It's hard to believe the Irish Repertory Theatre is celebrating its 25th season already, and this special year may be its most ambitious ever. Featuring a Harold Pinter play directed by John Malkovich, alongside a rare and unmissable staging of Brian Friel's Bloody Sunday play The Freedom of the City and a concert by Phil Coulter in time for Christmas, can you think of a more perfect season to show off Ireland at its best? Cahir O'Doherty talks to co-founder and artistic director Ciaran O'Reilly about what to expect.
Sometimes the best plan is not to have a plan at all. The freedom can allow unexpected things to happen.
When the Irish Repertory Theater was formed by Charlotte Moore and Ciaran O’Reilly back in 1988 the talented pair had a mission statement “to bring works by Irish and Irish American masters and contemporary playwrights to American audiences.” But that opened-ended policy doesn't even begin to describe their achievement.
Both are meticulous in their respective crafts as artistic and producing directors, and both prefer to let their productions speak for themselves. There's no showboating at the Rep, there's just a relentless focus on the plays themselves and a work ethic that's unmatched in New York theater.
In a typical Rep season you'll see plays by Ibsen, Friel, Shaw, Yeats (and usually back to back). Then they'll stage a spirited revival of a Broadway musical that gives 42nd Street a run for its money.
There's isn't another theater in the city that can do all this as successfully and consistently as the Rep. It's a cause for amazement.
“It feels like yesterday,” O'Reilly tells the Irish Voice, referring to that day in 1988 when the company staged its maiden production of Sean O' Casey's The Plough and the Stars.
“It's such a cliché to say it but that's the truth. You don't think about your legacy, you just keep on doing plays. At the end of the day you've done a lot, and people keep writing them, you know?
The Rep's exciting new season starts on October 3 with a rare, unmissable staging of Irish playwright Brian Friel's toweringly angry, unforgettable play about Bloody Sunday, The Freedom of the City. The play begins as an inquiry into the shooting deaths by British soldiers of three civil rights marchers outside Derry's famous Guildhall, but it quickly turns into a travesty of injustice that starkly mirrors the real life events that unfolded in the aftermath of that watershed day in the North's history.
There are striking parallels to the events of our own time too in the way that three unarmed strangers -- Lily, a middle-aged mother of 11, and Michael and Skinner, two young men -- “occupy” the lord mayor's office and find themselves becoming instant heroes, or martyrs or terrorists, depending on where you're standing.
“There's a lot of reasons for staging it now,” O'Reilly confesses. “The first is that it was the first play I've ever done in my life, away back more than 30 years ago. Just two years ago we watched the British Prime Minister David Cameron standing up in the House of Commons, finally – finally – apologizing for what happened in Derry on Bloody Sunday.
“Just last year we also reached the point where the victims’ families can take legal action, 40 years later. The play just feels to me as alive today, for many reasons. A lot of what Friel is trying to say in the play is about poor people, about the culture of poverty that goes on for generations and what it does to you.
“You can see parallels between what they were protesting and what the Occupy Wall Street protestors did. There are lines in the play that are relevant today.”
The objective of the Civil Rights movement was economic change, but after Bloody Sunday and the mass shootings that occurred that day, that objective was subsumed by the larger civil conflict that erupted. “They handed the IRA a recruiting tool,” says O'Reilly. “It changed Northern Ireland.”
Friel was out marching on Bloody Sunday and saw first hand the events of that day, but the play he wrote wasn't so much about the massacre as the notorious Widgery report that whitewashed it. That was the biggest tragedy of the whole thing in some ways, O'Reilly feels.
“The fact that they could so calculatedly let that day lie, to almost sponsor what those soldiers had done...”
It's not O'Reilly's first attempt to revive the play, but it's the first he could get Friel to agree to. “Sometime back in the nineties I asked Friel if I could do the play and he said no. He didn't want it done.
“At that time they were moving toward the peace process and he said it was a work that he wrote in anger, and that anything that would tip the balance of the peace negotiations, even something as small as putting on a play in New York, he'd just rather not do it.”
The original U.S. production of Freedom of the City opened in Chicago in 1974 to rave reviews. Against Friel's will the play was then brought to Broadway, where it died a quick death. Clive Barnes, The New York Times esteemed theater critic (and a Londoner by birth) called the play “luridly fictionalized,” “far-fetched” and that it was “impossible” to believe the British Army could behave in such a fashion.
That review prompted the legendary civil rights attorney Paul O'Dwyer, then the president of the New York City Council, to write to the Times to charge the critic with “defending the empire rather than reviewing the play.”
So it's timely for the Rep to allow us an opportunity to reassess the play now, in the hindsight of the war that erupted and the peace that finally followed it. It's to be hoped that The New York Times can find a theater critic with a grasp of recent Irish history, too.
On October 10, the Rep continues its new season with another major new production, the New York premiere of A Celebration of Harold Pinter, starring floppy haired Julian Sands (The Killing Fields, A Room with a View, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) in his New York stage debut, directed by Academy Award nominee John Malkovich.
Pinter, a British playwright, had a long and formative relationship with Ireland, having traveled the length of the country as a fledgling actor paying his dues years before he became the most celebrated British playwright of the 20 century. The show is Sands' personal reflection on working with the Nobel laureate who passed away in 2008.
The anniversary season continues on November 29 through December 30 with The Songs I Love So Well, a warm bath of an evening featuring the beloved Irish songbook and starring the acclaimed Irish musician Phil Coulter. It's a concert that's a guaranteed sell out so you'd be advised to book your tickets soon.
And what are the lessons of 25 seasons of staging Irish plays?
“It's an old discovery, the plays that work the best are the ones that have a good story to tell,” O'Reilly reveals. “Living in America can cut you off from the country you grew up in.
“I feel like I've been away a long time now. When I go back home I get into the car and I'm in Cavan in half an hour when it used to take me two hours. On the way you're on a motorway now and you don't see the farms anymore. It's different and I feel less of a connection now in the plays. I harken back to the things I knew growing up instead.”
The conversation between those two worlds, between Ireland the way it was and the way it is now, and the conversation between Ireland and Irish America, have made the Rep what it is – the most vital and consistently engaging theater of its size in the city. Don't miss its new season.
For more information visit www.irishrep.org. The Rep is located at 132 West 22nd Street.
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