25 best Irish plays since Dancing at Lughnasa

When the New York Times published “The Great Work Continues,” a list of the 25 best American plays in as many years, British theatre journalist Andrzej Lukowski said he felt “a slight sense of pity”.

Irish theatre goers are used to hearing we dominate the world. Productions of plays by Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey and Samuel Beckett are still commonplace in America and Britain. In between the Sixties and Eighties, you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer in either place who could fold a nation’s collective trauma and history into a meticulous drama like Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Thomas Kilroy could.

British playwriting has had a renaissance since, while memorable episodes of Irish theatre seem to have defied easy definition. Lukowski mentions Caryl Churchill, who’s combination of form and ideas is peerless, but Olwen Fouéré and Roger Doyle’s fragmentary plays for Operating Theatre were singular too. Sarah Kane’s arresting work was un-precedented but Enda Walsh’s plays have also been extreme and fascinatingly disruptive, as has the immersive theatre of Louise Lowe and Owen Boss.

To my surprise, I could only single out five plays premiered by the biggest theatres: the Abbey Theatre and Gate Theatre. The overall view is more of a cross-industry effort. Around half of them were authored by women, even if through adaptation or collaboration. There have been sad omissions from worlds of dance (Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Giselle) and opera (The Second Violinist by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh).

I’d like to publish the accusations, criminations and recommendations for what I missed in a follow-up article, so please send them to chrismac1989@gmail.com and mark if they’re okay to print.

So in chronological order …

1. Eclipsed (1992) by Patricia Burke Brogan

Punchbag Theatre’s production of Eclipsed.

Premiered by Punchbag Theatre in their Galway venue, this powerful drama by Patricia Burke Brogan found a group of women in a Magdalene Laundry, separated from their children and working as “penitents”. Though it carves out a bleak prison, it generously lends its characters fantasies of escape (the women become each other’s dance partners), while seeking out a less obvious cage — interpretations of the bible, and how they warp nuns into oppressors.

2. True Lines (1994) devised by John Crowley, Cathy Belton, Tom Jordan Murphy, Stuart Townsend and Gwynne McElveen

Cathy Belton in True Lines.

Devised by its director (John Crowley) and cast for Kilkenny company Bickerstaffe, True Lines was a thrillingly fresh portrayal of Irish twenty-somethings living abroad. A businessman traces an aboriginal walkabout in Australia (Tom Jordan Murphy), a waitress hitchhikes through the American West (Cathy Belton), an anthropologist works a dig in Africa (Gwynne McElveen), and an architect struggles with depression in Germany (Stuart Townsend), all in poignant search of belonging.

3. Portia Coughlan (1996) by Marina Carr

Marion O’Dwyer in Portia Coughlan.

On her 30th birthday Portia Coughlan — plagued by feelings of motherly guilt, struggling with alcoholism, and cheating on her husband — is visited by the ghost of her twin brother. Though Marina Carr’s extraordinary play steered into an otherworldly realm, magnetically led in its debut production at the Abbey Theatre by director Garry Hynes and actor Derbhle Crotty, the play remains concrete in its understanding of grief, depression and suicide, surrounded by the haunting flow of a river.

4. Disco Pigs (1996) by Enda Walsh

Eileen Walsh and Cillian Murphy in Disco Pigs. Photo: Martin Healy.

Enda Walsh’s outstanding and breakneck two-hander, written in dense poetry for Corcadorca, followed two self-invented teenagers (Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh) on their rampage through shops, pubs and clubs in “Pork” (Cork) City. There’s a vague socio-economic malaise that makes it like “In Yer Face” theatre, but its unrequited love is what’s most stirring.

5. The Big Bad Woolf (1997) adapted by Annie Ryan from Edward Albee’s play

Corn Exchange’s production of The Big Bad Woolf. Photo: Paul McCarthy.

Staged in Temple Bar Gallery at the Dublin Fringe Festival, Annie Ryan’s ingenious adaptation of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for Corn Exchange gave nightmarish shape to the comforting illusions of four people at a party. It’s still hard to know whether to laugh at its grotesque comedy — drawing on extreme masks from Commedia dell’Arte, choreographed to an intense score, finding arch means to suspend pathos — or be terrified.

6. The Wake (1998) by Tom Murphy

The Abbey Theatre’s production of The Wake.

In Tom Murphy’s magnificent and painstaking drama — the greatest new play produced by Patrick Mason’s administration at the Abbey Theatre — a damaged woman returns home for her grandmother’s wake to find her siblings distracted by business grudges and Celtic Tiger excess. Named inheritor of a family hotel, Vera (Jane Brennan) protests, negotiates and sacrifices until the play’s hard-fought and transcending finale.

7. Howie the Rookie (1999) by Mark O’Rowe

Karl Shiels in Howie the Rookie. Photo: Michael Macor.

