Spectator centre stage

It’s Saturday morning in the Abbey Theatre and the foyer is beginning to bustle. People are buying tickets. Staff are preparing for the matinee performance of Othello on its final day of performance. A dozen of us are arriving for the backstage tour, always themed to the play currently performing. As Othello is on, our welcoming guide mentions M, another Shakespearean play, in passing. It’s bad luck to say the play’s name in a theatre so he only says the letter.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons, and Saturday mornings, Ireland’s national theatre provides this tour, walking visitors through the theatre, the back stage, the prop and make-up rooms and the narrow corridors that display a wealth of portraits of the theatre’s friends and famous actors throughout its 112 years of existence.

Shakespeare apparently died 400 years ago this year, a motivation for hosting Othello. The tour guide shows us the choices made concerning the seating. The lay person doesn’t think of such things, but seats are added or removed for certain performances. The details are also in the choices about lighting and stage. Othello has a trial-like theme; the stage’s paucity reflects this.

Our tour is defined by the guide’s intimate knowledge of the theatre and drama itself. He teaches us about the political and social history of the theatre, its evolution as a national theatre, including its two changes of venue and the tragic 1951 fire. In this Centenary year, guides are keen to relive the story of Easter Monday 1916, when some of the Abbey’s acting company and staff left the theatre to join the Rising. Cathleen ni Houlihan was never performed that night. Life was imitating art outside.

Along the tour of almost two hours the twelve-strong group of visitors ask many questions and a relaxed, interactive dynamic develops. That’s what the guide wants. He reveals day-to-day life in this building defined greatly by its spatial limitations: where the actors rehearse, how props are delivered and collected, where actors wait between scenes. In ways the theatre’s history follows Irish history, its choices of productions mirroring attitudinal change. The theatre’s egalitarian ethos comes across.

Our guide provides anecdotes. Only one actor, apparently, has ever succeeded in getting his own dressing room. Another actor had to spend eight hours every day getting made-up for a performance during which he never spoke. The choice animal hair sometimes used for actors’ wigs is hair-raising.

The tour ends with a description of the portraits in the bar upstairs, including the memorable triptych on the stairs. It’s lunchtime and the pre-matinee bustle is growing. Someone asks the guide another trivia question about a famous actor who’s performed here. ‘I’m not sure about that one,’ the guide says with a smile, ‘but I can ask at the wrap party tonight.’ The backstage encyclopaedia is always expanding.

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