Does the sum of twenty-five ‘tiny plays’ add up to more than one not-so-tiny play? For entertainment value, quite possibly. From a combination of commissioned tiny plays and a selection from the more than 1,700 plays received after their call for submissions a few months ago, Fishamble produce an evening of momentum and charm from a very mixed bag of play-lets, each attempting in its own way to represent Irish life today. It turns out that a lot can be said and done in three minutes of stage time, even more if you have a company as capable and stylish as this to bring it to life. But the brevity of the form also steers weaker writers into the path of easy stereotypes, and the view of Ireland that ensues from the piece at a whole is disappointingly narrow, if entertaining and often funny.
The concept of ‘tiny plays’ is not unique to Fishamble; a successful stage version of Craig Taylor’s One Million Tiny Plays about Britain, even tinier scraps of dialogue first published in The Guardian, later in book form and most recently staged at the Edinburgh festival last summer in a production curated by Ros Philips. By opening the idea to the public, Fishamble took it one bold and interesting step further.
If this is a snapshot of Ireland today, it’s a view squarely from Dublin, and a certain slice of Dublin life at that. The exceptions – a piece on the friendship between a traveller and a Polish schoolgirl, a fleeting view of working-class Dublin as fully-stocked with fags, booze, pregnancy and poor parenting as you would find in any Daily Mail column – are played for colour alongside middle-class Dublin life. It’s recession Ireland, of course, but the old stereotypes are still alive and well in the Tiny Plays as a whole, and played for the kind of black laughter that sustains them: the failing communications of fathers, sons and brothers over half-drunk pints or half-willing reminiscences, the half-said truths and what one character, an American now living in Ireland but for whom America remains ‘home’ describes through gritted teeth as ‘This passive aggressive. This Irish. This passive aggressive Irish shit. This tea and then biscuit and goodbye now.’ (Only one mother appears in the twenty-five pieces, interestingly, and she’s a very urban modern mammy; the implication that the proverbial dispenser of tea and biscuits has disappeared along with the perfidious Celtic Tiger is symptomatic of a worrying blame- game that’s starting to emerge; the Maeve Binchy piece promised for a second instalment, Tiny Plays for Another Ireland, is needed more urgently here.) And of course, death, that most Irish of preoccupations, the moment where those half-truths and full truths finally get talking to one another.
The principle of selection is central, and here diversity of styles and subjects seems to be the intention. Unevenness is the result, again by intention, but the brevity of each piece as well as the decision to play the whole thing in the round on a stage that is itself uneven, that jaggedly mirrors the banked seats around it, keep the pace and interest alive even through the weakest pieces.
The most successful of the tiny plays are those at either end of the spectrum – the absurdist delights of ‘Tuesday Evening (Following the News)’, or Joseph O’Connor’s splendidly exuberant opener, and the super-realist mode of ‘Commiserations’, a simple piece involving a woman on the phone (and there’s no looking away from Kate Stanley Brennan’s fragile Muirne here) spreading news of a death with a terrible, wounding social kindness. The closing piece by Dermot Bolger is a let-down, a set of prosy cod-Shakespearean declarations on High Drama that just doesn’t fit the form, a mismatch all the clearer for its implicit partnering of Joseph O’Connor’s crowd-pleasing opening piece; Bolger refuses to play Hutch to O’Connor’s Starsky. But then, Dermot Bolger’s is a different Ireland entirely to the one seen here, one that remains unnoticed and unappreciated in this selection. In his Ireland, perhaps, we may never have suffered the ‘illusions’ (or delusions) ‘so grandiose that no playwright would ever dare invent them’. Perhaps.