Written in two interlocking monologues, Mark O’Rowe’s excellent play follows two men in an underworld version of Dublin: the fist-for hire Howie and lothario Rookie (played by Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels in the premiere production by London’s Bush Theatre, seen in Dublin’s Civic Theatre). Its practical economy, shades of tragedy, and lyrical capturing of the capital inspired a new generation of theatre makers.

8. The House (2000) by Tom Murphy

Patrick O’Kane in The House.

Tom Murphy’s last great play, directed by Conall Morrison for the Abbey Theatre, was a striking and an un-nostalgic trip back to the 1950s, where a violent and rootless Irish emigrant (Patrick O’Kane) returns and visits the grand house where his mother once worked as a maid. Seizing an opportunity to buy the house — and freeze time — he entangles himself with the women living there, weaving a devastating portrayal of exile.

9. Oedipus (2000) by Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy, a new version of Sophocles’s play

Lalor Roddy in Oedipus.

Inspired by the Moriarty Tribunal, Mary Elizabeth Burke-Kennedy’s gripping and modern version of Sophocles’s tragedy — written for Storytellers Theatre and Cork Opera House — glimpsed an unstoppable truth barely suppressed under the posturing of charismatic leader Oedipus (Stephen Brennan) and a chorus of politicians. Its revelations flowed like an inquiry, exposing a shocking and deep-rooted corruption.

10. Revenge (2004) by Michael Duke

Gemma Burns and Libby Smyth in Revenge

A devastating anatomy of political violence, Michael Duke’s supernatural drama for Belfast’s Tinderbox Theatre saw an obsessive and vengeful father (Kieran Ahern) unravel on the eve of his son’s wedding. Tormented by phantoms, he relives an atrocity during the Troubles that altered his life. Duke’s play faced some agonising aspects of life after reconciliation, principally the release of political prisoners through the Good Friday Agreement.

11. Passades (2004) by Olwen Fouéré and Roger Doyle, in collaboration with Selina Cartmell

Olwen Fouéré in Passades. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

It may have been a play without words but this promenade by Operating Theatre’s Olwen Fouéré and Roger Doyle, created in collaboration with Selina Cartmell, was outstanding in form and effect. Staged in Dublin’s Digital Hub, it followed an explorer (Fouéré) trapped in a dangerous excavation — a conceit for the performer’s own experience of blackout in hospital following a serious road traffic injury. Using the compellingly mystifying effects of contemporary theatre, it journeyed from trauma to breathtaking recovery.

12. Dublin by Lamplight (2004) by Michael West, in collaboration with Annie Ryan and company

Corn Exchange’s production of Dublin by Lamplight.

Coinciding with the centenary of the Abbey Theatre, Michael West’s remarkable comedy for Corn Exchange, created in collaboration with the company, had an arch premise: what if the Irish national theatre didn’t survive past opening night? The result is as emphatic as a Molière farce, making use of the the labourers and aristocrats of Commedia dell’Arte to articulate the danger of political violence, and the transformative power of making theatre.

13. The Home Place (2005) by Brian Friel

The Gate Theatre’s production of The Home Place.

Brian Friel’s last original work, premiered by the Gate Theatre, was a heartrending historical drama set among the Anglo Irish Ascendency in 1878 Ballybeg. A man’s love for his housekeeper goes unrequited, while a pompous cousin tries to make sense of the local Home Rulers. But there’s enough signs here, in this deeply elegiac play, that the Anglo Irish are heading towards decline. Friel even borrows the axe from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.

14. The Walworth Farce (2006) by Enda Walsh

Druid’s production of The Walworth Farce. Photo: Sara Krulwich.

Enda Walsh’s stunning and meticulous play found two young men trapped in a London flat, directed daily by their overbearing father in a farce detailing his exile from Cork. In its debut production by Druid, physical gags were led by director Mikel Murfi to carve out a stark portrayal of abuse and deception, leading to heartbreaking revelations: that the sons must escape their father’s stranglehold.

15. Scenes from the Big Picture (2007) by Owen McCafferty

The National Theatre’s production of Scenes from the Big Picture.

Owen McCafferty’s epic drama, staged by Prime Cut in 2007 after debuting at London’s National Theatre, interwove the lives of twenty characters into a near-Joycean atomisation of Belfast. It shows the discreet ways in which political and economic crises affect the lives of factory workers, shop owners and kids with dead-end jobs. Its greatest emotional heft is found in a storyline involving two parents’ search for their missing son.

16. Freefall (2009) by Michael West, in collaboration with Annie Ryan and company

Corn Exchange’s production of Freefall.

In Michael West’s delicate and touching drama for Corn Exchange, an unassuming man (Andrew Bennett) learns that his wife is to leave him, shortly before he suffers a stroke. From a hospital bed, director Annie Ryan’s ingenious production whirled through folds of memory, charting a journey from an orphaned childhood to a fragile marriage. It gave shape to a life swept up by uncontrollable forces, and, in doing so, generously caught it in free-fall.

