THE ABBEY THEATRE’S TWO PINTS: On-Site Brilliance

If you were to guess the location of the Abbey Theatre’s first ever on-site theater production, the answer should be a “no-brainer”:

A Pub.

Of course.

Even the dead,  but still-great, American dramaturgical pub-bard Eugene O’Neill could have guessed that.

For the past year or so the world-famous theatre company has been taking their new play to town pubs all across Ireland. Now they have embarked on a very limited tour of some of America’s Irish pubs.

The international on-site tour is simply the latest chapter in this storied theatre’s amazing history.

Between 1900 and 1915 an aroused Irish spirit of nationalism manifested itself in literature. Dublin became second only to London as a theatrical center, and  many of Britain’s most famous playwrights (Congreve, Sheridan, Shaw, and Wilde) had been born in Ireland. The “Irish Renaissance” found interest in  things local or indigenous  to Ireland. The Abbey Theatre became famous for providing a platform for Yeats, Lady Gregory,  Synge, Lennox Robinson, and St. John Ervine.

Growing out of  the Irish Literary Theatre (1899-1902) formed by William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore, and Edward  Martin, the group’s performances so impressed Miss. A.E. Horniman that in 1904 she took out a lease on the Mechanics’ Institute Theatre in Dublin, remodeled it, and gave it to the Irish players at no charge for six years.

That began the Abbey Theatre, restricted to the production of Irish made or Irish-related works due to the opposition of existing theater owners. Seating only 562 and with a stage only 15 feet deep, the Abbey offered its first program in December 1904 with plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory and Synge. The theatrical revolutionaries vowed “to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”.

In 1907, The Playboy of the Western World by fellow Abbey director, J.M. Synge caused riots in the audience. Later in 1912, during the first tour of America, the cast of The Playboy of the Western World  were arrested in Philadelphia for performing “immoral or indecent” plays. The case was dismissed.

In 1910, Miss Horniman unexpectedly severed her connection with the Abbey Theatre because the Abbey’s Directors did not close the theatre following the death of King Edward VII.

In 1912, the Abbey Theatre School of Acting was established. Members of the Abbey Acting Company and staff were all closely linked with the 1916 Easter Rising. Sean Connolly, who was scheduled to appear on stage that day was the first Rebel fatality in the civil unrest.

In 1926, during the first run of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars a riot broke out. Some of the audience objected to O’Casey’s representation of the 1916  Rising. Yeats took to the stage: “You have disgraced yourselves again. Is this to be an ever recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”

Tragically, in 1951, the original buildings of the Abbey Theatre were damaged by fire during the run of The Plough and the Stars. Ironically, the play closed to the strains of Keep the Home Fires Burning. The Abbey re-located to the Queen’s Theatre on Pearse Street. 15 years to the day later, on 18 July 1966, the Abbey moved back to its current home, designed by Michael Scott & Associates.

Since the 1960s, the Abbey has enjoyed a much-needed revival after the difficulties of the early 20th century. New playwrights like Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Sebastian Barry and Marina Carr have staged their works at the Abbey and its experimental Peacock stage, with plays like Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) went on to have worldwide success. Being part of the world-renowned Dublin Theatre Festival has also helped to boost the profile of the Abbey internationally.

Further enhancing the theatre’s  international stature, novelist-playwright Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints unfolds to a masterful work of drama in miniature. Not miniature in the scope of his plot interests, nor miniature in the depth of his characters, nor miniature in the profundity of the thoughts explored, but miniature in the amount of words and actions used to create a major work of contemporary theater. Not since the heyday of Harold Pinter has the”stage” been privy to such a minimalistic total and complete rendering of the modern zeitgeist.

One (Liam Carney) and Two (Philip Judge) meet, as is their practice, in a pub. The occasion is One’s recent visit to his dying 95 year old father in the hospital and his infuriating experience at the car park. Act II has the pair meet again in the same pub as One awaits the inevitable call from his sister that their Da’s end is near. The final act, again in the pub, occurs just after the funeral.

Within this simple, yet universal, frame, Mr. Doyle weaves a seemingly random stream of consciousness dialogue across the widest and most disparate collection of topics possible – fathers, sons, marriage, the Christian Brothers, Nigella Lawson, the Koran, whether women have tonsils, aging, love, Germans, courage,  Nigella Lawson again, football, Benazir Bhutto, doctors, coffins, Angela Merkel –  but always returning to death, dying, and the notion of an afterlife which infuses the pub air. All the while they drink- Guinness for the first two acts,  whiskey for the final- as they run the full gamut of human emotions – raging, grieving, laughing, teasing, observing, joking, taunting, loving, soul-searching.

Most of what they say, seems to be like what we say – drivel.

But in the hands of a master wordsmith like Mr. Doyle the drivel is shaped and manipulated into a beautifully complex stage version of a Bach fugue for two voices.

The result is nothing short of a brilliant meditation on life and death and all that lies between, and even after. It is a dialogue in the great tradition of those recorded by Plato. But here the philosophy has been marinated in pub spirits for easier consumption.

Directed imaginatively and subtly by Caitriona McLaughlin, the actors are placed at the bar facing away from the audience. This creates the same annoyance one would feel if one wanted to overhear a private conversation in a pub. It also gets the audience to lean in, to savor every verbal and non-verbal clue they find to figure out who these guys are and what’s going on. And together with Mr. Doyle’s magical language, Ms. McLaughlin manages to keep the audience rapt during act one even though they may see only 30% of the actors’ faces and hear only 75% of the actors words. The audience is rewarded for their attention in the subsequent acts, as the actors open out more to the audience, and we see and hear as much as we would in a regular proscenium theater.

The daunting task of transforming various and sundry watering holes to an effective playing space luckily falls to the immensely talented team of designer Kate Moylan, stage manager Emma Doyle and technician Anthony Hanley. The highest compliment is to say their work is unnoticeable except to those looking for it.

The three actors (The Barman is silently and effectively played by Laurence Lowry) are revelations. Their sensitivity to Mr. Doyle’s spare language and subtle rhythms enable them to create fully realized characters with backstories oozing, automatically, out of every twitch and jerk they may make. They know each other’s rhythms and moods and needs like an old married couple, so the idea of ensemble could not be more fully realized than it is here. You won’t find finer, more consummate, actors.

If you are anywhere near one of these hallowed locations, and if you love either the theater, or the  pub, or both, you must get to see Roddy Doyle’s magisterial slip of a play, Two Pints, by hook or by crook. We were fortunate to catch  a sold-out performance at Richmond’s Rare Olde Times Pub. Two Pints is a major event, probably sold out by now.

But try anyway.

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