Thursday, February 09, 2006

Gerry Stembridge's New Voice

A new regime, a new voice. Or preferably, lots of them. Isn’t that what’s required from the change of management at the Abbey? While the old guard of Irish theatre – everyone from Brian Friel to Marian Carr and Conor McPherson – will presumably always find a home at say, The Gate, the National Theatre cries out for fresh voices to shake the institution awake.

The Abbey’s last offering – Paul Mercier’s Homeland – certainly takes a squint at the New Ireland, but Mercier has been squinting at Ireland for many years now without the Abbey’s help. However, according to Gerry Stembridge, a new hero has now arisen, if not in the west, at least from that general direction. Nicholas Kelly, whose The Grown Ups is directed by Stembridge at the Peacock, is that figure.

“He is clearly writing about Dublin – but he doesn’t mentioned Dublin once,” says Stembridge, on his lunch break from directing rehearsals. “But the city undergoing this Dionysian transformation is clearly Dublin.”

As it happens, that transformation was threatening the show somewhat until this very lunchtime. “You got me at a good time,” says Stembridge, “We just had a good, quiet runthrough. Up until now, every time we set to work the sounds of construction all around us kept getting into the space. But now I’ve really heard it, I think we’ve got something here.”

And what’s that?

“Well, there’s the sensation of a new theatrical voice coming onto the scene…a sense that he is moving things on.”

Thirty-three year old Kelly, Stembridge suggests, has a world view substantially different from his predecessors. Although it is not easy to pin down exactly what this entails (particularly without seeing a script) Stembridge contrast his own generation with a younger lot.

“I think he is looking at the spiritual harm that is coming to us. We read about it in the rising suicide rates and the binge drinking…I suppose the real differences lie in things like the desire to be pain free, to live the happy life. All the time.”

Taking on this kind of play – and taking it on quickly: it is only two months since Stembridge brought the play to the Abbey – may be part of the answer to national theatre’s woes. According to Stembridge “there is a real chance now that people might start going to the Abbey.” Eeek!

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