Boom, bust and breeze-blocks
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Main:   Emma McIvor and Gary Murphy in Off Plan
Photo: Pat Redmond

Below: Mary Murray and Paul Mallon in Off Plan
Photo: Pat Redmond

Boom, bust and breeze-blocks

Director Rachel West, writer Simon Doyle and RAW theatre company sift through the debris of an ancient Greek tragedy to create a new play, Off Plan, which reflects Ireland in recesssion.

Director Rachel West and her company, RAW, have grabbed some unlikely plunder from the recent “hey-presto” transformation from property bubble to lead balloon. With the support of project funding from the Arts Council, West gathered a multi-disciplinary group of artists to delve into The Oresteia, a complex trilogy of works by the Greek playwright, Aeschylus. Off Plan, Simon Doyle’s newly-minted version, opens at Project Arts Centre next week, and although it has been two years hatching, it couldn’t be more topical.

As in Aeschylus’s original, Off Plan re-tells the myth of Orestes slaughtering his mother, Clytemnestra, to avenge the death of his father, Agamemnon, but West and Doyle are equally interested in Orestes’ homeland, Argos, which has all but disappeared beneath a layer of concrete and breeze-blocks.

While Agamemnon has been away at the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra has been indulging in a spot of development economics, complete with extensive plans to re-develop the newly-conquered site of Troy as a pre-sold, air-conditioned, luxury resort. West is keen to point out that Off Plan’s doomed “Trojan Falls” pre-dated the implosion of Dubai’s economy, although they did add some re-writes last month as news reports of Ireland’s “ghost estates” emerged. “Things kept happening in the exact way we’d already mapped out. We began to feel we’d caused the downfall.”

From early on, West sensed that the key to un-locking her twenty-first century Oresteia was the distracted remembrance of pre-boom Ireland common to what she loosely calls her generation of late thirty-somethings. “It’s always been part of my manifesto for RAW that we’d approach a classic text, but in a new interpretation,” she says. "On a more personal level, I moved back to Dublin in 2002 having lived in Berlin for eight years, and found the country so changed. I wanted to do something relevant to the society we’ve become and I think the classics lend themselves to that kind of questioning. You can home in on issues you want to bring forward.”

Nostalgia might be the mode and an ancient Greek text the means, but for West, well-schooled in the left-field performance culture of Berlin, the method was never going to be traditional. Off Plan is an amalgam of CCTV footage, breeze-block extensions, electronic music and near-hallucinatory descriptions of Wibbly Wobbly Wonder ice-pops. West’s Cassandra is played by a wired-up Maebh Cheasty (one half of the electro-pop duo, You’re Only Massive), and, like West herself, an associate artist at Project Arts Centre.

“Cassandra can foretell the future, but she’s doomed never to be believed, so I felt our Cassandra should be working in a different sphere, and Maebh certainly is to me. She’s ten years younger, for a start, and she’s operating in a totally different world. I mean … she plays her laptop.”

While playwright and librettist Simon Doyle has re-worked myth before (Oedipus Loves You, co-written with Gavin Quinn for Pan Pan, toured Australia last month), Off Plan is a slight change of tack for West. She has previously introduced Irish audiences to a succession of contemporary European playwrights, including Jon Fosse, Biljana Srbljanovic and Falk Richter, with, most recently, a much-admired 2008 production of Splendour by Abi Morgan. (2009 was given over to a move back to Berlin, and the birth of her second child). “I’d been introduced to all these new writers through the work I did, particularly at the Schaubühne in Berlin, which was dedicated to contemporary writing. It was a great feeling to then come home with a pile of goodies.”

On initially moving to Berlin in 1994, fresh from a degree in German and Drama at Trinity College Dublin, West found herself acting as an unofficial dramaturg for new Irish writing. Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs was heading for its German premiere in a disconcerting translation when West staged a reading of the original, and helped director and cast turn it into a German/English hybrid West calls ‘Dinglish’. It ran for several years. Translations of other works by Walsh, Conor McPherson and Vincent Woods followed.

The late 1990s were an exciting time to be in Berlin. Director Thomas Ostermeier’s stint at the Baracke, a steel shipping-container-turned-theatre aligned to the Deutsches Theater, had sparked a craze for studio spaces and young contemporary writing. Across town at the Volksbühne, each production by East German director, Frank Castorf, was more iconoclastic than the last: slapstick, crackling video monitors, urinating in buckets, Wagner sung by members of the cleaning staff, were all thrown into the mix. As associate director at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz under Ostermeier, West directed shows by Enda Walsh and Falk Richter, and happily acknowledges her debt to the German performance tradition.

“It’s about creating a real piece of theatre, in the sense of including music and performance, but also, trying not to be too literal. I suppose this would be the influence of my time in Germany: knowing that you don’t have to explain everything logically all the time. If you do it too small, it turns into a domestic scene, and you lose the altitude that a classical text can go to. You have to keep reminding yourself to be bold.”

For West, the transition from tightly-written, formal works such as Splendour to the “galumphing animal” that is Off Plan, is no great leap, but part of the bright thread of engagement that runs through all her work. She chooses plays or writers because they “provide a vision, open up questions or expose a basic humanity”, again, a legacy of those formative years in Berlin. “German audiences expect entertainment to be something where they are morally or intellectually challenged,” she says, delicately questioning the Irish taste for theatre that is “entertaining in a light, fresh kind of way.”

“There’s nothing wrong with creating an entertaining piece of theatre that has a dark side. This isn’t going to be a well-rounded play. It’s going to be a bit messy and pretty raw at the edges. But there are things that the text says, things that we as a group of artists have discussed, that I really feel are worth saying. Doing theatre, for me, is about creating a newer, bigger space where anything can happen.”

Off Plan, an adaptation of The Oresteia by Simon Doyle, runs at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, from 11 – 27 February. www.projectartscentre.ie

Louise East is a writer and journalist based in Berlin.



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