After a light-hearted and poignant few minutes on the couch with his old friend, the actor Michael Gambon, Michael Colgan turned to the Late Late Show audience and delivered one of his final plugs as Artistic Director of Dublin's Gate Theatre, a role which he leaves on April Fool’s Day after thirty-three years in charge.
Whatever way you look at it, three decades is some stint. And while publicity was Colgan's forte, his legacy is rooted in the relationships he forged with three avant-garde giants of European playwriting as Colgan once again showcases the plays of Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Brian Friel over thirty performances of somewhat lesser-known works.
“These are my three heroes,” Colgan recently told RTÉ’s Sean O’Rourke. “And these men were extraordinary men that were text- driven. They loved text. Part of the reason I’m leaving the theatre, I suppose, is because there has been a move away from that… You wouldn’t move a comma in Pinter, Friel or indeed Beckett’s work.”
It is this reverence for the well-made play, and the artists who made them, which has served him so well – Michael Colgan was the master facilitator.
“They were my heroes. I worked with them. I knew them. I did festivals of their work… So over three weeks, I’m going to do six plays by those men. Three authors, two plays from each.
“The good news is that all of the plays are under an hour… My favourite quote, which is my own, is that no play, and no speech, was ever too short. So they are all bijou gems…
“In week one you will get Beckett and Pinter. In week two, you’ll get Beckett and Friel. In week three you will get Pinter and Friel.”
Michael Colgan took over the Gate with the sort of braggadocio that would become his trademark.
The story goes, after Michael MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards’ time was up, the Gate board and the Arts Council put together a succession plan that would see four directors – Patrick Mason, Sean McCarthy, Garry Hynes and Pat Laffan – programme three months each over the course of a year. Colgan, upon hearing the plan from Michael Scott and Pat Laffan, ridiculed it saying it would never work and it would lead to a power struggle whereby the theatre would suffer.
Soon after, Colgan was offered a coordinator role overseeing the plan; instead of accepting, he rather boldly demanded full control of the theatre, which, to his surprise, he was given. His moxie had landed him the top job all on his own.
Following some ‘What-was-I-thinking!’ panic, he set about doing what he has so skillfully done since then, which is to coax and convince the right people to come work with him at The Gate.
He made Joe Dowling the Artistic Director, and embarked on a promotional drive where he promised to sell out the first hundred nights. He delivered on this and since then he has marshaled the theatre through the ups and downs, the recessions and multiple changes in taste while still managing to programme with a considerable degree of artistic integrity.
The finest example of this was his 1991 Beckett festival where he put on all 19 of Beckett’s plays at once at The Gate. Hard to consider now, but at the time it did plenty to restore Beckett’s reputation at home.
The one major blotch on his copy is his record on female playwrights and directors, once again in evidence with this current festival as all the plays are written by men - dead white men, at that - with all of the productions directed by men, too.
He has somehow managed to escape the ire of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which focused mostly on the National Theatre’s programme.
Listen: Michael Colgan talks to Marty Whelan
Colgan believes that he is exiting stage left at a time when theatre, at least as he knew it, has changed.
“There is nothing wrong with shifts. But in the last ten years there has been a definite shift against what I’m about, which is doing a play, a classical play in a classical way.
“I don’t want to do this new concept theatre that is running all over the place. I’m not able to change. I don’t want to reinvent myself. I want to do the plays of Friel and [Arthur] Miller. I want to do those as they were written. I don’t want to do Hedda Gabbler and she turns up as Spider-Woman or something. I have no interest in that.
“This new wave is called theatre-making. It is concept theatre; it hasn’t got a huge respect for text. It is very legitimate and very good and I don’t know how long it will last. Certainly in my lifetime I have seen mega-trends, and this has been the most detrimental.
“Younger people are going to different venues; they’re going to different shows that are shorter. They are going to shows that are made in a way that the director is also the writer and producer and so forth. And they are hurtling towards the ephemeral…
“I suppose the younger generation are less obedient than we were…. What would characterise my time is that I would be particularly obedient to every comma and every utterance written by Pinter and written by Arthur Miller and Beckett and indeed, the master Mr. Friel.
“I don’t want to put Endgame on and set it in an abattoir, you know.”
This final festival consists of thirty performances of six plays, plus a programme of prose and poetry readings from friends of Colgan and the Gate, including Ralph Fiennes, Penelope Wilton, Fiona Bell and Liam Cunningham amongst others, who are all here to mark the end of an era.