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Recently, I was looking up some upcoming live theatre performances on the historic Abbey Theatre’s website. And that was when I discovered the Abbey’s best-kept secret – they conduct backstage tours for a quarter of the price of their shows. I booked a ticket without second thought, and I’m glad I did.
The guide was a jovial and knowledgeable man. He started out by saying that in the past, imperialists had unpleasant misconceptions of the Irish, and the Irish shattered these stereotypes through various means. He said that Ireland isn’t all about its famous pubs; it is steeped in a history of culture, political uprising, human rights and literary movements. It underwent significant struggle before emerging a free country. What followed was a fascinating history lesson.
In 1904, Lady Augusta Gregory and the famed William Butler Yeats set up the Abbey Theatre, which now stands on Lower Abbey Street. Here, local actors could showcase their talents freely and dispel disdainful notions in what was then a suppressed world of imperialism. The guide told us that one of the plays staged in the initial years of the Abbey (Kathleen Ni Houlihan) was the story of an old lady who beseeches a young man on his wedding day to fight on her behalf for her 4 stolen tracts of land. The symbolism is poignant – the old lady represented Ireland and the 4 tracts of land, Ireland’s four provinces. Another inspiring story was of an actor who stepped out of the theatre to participate in the 1916 Easter Rising as soon as his show was done.
Even the auditoriums have a history of their own. “In the past, there were expensive leather seats in the front and long wooden benches to the back,” my guide shared. Today, everyone gets to sit on a plush red seat. Don’t miss standing on the stage; you can proudly declare you stood on the stage of the Abbey!
It cannot be a backstage tour without a visit to the backstage itself. It is an extremely busy place with racks of costumes, props and sound machines everywhere. Staff are always on their toes, scurrying hither and thither with handfuls of paraphernalia. It is an organised mess that is wonderful to observe. You will also visit a tiny makeup room filled with pots, tubes and wigs. If you meet a makeup artist, you can ask all your questions about how the actors are adorned before showtime and they are more than happy to answer them.
If you are a theatre lover, this tour is for you. Afterwards, you can enjoy refreshments at the Peacock Café. I won’t give the game away and tell you everything, but I guarantee that your perspective of live theatre will change. It also will leave you with great appreciation for the resilience of the people of the Abbey against tribulations to make it the place it is today.
I bid you adieu with a memorable quote from my guide – “Even if I didn’t like the show, I always give a standing ovation because I know how much work goes into it.”
Mallika Venkatramani – Arts & Lifestyle Editor