Fíbín: Back to the Future?

Author: Fíbín, introduced by Brian Ó Conchubhair

Founded in 2003, Fíbín came to national prominence in December 2011 when Sétanta, written by Paul Mercier of Passion Machine (Studs, Lipservice, Tupperware, Aifric), was staged to critical acclaim and popular praise on the Peacock Stage at the Abbey Theatre. It surprised few when Mercier received the BBC Irish Language Award at the 2012 Stewart Parker Trust Awards for the production. Mercier’s involvement in refashioning Irish material followed from his success with Diarmuid and Gráinne in 2001; Sétanta re-imagined the canonical Irish myth for the twenty-first-century replete with contemporary references. Typical of Fíbín’s productions, Sétanta was innovative, theatrical, exceedingly visual, and chock-full of masks and puppets. With a cast of five actors playing fifty characters with accompanying masks, non-stop music, and images, the action of the hour-and-ten-minute production was relentless, the pace unrelenting. It was Fíbín by name and nature.

The play’s, and Fíbín’s, success to date rests as much on its sustained quality as associated qualities: like midcentury, Irish-language pantomimes, their productions can be appreciated by fluent Irish-speakers who understand every word as well as those who understand some, but not all, of the dialogue. Equally critical to their success are non-linguistic visual and aural elements that, crucially, don’t exclude non-fluent speakers. As Ruth Kennedy wrote in Irish Theatre Magazine, the Sétanta production was so: “unapologetically physical, that the question of language seems redundant; the language of the play is beautiful, but the fact that it is Irish rather than English is hardly worth commenting on.”[1] Yet, this appeal to the non-linguistic elements of theater was no sudden break through. Rather, it is the latest manifestation of a linguistic reality facing Irish-language theater groups seeking a wider audience and broader appeal.

Based in Galway, Fíbín’s stated artistic mission is to promote the Irish language through an imaginative and eclectic blend of music, puppetry, and masks. Founder Darach Ó Tuairisg—formerly ‘Liam Ó Conghaile’ in TG4’s Ros na Rún and known to international language students from Turas Teanga (2004)—noted in a recent interview: “Our work just happens to be as Gaeilge. The ethos of the company is that we understand that not everybody can speak Irish and obviously then you have the issue of dialects—Munster Irish is very different from Donegal Irish and Leinster Irish is different again.”[2]  In their efforts to transcend cultural and linguistic barriers and overcome attitudinal barricades, Fíbín harnesses boundless energy and embraces puppets, masks, visuals, and music to bring stories to life. While reviewers and commentators often present this aspect as a radical new departure, it is, perhaps, less innovative and more inherited than is often perceived. Such an approach to theater in many ways recognizes the popularity of Irish-language pantomimes from the 1930s through the 1950s and the successful use of masks by Na Fánaithe in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Founded in Galway city in 1987, Na Fánaithe tailored their early productions to student audiences in summer colleges and later toured other Gaeltachtaí. Victoria Whyte recalled that Na Fánaithe’s production of Bullaí Mhártain “relied on strong characterisation and intense physicality to put across its message. The director was obviously used to using a language which the audience would not all understand.”[3] If Na Fánaithe’s finest moment was their outstanding production of Lorca’s Yerma, directed by (now Senator) Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, in Barcelona, Fíbín is no less ambitious or cosmopolitan: they have toured and performed in Africa, New York, Wales, Norway, and Scotland. Other Fíbín productions include Cearrabhach Mac Cába / The Gambler McCabe—a puppetry/music drama based on an Irish folk-tale—and An Triail, Máiréad Ní Ghráda's 1964 drama that is now a fixture on the Leaving Certificate curriculum. In keeping with their dedicated style, Fíbín has employed puppets, masks, and music to engage their teenage, school-aged audience. European advocates may see Fíbín’s international links and collaborations as a natural result of Ireland’s participation in the EU: indigenous art and local artists merging and collaborating within a European framework.

In 2013 Fíbín marked its tenth birthday with Stair na gCeilteach / History of the Celts. Innovative as ever and intent on pushing boundaries, this video-mapping performance was a co-production with Improbable Films from Madrid, Spain. Directed by Rod Goodall, this outdoor video-mapping spectacle, in which moving images were projected onto the outdoor surfaces, told the Celts’ history from the perspective of the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix—celebrating his 3000th birthday—in a quarry in Camus, Connemara. Incorporating music by the choir Cois Cladaigh and the soloist Sarah Grealish, it continued Fíbín’s retelling and refashioning of the past through technology in efforts that use, but do not rely solely on, Irish. With some thirty-one productions to their credit, there is no denying Fíbín is the most exciting and innovative theater company operating through the medium of Irish today. With their emphasis on spectacle and theatrics, they bring Irish, both linguistically and culturally, to new audiences in an unashamed, unreserved, unabashed manner. It seems ironic, however, that it is Fíbín—the new kid on the block—that best exemplifies the surreal appearance that Mícheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards envisioned when they established An Taibhdhearc in Galway in 1928. Currently, they have identified a niche that is proving successful and rewarding. Among the challenges facing them is whether to continue with high-energy spectacle storytelling or to venture more into traditional realist drama, which is less amenable to their style and performativity.

[1] Ruth Kennedy, review of Sétanta, by Paul Mercier, directed by Paul Mercier, Fibín, Irish Theatre Magazine, December 6, 2013, http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/reviews/current/setanta.

[2] “An Interview with Fíbín  | Sétanta,” by Lauren O’Toole, entertainment.ie, November 24, 2011, http://entertainment.ie/theatre/feature/An-Interview-with-Fibin-Setanta/210/2045.htm.

[3] Victoria White, “Fiche Bliain ag Fás,” Irish Theatre Magazine, September 15, 2010, http://www.irishtheatremagazine.ie/Features/Current/Finding-a-theatrical-language-for-Irish-theatre


Questions for consideration:

The introduction brings up the longstanding idea of a cleavage in Irish theater, with "old style" realism on one side and "high energy spectacle" on the other. Debates about realism versus experimentation or expressionism have marked Irish theater from at least the 1920s and the founding of the Gate Theatre, with realism always seeming to be dominant. With the work of ANU, Pan Pan, and other companies receiving so much attention of late, are we now seeing a shift? Or is it just an "Academics Only" change of interest or a push to find something new? Keeping in mind some of the other contributions (including Susan Cannon Harris's piece on McPherson's "supernaturalism"), should we be asking if the division between "traditional" and "spectacle" is a valid one anyway?


Several of the articles in this issue have been concerned with the transportability of the “Irish” in “Irish Contemporary Drama,” with the influence of Patrick Lonergan’s notion of “brand” Ireland  strongly felt. How does transportability and “brand” translate, so to speak, with Fíbín, an Irish-language company that tours internationally? Certainly the visual element does a lot of the work of translation; but what will the effect be, for example, as the company begins to address Ireland’s recent economic downturn—as they claim in the closing moments of the video—for those international audiences?