…the evolution of a Grand Dame.

Standing on O’Connell Street looking north, you have to cock your head a little to spot THE GATE THEATRE’S modest white-lettered sign, which sits high and unassuming over Dublin’s main thoroughfare.

Yet there is something of the Grand Dame about The Gate Theatre. Ascend the theatre’s stairs from a city thick with construction, and you enter a cocoon of chandeliered ceilings, and people ‘dressed for the theatre.’ And it might be that the elegant building itself has directed the theatre’s narrative. There is a rare hush of reverence here and it has long been the place to see the great, often camp, classics: Coward, Albee, Williams and Wilde. Seating 371 audience members, the roof seemed to lower and the room seemed to swelter for the humid hysteria of A Streetcar Named Desire. And where else but in that compact room could the audience members themselves feel like tense guests at a bad party for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The room seemed to swelter for the humid hysteria of Streetcar Named Desire

The Gate itself was born in 1928 in the belly of the ABBEY; playing for its first two seasons in the Peacock Theatre. It was the mission statement of The Gate’s founders, Englishmen Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, to “make Ireland a place fit for James Joyce to live in” by putting on innovative productions by European and American dramatists, as well as classics from the modern Irish repertoire. It was an old Dublin joke to say that with classical European flair in the Gate and the more nationalistic rural fare in the Abbey, together the two were ‘Sodom and Begorrah.’

The Gate began its life as a stand-alone theatre on Christmas Eve in 1929, when the lease was signed for the site at 1 Cavendish Row, once part of the 18th century Rotunda complex. It opened with Goethe’s Faust on 17th February 1930.

Gate Auditorium – image courtesy of The Gate Theatre

In the building’s ninety years, the theatre has launched the careers of dozens of legendary actors, Orson Welles and Michael Gambon amongst them. There have however only been four artistic directors in the Gate in that time. The last, Michael Colgan, served thirty-three years. But there’s been a wind of change blowing through the Dublin theatre scene. In 2017 The Gate put award-winning theatre director Selina Cartmell at the helm. Since then her new programmes have been offering up a series of fresh and bold new productions, including one that even changed the venerable building itself.

A long-time prominent player in Gate productions, Dublin actor Owen Roe is delighted to have played a part in this new chapter of the theatre’s story. In the early nineties, he played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and has since played immense characters there like Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross and Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. “I was jammy,” he laughs. His first encounter with the Gate was when his parents took him to see Hugh Leonard’s Da when he was thirteen. “They weren’t great theatre-goers but we did go to the odd play. My father was a truck driver and my mother worked in a biscuit factory so they were kind of working class in that respect but they weren’t intimidated, but it would have to be a comedy or something light-hearted or sentimental.”

The theatre has launched the careers of dozens of legendary actors, Orson Welles and Micheal Gambon amongst them

The Gate, Roe says, is the theatre in which he feels the most comfortable. “The people there are great, the staff are great. You know where the stage door is at the box office? I get a slight thrill every time the door slams behind me and I’m in for the night to do a show. You kinda feel like nobody can touch you. It’s a weird sensation but it’s a very comforting sound, you just feel like you’re home.”

Roe took up a role in Cartmell’s first production at the theatre, The Great Gatsby, which followed in The Gate tradition of novel adaptation, ‘from page to stage’. And there was a twist. The seats were taken out; there was a cocktail bar in the auditorium. It was like going to a party in Gatsby’s mansion. This was right up Roe’s street, as an actor with experience in improvisation, “It was a challenge and challenges are great.” Did he feel he’d witnessed the evolution of the theatre under Cartmell? “Definitely. She literally took the seats out and changed the face of the theatre for eleven weeks… a very significant gesture.”

Camille O’Sullivan, Owen Roe & Nancy -image courtesy of Clare Keogh

But these big changes won’t leave the old loyal audience behind. “Without upsetting them and saying this is not for you anymore, they’re saying this is still for you, we’re trying something different.”

Award-winning theatre director Oonagh Murphy is another big player in the new Gate programmes. She directed Tribes by Nina Raine in 2017 and Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children in 2019. “We’re witnessing a sort of a shuffle that means new voices and new aesthetics are coming through,” she says about Ireland’s changing theatre scene. With The Gate, “there’s this massive history there and working there you’re aware of that history, so many amazing artists have worked there. It has a sense of its own narrative as a building.”

“I think what Selina’s done … is to acknowledge that tradition but find the way the work speaks to that history, as well as introducing new voices, and I will be one of them.”

It’s about that intersection where it can be work that’s made to a high standard, but still has a real integrity and real politics to it

Murphy worked in London for several years and now sees The Gate as a place of enormous possibility. “There’s a sense of being able to maybe direct plays that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do in other venues in Ireland.” It also attracts big talent. “You don’t have to ask twice to ask someone to work on a show in the Gate.”

Image courtesy of The Gate Theatre

Murphy sees herself fitting into the new programme at the “intersection between the canon and a contemporary world view. It’s about that intersection where it can be work that’s made to a high standard with amazing production values, and commercial success, but still has a real integrity and real politics to it…a sense of saying something about the world while also getting the bums on seats.”

Murphy believes it’s important for the Gate to acknowledge the community that the theatre building sits within. “That’s the kind of work I’m interested in making as well but how do you acknowledge that, yes, this is a beautiful, very grand Georgian building but it sits right within the centre of north Dublin city and just to start to hear the voices of people that you traditionally hear in that area, and the voices of different ethnicities. I think we’re at the beginning of something potentially really radical in that sense.”

Visit GateTheatre.ie for full listings and more.

Catherine Conroy is a Dublin writer, regularly contributing to The Irish Times, and dabbling in fiction in The Dublin Review. Her novel continues to wait patiently in a drawer.

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