In one of the final scenes of Frank McGuinness’s Mutabilitie (1997) located in Ireland, there is a parting speech between William (Shakespeare) and the Irish Bard, the File, before William returns to London intending to make ‘another crooked sixpence in a crooked house among men as crooked as myself’. The File (Gaelic for poet) is disillusioned with Shakespeare; this jobbing playwright is not the poet of her prophecies. Shakespeare has come to Ireland with his players, not to fulfil a romantic, nationalist role, but to act and ‘live like Lords in Ireland’. McGuinness, with the added richness of national contexts, explores, as did Edward Bond in Bingo, a discrepancy between the identity of the writer and the art: ‘I do exist but not as you imagine’, claims William to File. The perplexing question of Shakespeare’s identity – colonial and post-colonial – in Ireland frames Mutabilitie. Equally resonant is the clash of cultures epitomized in the contrast between the pragmatism of Shakespeare and the desperate, pessimistic romanticism of the File. Something of these issues underlies the performance of Shakespeare’s plays in Ireland – and here my discussion is limited to the Republic. On the one hand, its national theatre, the Abbey, which last year celebrated its centenary, performs Shakespeare quite rarely. On the other hand, Shakespeare, while not compulsory, remains central to the school curriculum. There has been a strong tradition of amateur productions of Shakespeare, notably that of the Dublin Shakespeare Society, formerly the British Empire Shakespeare Society. However, the choice of text for large auditorium productions is largely dictated by the limited range of the school syllabus, since it is this that will guarantee an audience. When a professional Irish theatre company decides to do Shakespeare, other than for schools, it is faced with the task of making a creative discovery that is its own and interesting risks are often taken.
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