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BWW Features: Irish Success Stories at the Tony Awards

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When it comes to Irish theatre and the Tony Awards, the distance is never great.

After the establishment of the awards in 1947 to celebrate the best of Broadway, the first major leeway for Irish theatre was made by legendary actress Siobhán McKenna, who was nominated for best dramatic actress in 1956 for her performance in Enid Bagnold's high comic The Chalk Garden and again in 1958 for Morton Wishengrad's Nietzschean drama The Rope Dancers. Meanwhile, her hypnotic performance in her own adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan in 1956 went criminally overlooked (pictured above).

In 1960, the New York Times reported that the city was "violently aware of the arrival of a bawdy, iconoclastic, ex-Irish revolutionary, ballad-singing, jig-dancing, stocky, rumpled, wild-haired, thirty-seven-year-old Dublin playwright named Brendan Behan". Behan's music hall-play The Hostage was nominated for best play and for Joan Littlewood's direction the following year.

Indeed, the 1960s could be characterised by the race between Irish companies to see who would be the first to take that gold oval trophy. In 1966, Brian Friel's emigration drama Philadelphia, Here I Come!, a transfer of the Gate Theatre's production that played during the 1964 Dublin Theatre Festival, was looking to be a sure victor. There was a joint-nomination for Donal Donnelly and Patrick Bedford playing Gar Private and Gar Public respectively, as well as a nod for best play and for Hilton Edwards's direction. Despite six nominations overall, there were no wins.

The Gate tried their luck again, bringing to New York their production of Friel's two-part drama Lovers - Winners and Losers. In 1969 there were nominations in several categories, including best actress in a featured role for Anna Manahan. It wasn't to be her last time on Broadway.

Around that time, the Abbey Theatre director Tomás Mac Anna found a fitting tribute to Brendan Behan (who died in 1964) in bringing his autobiographical novel Borstal Boy to the stage, adapted by Frank McMahon. 1970 marked a historic year for the Irish at the Tonys, having finally won gold with best play for Behan, best direction for Mac Anna, and best leading performance by Frank Grimes.

There were no signs of slowing down. In 1974, Joycean actor Fionnula Flanagan, no stranger to Broadway after performing in Lovers in 1969, was nominated for her featured role in Marjorie Barkentine's Ulysses in Nighttown. The same year, four nominations were given to the play The Au Pair Man by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard.

Rather, it was Leonard's largely autobiographical Dublin comedy Da that would sweep the boards, winning best play, director, actor and actor in a featured role at the 1978 awards. In 1981, his follow-up, A Life, won nominations in the same categories.

The 1980s were not as eventful, mostly seeing recognition for Irish artists who were working outside Ireland. In 1985, Sinéad Cusack's lauded turn as Beatrice in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Much Ado About Nothing earned a nomination. Cork-born designer Bob Crowley, who mostly worked in England, received a nod in 1987 for his costumes and set in an adaptation of the French novel les liaisons dangereuses. After taking his first trophy in 1994 for a revival of the musical Carousel he went on to become a regular contender at the awards (most recently winning for his design in John Tiffany's staging of Once in 2012).

For designers working in Ireland, the first breakthrough came in 1992, with Joe Vanek's nominations in both the best costume and best scenic design categories for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Abbey's production of Friel's dance ritual-play conquered the best actress in a featured role category with three nominations, naming Brid Brennan as the winner, and the first female Irish actor to claim victory at the awards. Patrick Mason also won for best director, and Friel won for best play.

The following year, Frank McGuinness's hostage drama Someone Who'll Watch Over Me was nominated for best play, losing out to Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Stephen Rea's performance in McGuinness's play made the shortlist, as well as that of fellow Irish actor Liam Neeson, who played the plummeting seaman Mat Burke in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie.

A watershed moment for both Irish theatre and the Tony awards came in 1998. Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's debut play The Beauty Queen of Leenanne dominated the awards with a stunning production by Druid Theatre Company . Almost 30 years after her Broadway debut in Lovers, Anna Manahan took the best actress in a featured role award for her monstrous portrayal of the drama's matriarch, while Marie Mullen's dark, electric and sensitive turn took the coveted best actress award. Tom Murphy's performance as a comically discontented young man won best actor in a featured role, with co-star Brían F. O'Byrne nominated in the same category. McDonagh won for best play, launching his career in the best way possible (Druid's production of The Lonesome West was up for best play the following year).

Additionally, Druid director Garry Hynes broke down another barrier, not just for Irish theatre but also for women, being the first female director to win at the awards. Hynes, who previously that decade was sick to death of being referred to as the first woman appointed as artistic director of the Abbey (the reporters had clearly forgotten about Lady Gregory), might have appreciated the deflation of such an occasion when only a few minutes later Julie Taymor won best director of a musical with The Lion King.

The next few years saw an invasion of Irish actor nominees at the Tonys: Gabriel Byrne for best actor in 2000 for Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten; Fiona Shaw for best actress in 2003 for the Abbey Theatre's production of Medea, directed by Deborah Warner, losing to Vanessa Redgrave for her performance in Long Days Journey Into Night. Brían F. O'Byrne eventually took gold in 2004 for his featured role in Bryony Lavery's Frozen, beating Aiden Gillen who was up for his performance in Harold Pinter's The Caretaker.

Martin McDonagh saw continued success throughout the decade. The National Theatre's production of The Pillowman in 2005 was nominated for best play, with the Atlantic Theatre Company's The Lieutenant of Inishmore nominated in the same category the next year.

In fact, the 2006 Tonys were besieged by more Irish acts than ever. The Lieutenant of Inishmore chalked up five nominations, and Conor McPherson's Shining City got nods for best play and best actor. The only production that managed to crack a victory was the Gate Theatre's revival of Brian Friel's Faith Healer, which conjured one win out of its three nominations, that for Ian McDiarmid's sadly comic turn as the industrious manager Teddy.

McPherson was nominated again in 2008 for his Faustian drama The Seafarer, for which Irish actor Jim Norton won best actor in a featured role. That same year, Sinéad Cusack got a nod for best actress in a featured role in the Royal Court Theatre's production of Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard.

For a country that has an almost absent tradition of musical theatre, it was unprecedented that an Irish act would clear out the awards in that genre. In 2012, Once - John Carney's indie movie with music by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, now grown into a Broadway show by director John Tiffany, playwright Enda Walsh and designer Bob Crowley - collected best musical, book, actor, scenic design, lighting, sound and direction.

Most recently, novelist Colm Tóibín made a break for the best play award, nominated in 2013 for his scriptural The Testament of Mary, which also got a nod for Mel Mercier's sound design. Last year Chris O'Dowd was a contender in the best actor category for his role in the stage adaptation of Of Mice and Men, while Sarah Greene's fiery performance in The Cripple of Inishmaan was also nominated.

In fact, the next development in Irish theatre's involvement with the Tony Awards may see an increasing reversal in direction; instead of Irish acts laying siege to Broadway, our theatre houses may now draw Broadway to us. With the availability of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre to house large-scale touring productions, last night's Tony-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is spearheaded as a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival in October.


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From This Author Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a theatre critic based in Dublin. He blogs on MusingsInIntermissions.blogspot.ie and writes for A Younger Theatre, Irish Theatre Magazine and the Arts (read more...)