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GB. ENGLAND. Buckinghamshire. British playwright Tom STOPPARD. 1977.

(Gaby Wood’s article appeared in the March 2021 issue of  the Atlantic; via Pam Green.)

For Britain’s leading postwar playwright, virtuosity and uncertainty go hand in hand.


Updated at 11:33 a.m. ET on February 8, 2021.

This article was published online on February 7, 2021.

In a short book about biography, Hermione Lee, literary life-writer par excellence, offered two metaphors for the art at which she excels. One was an autopsy. The other was a portrait. “Whereas autopsy suggests clinical investigation and, even, violation,” she wrote, “portrait suggests empathy, bringing to life, capturing the character.” She argued that these contrasting approaches had something in common. They “both make an investigation of the subject which will shape how posterity views them.”

Lee is clearly no coroner, even when writing about the dead. Tom Stoppard is her first living biographical subject—on a roster that includes Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, and, most recently, Penelope Fitzgerald—and she concludes her portrait by lobbying posterity on his behalf. Stoppard “matters,” she writes; “he will be remembered.” His significance seems a strange thing to feel in need of proving. Surely if Stoppard’s reputation in postwar British theater weren’t secure, this giant biography—nearly twice the length of Lee’s last—would never have been undertaken.

Stoppard is the alchemist who turned Shakespeare into Beckett; he has held audiences rapt at that feat for half a century, and riveted by the work that has followed. “What’s it about?” an audience member once asked him of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to which he allegedly replied: “It’s about to make me very rich.” Since that play premiered, in 1966, Stoppard’s linguistic hijinks and relish for experimenting have seemed too clever to some and thrillingly ambitious to others. The dichotomy was perhaps inevitable, given the scope of his intellectual appetite: He has fused philosophers with acrobats (Jumpers) and dissidents with footballers (Professional Foul), devised poetic plots from the laws of physics (Arcadia), and rewritten 19th- and 20th-century history until it was antic or aslant (Travesties, The Coast of Utopia). But his virtuosity has been more than gymnastics. The restless author of more than 20 plays for the stage, as many for radio and TV, and several Hollywood screenplays, he has spun more serious ideas into silly jokes than Charlie Chaplin and Richard Feynman combined. He has also said as much about literature and love as Ivan Turgenev.

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(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/2; Photo: Backstage secrets … Catherine Deneuve in The Last Metro. Photograph: APL Archive/Alamy.)

Our series on films about the stage continues with the 1980 classic about a playhouse in occupied Paris, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. 

The directors of the French New Wave are rightly remembered as passionate cinephiles: several of them wrote film criticism and their movies frequently pay loving homage, directly and indirectly, to other movies. In François Truffaut’s first feature, The 400 Blows (1959), his young hero is compelled to steal a still of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer With Monika from a cinema display. With Day for Night (1973), Truffaut created one of the greatest films about film-making – with himself, of course, starring as the director.

The importance of the stage to the Nouvelle Vague is less well documented. Later in this series I’ll look at how Jacques Rivette repeatedly used a theatrical backdrop in his films. But this week I’ve chosen Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), which was the second in a planned entertainment trilogy that opened with Day for Night and was to conclude with a film about music hall that never materialised.

The title of The Last Metro refers to the wartime curfew in occupied Paris, where theatres remained open but audiences had to rush home after the show. The second world war saw a boom in theatregoing; 800,000 people went to the theatre in one month alone in Paris in 1942, the year in which the film is set. This was not just about escapism. The prologue tells us that Parisians flocked to the theatre “for warmth” – literally so, in the cold winter of that year with fuel scarce and queues for food.

But Truffaut’s film also emphasises theatre’s potential to stoke emotional warmth, whether it’s an audience’s shared experience or, despite their bickering, the coming-together of cast and creatives putting on the show. Against the perpetual atmosphere of dread, distrust and suspicion fostered by the occupation, the illuminated stage is shown to be a refuge from the bitter streets. Watching the film again, I was reminded of how in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire local theatres such as the Gate and the Playground in west London stressed that their doors were open for those who needed a safe space for reflection.

The Last Metro revolves around a Montmartre theatre that we are shown from top to bottom: the offices where lead actor Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve, in a part written for her) looks after business; the quarters of the concierge who can be seen washing her son’s hair after a German soldier pats him on the head; the stage door where actor Bernard Granger (Gérard Depardieu) arrives from the Grand Guignol to star opposite Marion; and the bowels of the building where Marion’s Jewish husband, theatre director Lucas (Heinz Bennent), secretly lives in hiding from the Nazis. While she plots his escape from Paris, he is to direct her new production by proxy, listening into rehearsals on the stage above.

