of speaking the truth in the face of corruption, as well as the power one person has to make a difference.”
Where did the idea for The Fall of the Second Republic emerge from? The play concerns itself with what ‘Ireland might have become, 50 years after its independence’ – what viewpoint does it approach this from?
Ten years ago, we had toured our play Freefall to the Abbey. The piece essentially was channeling the grief one must allow when change comes. We opened in December 2010 the very day the IMF arrived, after which there was a blizzard. Not so many came, but those that did trudged through snow and wind to get there. And the show was already powerful and very moving, but for our heroic audience that winter, I think it has a special resonance. By late 2010, the fallout of the economy was evident and everyone was full of fear of austerity and also furious. After the release of grief that came with Freefall, I felt people after that needed something to channel their rage and also to laugh.
Around that time we pitched an idea to the then director of the Abbey of a black comedy set in the Irish political arena, with the same title as this play, full of grotesques in fat pads and wigs. When the new directors came to the Abbey in 2017, they were keen to work with us and wanted us to revive Dublin By Lamplight, which was a total joy. We thought it would be great fun to do another comedy on the Abbey stage, and we revisited this idea, combining stylistic and thematic ideas from both shows.
🎙️ We interrupt your regular viewing to bring you this Ministerial message from An Taoiseach, Manny Spillane T.D. 🎙️#TheFallOfTheSecondRepublic, a brand new ensemble comedy by Michael West and The Corn Exchange. 24 Feb – 14 Mar on the Abbey Stagehttps://www.abbeytheatre.ie/whats-on/the-fall-of-the-second-republic/Video: Jose Miguel Jimenez
Gepostet von Abbey Theatre am Freitag, 7. Februar 2020
The tricky thing about writing a political satire now is that what we are living is so beyond parody that you couldn’t make up anything as bizarre as the day-to-day madness playing out on the stage of world politics. Setting the play in the ’70s gave it a distance that helped. This was the golden age of the journalist as hero, when they still held politicians to account. It may have been the last time people seemed to agree that truth exists, and dodgy politicians ought to fear it.
I think most of us are walking around with a palpable sense of ‘end of days’. Through 2019, exhaustion seemed to normalise the deep anxiety that has arisen about the rise of the far right, the climate emergency, the threatening antics from the yellow-haired men that surround us on either side. This is a play that is trying to speak to the feelings of rage, frustration and powerlessness that has become the norm as you casually scroll through your twitter feed. It’s about the importance of free press, of speaking the truth in the face of corruption, as well as the power one person has to make a difference.
What influences fed into the writing and creation of The Fall of the Second Republic?
Michael (West, Annie’s partner and writer of the play) is a huge fan of the comedy of The Thick of It, which was a big influence on the style of the writing. We enjoyed watching some classics about politics and the press of the 1970s like Network, All the President’s Men as well as the charming Howard Hawks’ screwball noir film His Girl Friday.
The heart of the play became driven by the passion and fearlessness of our heroine, Emer Hackett, who is inspired by a number of rock star renegade journalists like Marie Colvin and especially Veronica Guerin.
We also love the bleak comedy of Roy Andersson’s films, as does our brilliant designer, Katie Davenport, the starkness of which you can feel in the design of our set.
Corn Exchange is noted for the strength of its ensemble casts and the physicality of your performance. What techniques do you use to ensure you achieve this, besides good casting?
Our work is grounded in a practice of ensemble theatre games that create a physical vocabulary for the staging and an ethos of collaboration. The idea is to create an atmosphere of play where the actors stage themselves according to the principles of ensemble transformation, which simply means that the group listens deeply in service of whatever might be unfolding. The work encourages the players to listen deeply to each other, to let their impulse for action come from the unexpected and to discover the joy and extremity in how they might embody what is happening from moment to moment.
The key to open this sense of play in the room is to combine rigorous physical awareness and precision with kindness and loads of craic. Over the years I’ve found that beginning the day with a gentle yoga practice has helps the company to let go of their fears, let go of their own agenda and nurture their generosity, sense of fun and creative power.
What considerations were at play concerning set design and AV for The Fall of the Second Republic?
While the initial impulse was to follow the style of Dublin by Lamplight into a new piece, the play Michael felt called to write demanded a different approach, much closer to heightened realism. A lot of our work is made in the empty space, so that we go be anywhere the characters needed to be and create any objects needed through mime. I’m not so used to working with objects, but this play demands tangible surfaces and props.
This is the first time I’ve worked with the designer Katie Davenport. We both felt that we were looking to create a world that reflected the dystopian energy of the piece. Katie’s a wonderful, inspiring artist. Her eye is impeccable and I love her taste in design, influenced by set designers like Anna Viebrock, Katrin Brack, Klaus Grunberg, Hildegard Bechtler and director Ivo Van Hove and his designer Jan Versweyveld.
She pulled together a large collection of research of some of their work as well as photographs of 1970s brutalist architecture, offices, furniture, objects, colour palates as well as films like All the President’s Men, with its stunning art direction, the interiors of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well as the bleak but stunningly designed world of Roy Andersson.
Our lighting designer, Sinéad Wallace, who I’ve worked with quite a bit, is a powerhouse of discernment and wisdom. Her enthusiasm for Katie’s design lends weight and confidence to us all. Composer Denis Clohessy’s work is just starting to come in now. His huge range, experience and sense of fun is perfect for this one. And Saileóg O’Halloran is a brilliant costume designer with a very challenging task ahead of her to not just realise the images of the characters, but engineer them so they can change from one to another backstage with lightning speed.
