Building on the success of their first outing of this format, Fishamble return for a second round of tiny, 600-word plays, the result of their public call for plays alongside some commissioned pieces from established writers like Colum McCann, Pauline McLynn and the late Maeve Binchy. The result, however, is disappointing and more than a little predictable.
The opening tiny play Mark Cantan’s Somewhere sets the evening up as a sort of synchronic yet quixotic view of everything that’s happening at the present moment, a glance askance at an impossibly full scene. Certainly, the appearance of a full-grown man in leprechaun costume easily evinced the hordes of the starry-eyed leprechauns wandering the greasy streets of Temple Bar outside in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day. And the multiple scenarios of betrayal, loss and division certainly seem to speak to the pain of so many people in Ireland today. But the overall effect of the evening’s plays is schmaltzy, twee, complacent.
The vast majority of the plays are straightforwardly realist in conception, dialogues or monologues of crisis points. Couples break up and make up – or don’t even make it to become the ‘soul mates’ they are (in Maeve Binchy’s piece). Fathers and sons bond, but mothers and daughters are as sparse here as in the first ‘Tiny Plays’. The more daring pieces dramaturgically (few though they are) tend to work better. A notable exception is the biting humour – terribly real and absurd all at once – of Pauline McLynn’s Dublin hospital scene, for me the stand-out piece of the evening for its verve in exposing the sentimental traps of the overall form.
Others make the limitations of the format work for them: a politician’s formulaic stump speech repeated three times (Tom Swift’s I Stand Here Before You), or a witty circular play delivered in a circle in two-syllable speeches tracing three generations of birth, life and death (Mike Finn’s Life in Two Syllables). The difficulty is that the sharp edges
of critique in pieces such as Keith Farnan’s The Straight Talk or McLynn’s The Caring, Ireland 2013 are love-bombed into submission by the all too familiar Irish exceptionalist rhetoric of how special and adorable we are.
This longstanding cultural tic gets a particularly contemporary take in one ‘play’ in which the actors distribute postcards, asking the audience to scribble down one positive change they would like to see in Ireland. I hoped very much that this interlude was an ironic comment on the Irish failure to take to the streets to protest austerity measures and their causes, our craven submissiveness to the politicians, the bankers, the ECB and our willingness to be satisfied by empty paper protest, but it seems not. These Tiny Plays are, indeed, as the title has it ‘for’ Ireland, placating gifts, compensatory mechanisms. Once was a novelty, twice becomes sentiment.
And yet there is a stronger directorial hand at work in this second series, even if the selection choices seem safer. Small threads in sequencing create overlaps and connections between the pieces. Glimpses of an interest not just in how we got here but where we go now are evident, if somewhat crassly imagined. On the few occasions in which the setting in the round is put to its full use to involve the seated audience too, it pays dividends. Two well-known Irish poems hover prominently in the background, broadly shaping the urban and (far fewer) rural experiences articulated throughout the evening. Eavan Boland’s The Night Feed, chronicling the social and political alienation of a mother in a sleeping city, gives its name to a moving piece by Justine Mitchelle, chronicling a father meeting his homeless daughter on the streets of the city.
The final piece of the evening, Colum McCann’s Slanesman, is an almost bathetic multi-generational account of turf-cutting, concluding the evening with the words (reproduced on the programme) ‘Sometimes I think I’m down there digging’. We are returned to the rural poetics of Seamus Heaney’s Digging, the land and the generations inspiring the young poet to forge his own kind of digging career. As the encouragement to writers that Fishamble’s Tiny Plays concept clearly is, it is a great success. But as a piece of theatre with ambitions to speak to and of and for Ireland, it falls short.