That production, ironically entitled Disappearance and by no accident exploring fear, secrets and lies, is by a Norwegian playwright. In a wry gag, one of the staff predicts that the critics will pan the translation – even though none of them speak Norwegian. The city’s most feared critic is the odious Daxiat, a wheeler-dealer Nazi collaborator played to perfection by Jean-Louis Richard and based on a real wartime critic. The film repeatedly considers the various roles that its characters play off the stage. Marion must maintain the pretence that her husband has fled the country, and assume a certain manner to deal with Daxiat. Bernard, after attempting to seduce the theatre designer Arlette, is chastised for playing a “banal role – as a man on the prowl” but he is additionally disguising his real-life role as a resistance fighter. And in one stunning coup de theatre, Truffaut tricks the audience into believing that a scene from the play is actually representing the actors’ own lives.

Anyone missing theatre during the Covid lockdown will look longingly at this Montmartre playhouse’s cosy auditorium, its warmth accentuated by red seats, red walls and red curtain. When Lucas sneaks up from the basement overnight, he wants to breathe in the smell of the stage; over the course of the pandemic, I’ve heard many actors talk about missing the same smell.

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(Kedibone Modise’s article appeared in the Johannesburg Cape Times, 2/2; Photos:  Sandra Prinsloo stars in ‘Kamphoer die verhaal van Susan Nell’. Pictures: Key Eye Poetry Photography.)

Lara Foot’s latest hard-hitting drama, “Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell”, is a hit with theatre lovers in and around Joburg.

Currently on at The Market Theatre, “Kamphoer – die verhaal van Susan Nell” is an intense and gripping production, which explores the injustices suffered by women from sexual assault to a violation of their human rights.

The award-winning production stars South African theatre legend Sandra Prinsloo, who brings to life the incredible story of Susan Nell.

Prinsloo puts the spotlight on an unspeakable ordeal Susan endured during the Anglo-Boer War in the Winburg concentration camp.

Following her father’s death during the war, Susan and her mother end up in the concentration camp where she is brutally raped and left for dead by two British officers.

A few years after the terrible ordeal, Susan qualifies as a psychiatric nurse in Europe.

Later, Susan travels to England during World War 1, where she serves at a military hospital for soldiers who are suffering from post-traumatic stress-related illnesses.

It is at the military hospital where Susan encounters one of her rapists and is flooded with memories of the trauma and humiliation of the rape incident.

Is Susan capable of revenge or will she forgive?

That is the question that is answered in this play, which is based on Francois Smit’s debut and best-selling novel as well as Nico Moolman’s non-fiction publication, “The Boer Whore”.

It has been adapted for the stage by Cecilia du Toit, in collaboration with theatres giants Prinsloo and Foot.

In a recent chat with Prinsloo, she said: “ Every character is different and one has to delve deeply into your own psyche to find them.

“Susan Nell, the woman I portray, has probably been one of the most difficult roles I have had to do but also one of my best-loved roles.

“Grappling with a new role is always challenging but working with Lara on adapting the novel into a play was wonderful.

“I learnt so much. But the best part was the rehearsal period, exploring and finding all the nuances of this brave woman.

“There was also a lot of laughter during and after rehearsals and for that, I have to thank two brilliant women: Lara and our stage manager, Jeanne Steenkamp. Working doesn’t get much better than this!”

The themes in the production are aligned with current societal challenges and struggles.

“The play is set in an historic time but that is still so relevant today.

“A play that illustrates how certain things have not changed for women.

“It is a riveting story based on a true-life event and a real person. It is a deeply moving story of a woman’s courage,” Prinsloo revealed.

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The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

[According to theatre practitioner Gordon Craig’s interpretation] in order to lighten the sufferings of his father, it was necessary [for Hamlet] to cleanse the entire court of evil; it was necessary to carry fire and sword throughout the whole kingdom, to destroy the harmful, to repulse the old friends with rotten souls, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; to save those pure of soul like Ophelia from earthly ruin and immure her, safe at last, in a monastery. (MLIA)

(Photo of Gordon Craig)



(Vanessa Thorpe’s article appeared in the Observer, 1/24; Photo: Jack Wild (left) and Mark Lester in the 1968 film version of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!)