The main inspiration for the AV was a video Michael came across of Leonid Brezhnev giving a New Year address to the young people of the USSR in 1979. It’s absolutely priceless.
You are partners in real-life, what work rules do you observe or enforce to protect your relationship?
Well, it’s no joke, let me tell you. We try to set boundaries for talking about the work – For God’s sake, not in front of the children! I’m sure it would be much healthier for us to complain to each other about that impossible director or that infuriating writer instead. We certainly have a short-hand that means we can problem-solve quickly, but after decades together, it’s inevitable that the lines sometimes get blurry, and that means we have to be very careful to be kind to each other and support each other. But sure, here we go.
What are your main thrills and concerns with the current state of Irish theatre? If you could change one thing what would it be?
Oh, the thrill of it! Actually, it is thrilling. It’s quite terrifying making work. No one knows if any of it will work. You have to really listen to that part of yourself that is being rubbed the wrong way on a particular idea. Those little niggles tend to grow into big problems down the road, but of course, it needs to be handled carefully. It’s a balancing act and it takes real bravery on everyone’s part to dive in.
It is, though, the greatest gift to be able to do it at all. Being in the rehearsal room is such a rare and wonderful privilege. We have a truly excellent and funny gang of some of the best actors in the country, as well as our fabulous designers. It’s also the first time I have ever made something for the Abbey stage, which is a long-awaited honour. And their resources mean I don’t have to ask the stage management to rob their granny’s cupboards for props. I think my favourite part of the job is when an actor comes up with a choice I never saw coming. None of us are in it for the money, that’s for sure, but the engagement is the gold.
All that said, the sector is on its knees. There simply isn’t enough funding for artists. Ireland is among the very lowest for government subsidy in Europe. Lower than Greece. And this town in getting harder and harder to live in for people on low incomes. The Arts Council is like the old woman who lives in a shoe, and a good few companies, ours included, are effectively being decimated in the short term and not sustainable in the long term.
What I would like to see change is a real commitment in actual cash rather than rhetoric from our government, coupled with an elevation of thinking within the Council toward empowering artists and companies to realise their aspirations rather than doling out the rations in ever smaller portions.
Which playwrights and directors are currently exciting you?
I have eclectic taste, but what I love is when I feel I can intuit the intentions of the artists in their work – to feel the ambition and clarity of the aspiration and its potential gives me great satisfaction and joy. Above all, I love deeply embodied performance. I love the raw urgency of the work of Louise Lowe, the forensic detail of Annabelle Comyn, the playfulness and precision of Theatre Lovett, Dead Centre’s inventiveness, Junk Ensemble’s gorgeous craftmanship. I love many fiction writers as well as playwrights Marina Carr, Ciara E Smyth, Annie Baker, Maria Irene Fornes; I adore Chekhov, Williams, O’Neill; performers Amanda Coogan, Una Kavanagh, Justine Cooper, Emma Martin, Mark O’Halloran, Derbhle Crotty, Janet Moran, Paul Reid, Aoife Duffin — all my company; the energy and nerve of the popbabies . . . I’m deeply excited for the innovations of the upcoming generation, but I also despair that they may not get the opportunities they deserve. Abroad, I’ve admired what I’ve seen of the work of Robert Icke, Ivo Van Hove, Katie Mitchell, Théâtre de Complicite, among so many others.
I adore film and have been deeply inspired by Cassavettes, Bergman, Fellini, Michael Haneke, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsey, as well as the photography of Mary-Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Dorthea Lange, Nan Goldin – all of whom feature such evocative characters in their portraiture.
Have you seen an evolution in your work and concerns over the 25 years of Corn Exchange’s existence? What’s next? Anything on your wishlist for fulfilment?
While the style of the work has morphed over the years, the basic premise remains rooted in physical embodiment of character within a narrative and a commitment towards continued investigation of endless ways the form theatre can hold and reflect our stories back to us. I’ve always been drawn toward the darkness in us – our suffering, our cruelty, how our desires get the best of us. I believe there is great healing power in the shared experience between the energy on stage and the audience on a given night. There’s always the potential to recognise ourselves through the story of another, to awaken compassion.
It’s an exciting time ahead for us. We have this giant adventure with the Abbey, working with some of our oldest and dearest pals as well as exciting new ones, and at the same time, the company’s funding has been cut completely moving forward. This is enraging of course, on some level, mainly because our proposed programme featured a hugely exciting range of women artists from major international prize winners to exciting emerging artists. I would love to see this through to fruition, so I might well apply for funding again, but sometimes you have to let things go to make space for new opportunities to present themselves. Twenty-five years is a long commitment to Irish theatre, and I’m ready for change. I am likely to hold a few workshops into the summer and then see what happens next.
In terms of the future, it’s hard for me to imagine giving up the theatre. It’s home, really. This is a bit odd, but whenever I’m directing a play, I often think I’m making a film, or at least I’m often trying to get the film of the piece to happen in the audience’s head. For a good few years, I’ve been aspiring toward filmmaking. I was very lucky to shadow the brilliant Lenny Abrahamson on the series Normal People last summer, and I’ve been writing and planning to finally, at 50, make some movies.
Ultimately, I’m interested in bringing the healing practices of yoga and meditation deeper into my artistic work. The work has to be urgent and engaging for audiences, but I also see its potential as powerful medicine to counteract the great suffering and dysfunction of our world. I do feel it’s a small gesture toward deepening compassion.