Yes, we occasionally do high-brow stuff here as well. I had the great joy of taking the better half to a performance of Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet at the Grand Canal Theatre last night. It’s the first show to perform at Dublin’s newest and largest theatre venue and it was a great opening for the 2,100-capacity location. I’m still more than a little skeptical about the venue’s longterm prospects – is Dublin large enough to sustain a theatre of that size? – but there’s no denying it is simply jaw-dropping.
I’ll talk about the performance in a little while. It is the Russian State Ballet, so you know what you’re getting. These guys (and gals) are the most talented people in their field, so I don’t think anyone left disappointed. But the really interesting part for me last night was the theatre itself. It is simply amazing. It’s like a classier version of the Hub is really the best way to describe it.
It’s odd coming into the theatre, because the front of the building opens on to the canal. That means if you are coming from the city centre (as I imagine most would be), you’ll come upon the back of the building first. In fairness, there’s a lot of construction going on on the docks, so maybe it will be more accessible soon, but we had to circle around the outside of the theatre to reach the front. If you are attending a show, I would humbly suggest an evening performance. The front of the theatre is a neon paradise at night.
The little blocks to either side have a beautiful green glow, as if marking some concrete bushes and poles with red neon tips jut out of the ground like metallic trees. This view opens out on to the Grand Canal, and it’s absolutely stunning. I adore the Abbey and the Gate as much as the next guy, but this is very much the way that the outside of a state theatre should look – it reminds me of the care and attention typically shown for such institutions on the continent. There’s almost a zen feeling to the area, which is not something you can find at the top of O’Connell Street or half-way down Abbey Street.
Inside it is more of a distinctly Irish affair. The bar area is the lobby, there’s no cavernous rooms or archways for intermission conversation like one would find in L’Opera or the Vienna State Opera. There’s just one giant room in front of the theatre, with bars and tables lined up. There’s nothing resembling the pleasant aesthetics of the National Concert Hall, for example. And it is a shame – venues of a similar sive internationally can create that sort of effect, the impression that this institution is inherently classy rather than simply functional when attempting to wring the pennies from your pockets.
The theatre itself is lovely. It’s absolutely massive. We were able to get our hands on relatively decent seats and had a good view. It seems like wherever you sit in the auditorium you can see the stage, which is really point. It’s great. And the auditorium feels classy – it just does. It’s newer and shinier, but it feels like a suped-up version of the Gate, leaving the Abbey far behind. All in all, it’s a wonderful establishment and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again. I feel like I’m being unduly mean towards the Abbey, which is a fine institution, but this is what a European country’s national theatre should look like. You could make some improvements towards facilities available at the interval (it feels awkward to essentially drink in the lobby), but the theatre itself is… wow. Impressive.
And yet I remain skeptical. Simply because I’m not sure we can support it. The Theatre is relatively remote, the most obvious way of getting to it from the “shopping district” is to follow Pearse Street, which is a solid twenty-minute walk from the city centre. It’s a shame it isn’t on a Luas or DART line, but maybe Dublin Bus will make it easily accessible. Even ignoring the tourist factor, do we love theatre enough to basically fill two thousand more seats on a nightly basis? I guess we’ll see. Truth be told, if The Lion King comes to the Grand Canal, my family will be first in line. The opening lineup for the theatre is certainly strong and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become a breakout success, but maybe I’m far too old and jaded at this stage. A lot of that will depend on keeping the promise the institution has sold itself on – theatre for regular people. That means keeping ticket prices low and accessible, which is a problem in Dublin (arguably no more so than internationally). Sufficed to say that the tickets for last night’s show weren’t exactly in the ‘most affordable’ bracket, but it was the Russian State Ballet.
The show itself was impressive. The last (and only) time I’ve attended a ballet was on a trip to Paris with my significant other years ago. It is absolutely astounding what the performers can do. And everyone knows the music to Swan Lake, even if you don’t realise it (like I didn’t). There’s a reason Tchaikovsky has endured so well. The music is worth the trip itself, let alone accompanied with the dancers.
The show is a show – it’s fantastic spectacle. The set design is lavish – it won’t blow your mind, but it looks great. Maybe the lighting goes a little wild at the end, but the staging for the second and fourth scenes (the ones at the eponymous lake) is absolutely brilliant. I’d forgotten how form-fitting some of the tights were. It’s like they just painted the bottom half of a eunich.
It’s perhaps a waste of time to rant and rave about the abilities of the dancers. I’m not versed enough to describe their moves in anything more eloquent than “the one leg perpendicular L-shaped thing where they spin” or “that iconic one leg up to form a Y-shaped thing”. And both of those were executed flawlessly.
My only minor complaint about the performance was that at several points during the night I could hear the performers’ feet movements more clearly than I could hear the orchestra in the pit. It was a little bit distracting. But then doctors differ and patients die, as my companion actually quite enjoyed that aspect – in a way we were hearing the sound of rhythmic perfection.
All in all, a great night and a great opening show (we didn’t quite make opening night, which was the Thursday show). It was great to be there. And hopefully I’ll see more of the theatre in months to come.