17. Monto Cycle (2010–2014) by Louise Lowe and Owen Boss

ANU’s production of Laundry, part of the Monto Cycle. Photo: Patrick Redmond.

It’s difficult to list the many compelling and affecting ways that the Monto Cycle — a four-part immersive theatre project created by Louise Lowe and Owen Boss for ANU - confided in its audience the hidden histories of a quarter-mile area in Dublin. With miraculous detail, it blurred a red-light district (in World End’s Lane), a Magdalene Laundry (Laundry), and the streets of an impoverished city (The Boys of Foley Street) with current sites of regeneration, before the heartrending suggestion of its finale (Vardo): that history is on endless repeat.

18. I ♥ Alice ♥ I (2010) by Amy Conroy

Amy Conroy and Clare Barrett in HotForTheatre’s production.

The conceit of Amy Conroy’s immensely uplifting play, premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival in 2010, was that two 60-something women named Alice (played by Conroy and Clare Barrett) had agreed to appear in a documentary play, after its maker spotted them stealing a kiss in a supermarket. Delivered in sweetly funny observations, it’s a moving portrayal of the love that dare not speak its name, with a Brechtian coda confirming it as a piece of determined activism.

19. The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane (2010) by Gavin Quinn and Aedín Cosgrove

Pan Pan’s production of The Rehearsal, Playing the Dane. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Gavin Quinn and Aedín Cosgrove’s sublime work for Pan Pan — a contemporary theatre riff on Hamlet — was a subtle reflection on the role of Shakespeare’s protagonist, whether in the production’s indecision over who should play the part (so the audience makes the call), or the the sly realisation that a troupe of secondary school students are doing the hard work. From a madcap audition room it moves into a purgatorial and touching delivery of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

20. In My Bed (2011) by Veronica Dyas

Veronica Dyas’s production of In My Bed.

Veronica Dyas’s solo play, first staged in an old abandoned shed at the Dublin Fringe Festival, was a towering piece of testimony. From her protective grandmother’s bed, she shares stories of rejection and, horrifically, a sexual assault. But the play’s achievement lies in its subtle participation — the audience pass her dairies, photographs and mementos — as if assuring us that a survivor, no less than a society, can recover.

21. Trade (2011) by Mark O’Halloran

Philip Judge and Ciarán McCabe in Trade. Photo: Fiona Morgan.

Mark O’Halloran’s painstaking and site-specific drama — directed by Tom Creed for THISISPOPBABY — saw a young rent boy (Ciarán McCabe) meet a middle-aged man (Philip Judge) in a guesthouse, where the audience seemed positioned as voyeurs. The young man, working for his family’s survival, is eager to complete the transaction. The older man, struggling with his homosexuality, may yet be compassionate rather than exploitative. It’s an elegiac play, mourning how people are disenfranchised.

22. Have I No Mouth (2012) by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan

Brokentalkers’ production of Have I No Mouth.

When Feidlim Cannon appeared in his remarkable play — co-created by Gary Keegan for Brokentalkers — he was joined onstage by his mother and their psychotherapist. In piecing together heartbreaking tragedies in their family, Cannon and his mother find different ways of coping with grief, while the brightly artificial effects of contemporary theatre strive for pathos. Have I No Mouth is proof that personal suffering can transform into something consolatory.

23. Lippy (2013) by Bush Moukarzel, with cameo playwright Mark O’Halloran

Dead Centre’s production of Lippy.

In 2000 a woman and her three adult nieces died in a suicide pact, and Bush Moukarzel’s extraordinary play for Dead Centre (with a cameo epilogue by Mark O’Halloran) honoured that tragedy by refusing to treat it as a tempting mystery. After a preamble with a lip-reader (acknowledging the play’s artifice), we get sucked into a striking version of the women’s home, where the unsolvable numbness and suffering is seen in stirring stage pictures, until their sad demise.

24. Our Few and Evil Days (2014) by Mark O’Rowe

Ciaran Hinds and Tom Vaughn-Lawlor in Our Few and Evil Days.

All seemed normal when a middle-aged couple (Sineád Cusack and Ciaran Hinds) welcomed their daughter’s boyfriend to their home in Mark O’Rowe’s outstanding drama for the Abbey Theatre. But through painstaking dialogue that resembles the judders of real conversation, stunning revelations float to the surface. What’s impressive, uncanny, and downright unsettling is how the tragedy’s gruesome possibilities seem to hide in plain sight.

25. These Rooms (2016) by Louise Lowe, David Bolger and Owen Boss

Justine Cooper in These Rooms.

Conceived to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising, ANU and CoisCéim’s thrillingly immersive production ushered us between scenes of destruction at a civilian massacre to intimate encounters with desperate grievers, and, in David Bolger’s poignant choreography, gestures of surrender. Its impression is that the Rising isn’t finished, and lingers long after, in struggles with addiction and trauma.