Reason in Madness: A Devised Reworking
Draíocht Theatre, Blanchardstown, Dublin, 29-30 November 2016.
Directed by Aisling Byrne. Design: Ciaran O’Melia; Dramaturgy: Oonagh Murphy; Sound Design: Susie Birmingham; Costume: Kate Bauer.
Cast: Mark Smith as Lear; Jane Ryan as Goneril; Ella-Jane Moore as Reagan; Michelle Brennan as Cordelia; Wesley Fairbrother as Kent; Maurice Coll as Gloucester; John Egan as Edmund; Paul O’Neill as Edgar; Kate Bauer as psychologist; Sean McPartland as the Fool; Bert Coster as Cornwall; and Conor Begley as Oswald.
Reviewed by Stephen O’Neill
It has sometimes been claimed that Irish theatre can’t quite do Shakespeare or that it has an attenuated relationship to Shakespeare for a variety of reasons that are cultural, historical and ideological. The absence of Shakespeare from the Abbey’s 2017 programme is likely to reactivate such claims. And even 2015’s DruidShakespeare, which gave the lie to such arguments, nonetheless ended up being ghosted by them, as critics located the production in the context of how previous Irish productions had faired with Shakespearean verse and themes, and determined that Druid had Gaelicised or Hibernicised Shakespeare’s English history plays. However, such broad and ultimately improbable claims about the national theatre scene risk overlooking more local theatre and community based productions of Shakespeare. Reason in Madness: A Devised Reworking of Lear gives the lie to the notion that Irish theatre productions must be filtered through questions of cultural nationalism. In this production by Run of the Mill Theatre, a 16 strong ensemble cast of artists with disabilities, bring us into Lear’s kingdom, but not as we know it.
The pre-scene features the cast on stage, awaiting the arrival of Lear: “The King is on his way”, the announcer explains, followed by the customary instruction to the audience to turn off mobile phones. The cast themselves hold phones, a visual cue to the dominance of technology and social media in this production, with tweet updates from @CourtGossip, or images of a bounded and blinded Gloucester displayed on a screen above stage. The use of social media, along with pop music, is not gimmicky but serves the story world and amplifies its themes. Under Aisling Byrne’s direction, the major concerns of Shakespeare’s play – the family, mortality, the vulnerability of the human being, the fragmentation of a political order – take on a more particular resonance in the context of a performance by actors with intellectual disabilities.
Theatre can importantly shift normative structures of viewing and representation, disrupting audience and indeed wider cultural assumptions about how value is assigned to particular bodies and identities, and how, by extension, it is denied to others, or doled out in a limited way. The work of Run of the Mill Theatre, founded in 2014 by Aisling Byrne and the participants of the drama and theatre training programmes within St. John of God Community Services, realises the capacity of theatrical performance to alter ways of seeing and release a dispersal of representational value. Blue Apple Theatre, established in the UK in 2005, have being doing similar work with actors with learning difficulties. Lawrie Morris, who played Claudius in the Blue Apple’s 2012 Hamlet, captures what the production means to him: “I think people out there in the world need to see that people are capable of doing Shakespeare, even with a learning disability like we’ve got”. In America, similar initiatives are to be found. Project A.B.L.E (Artists Breaking Limits and Expectations), founded by Kate Yohe, features a group of actors with Down Syndrome and other developmental needs in Twelfth Night at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theatre. Run of the Mill’s Reason in Madness importantly contributes to increased representational visibility and opportunity; the Arts Council’s support of such work, valued internationally, is welcome. There is no sentimentality to this production; instead, the cast produce something that makes meaning on its own terms. Striking is the sense of a collective, of a directorial hand operating with a lightness of touch, of actors helping each other onto and off the stage, and having lots of fun in doing so. But there are also stand out performances: Mark Smith as Lear is all kingly deportment, then disintegration as Goneril and Regan vie for power; Ella-Jane Moore as Reagan revels in mock royal waves as she takes to the throne; Jane Ryan’s Goneril is busy tweeting about court intrigue; John Egan plays Edmund with a maniacal, pantomime laugh.
For a small theatre company, this is an ambitious production. Run of the Mill make good use of Draiocht’s large stage, filling it with the ensemble cast, with hooded figures that haunt Lear, or by creating a distinct performance space stage right, where a psychologist, played by Kate Bauer (who also gives subtle onstage assistance to the performers) tests Lear’s memory loss. The Director’s note offers the audience one way to interpret such extra-diegetic elements, plot additions and the wider implication of Reason in Madness. Byrne notes “that the rate of developing early onset dementia stands at an estimated 75% greater risk for adults with Down Syndrome was a sobering reminder of the pertinence of a story where the gift of growing older can come with a price; and one that seems so steep and unfair for individuals who have already fought long to have their voices heard in society”. However, on a Wednesday evening in a packed Draiocht Theatre, the play’s sense of endings – of plot, of life, of political power – become a celebration of life and of community. As an audience member, you cannot but be aware of the family, friends who are there to support and cheer on the actors.
Reason in Madness is a cacophonous, energetic and reassembled Lear. The spoken word converges with dance, with now iconic pop tracks (from Icona Pop’s “I Love It” for the opening love test to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to capture Goneril and Regan’s relationship with Edmund), with social media and news images. Shakespeare’s tragedy is defamiliarised, in ways that recall Elaine Feinstein’s Lear’s Daughters (1987), another production that emerged out of theatre workshops, and which pared back the main plot to reveal a dark nursery rhyme about the symbolic power of fathers. Byrne and the ensemble cast are very much in touch with current trends in Shakespeare performance studies, where the energy of a Shakespeare play in production is understood as residing in post-textual, adapted and remediated responses. Experienced as fragments, from alternate perspectives, or with and through other media, the Shakespeare play reforms in our minds as a dazzlingly new theatrical experience. The programme note makes reference to the production’s repackaging as a “gift” to Shakespeare in this, the year of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. Reason in Madness rewards all of its participants, actors and audience alike, because the Shakespeare it produces is not a site of privilege or some inherited entity that, in an Irish context, is to be revered or feared. Rather, it’s the catalyst for a dynamic theatrical experience.
Dr Stephen O’Neill is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Maynooth University Department of English. He is the author of Shakespeare and YouTube (Bloomsbury, 2014), Staging Ireland: Representations in Shakespeare and Renaissance Drama (Four Courts, 2007) and several essays on Shakespeare and popular culture. With Janet Clare, he co-edited Shakespeare and the Irish Writer (UCD Press, 2011). Twitter: @mediaShakes