Songs from the composer’s doomed show about the Israeli stateswoman will make their debut online

The self-taught musical genius Lionel Bart was the Londoner who first successfully challenged the long-established dominance of Broadway shows. When he launched Oliver! on the West End in 1960 it took first Britain and then America by storm, breaking records and becoming a classic of musical theatre and then a beloved film. But Bart never reached such commercial heights again, despite his talent.

Now music from the lost show once set to relaunch Bart’s career as he struggled with ill health and debt is to be performed for the public for the first time.

Next month Dame Maureen Lipman will sing one of the songs Bart wrote with his collaborator, Roger Cook, for a musical the two composed in the mid-1970s about the extraordinary life of Golda Meir, the Israeli stateswoman and prime minister. The song’s debut performance is to be staged online as part of Jewish Music Institute’s upcoming World Tour of Jewish Music, and it comes as Cook makes a fresh attempt to finally bring the full musical into theatrical production.

Bart and Cook’s show, Next Year in Jerusalem, is billed as a kind of precursor to Evita, the Andrew Lloyd Webber show that shares its themes of political ambition and power.

“Hers is an extraordinary story. Meir went from pogroms in Minsk, out to Milwaukee and then to Palestine and the songs and lyrics are as good as anything Lionel ever did,” said Cook, 80, himself the composer of a string of hits, including I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).

Speaking from his home in Nashville, Tennessee, Cook said that he believed the time was now right to let the world see and hear the musical once theatres can reopen. “I wish Lionel was alive and kicking, as he would be crazy proud that finally after all these years this lost musical is going to be heard and have a life,” he said.

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(via John Wyszniewski, Everyman Agency)

Music Icon Sting and Actors Paul Sparks and Eden Malyn Join Sixth Edition

Previously Announced Participants Include Dylan Baker, Christopher Abbott, Deirdre O’Connell, Emily Kuroda, Michael Chernus, and More in New Works by David Lindsay-Abaire, Lucy Thurber, Adam Rapp, Sharon Bridgforth, Bekah Brunstetter, Ren Dara Santiago, Among Others, with Guest Directors including Caitriona McLaughlin, Taylor Reynolds, Danya Taymor, Paul Mullins, and Special Guest Amanda Seyfried

The Homebound Project is pleased to announce that it will return on January 27–31 with its sixth edition. Music icon Sting and actors Paul Sparks and Eden Malyn join the previously announced team of actors, playwrights, and directors. Co-creators Catya McMullen and Jenna Worsham, along with their all-volunteer team, are also pleased to announce that this online theater initiative brought together 137 artists, premiered 56 new theater works, and raised over $150,000 in 2020 for No Kid Hungry, a national campaign working to end childhood hunger.

The Homebound Project is an independent online theater initiative created to help feed hungry children affected by the coronavirus pandemic. All donations made to access the show go directly to No Kid Hungry to support these efforts. Each edition features a collection of new theater works written by homebound playwrights and recorded by sheltering actors. The playwrights in this special edition of The Homebound Project have been given the prompt of: “2021.” Participating actors, playwrights, and directors include:

Christopher Abbott and Deirdre O’Connell in a work by Lucy Thurber, directed by Caitriona McLaughlin;
Dylan Baker and Becky Ann Baker in a work by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Paul Mullins;

Jojo Brown in a work by Cece Suazo, directed by Jenna Worsham;

Michael Chernus in a work by Adam Rapp;

Dalia Davi in a work by Ren Dara Santiago, directed by Jenna Worsham;

Nicholas Gorham in a work by Brian Otaño, directed by Tatiana Pandiani;

Emily Kuroda in a work by Kate Cortesi, directed by Jenna Worsham;

Eden Malyn and Catya McMullen in a work by McMullen;

Carolyn Ratteray in a work by Bekah Brunstetter;

Stacey Karen Robinson in a work by Sharon Bridgforth;

Paul Sparks in work by Brian Watkins, directed by Danya Taymor;

Babak Tafti in a work by Colette Robert, directed by Taylor Reynolds;

Daigi-Ann Thompson in a work by Julissa Contreras;
Special guest appearance by Amanda Seyfried; and

Musical performance by special guest artist Sting.

The sixth edition of The Homebound Project will stream online beginning at 7pm EST on Wednesday, January 27, until 7pm EST on Sunday, January 31. View-at-home tickets are currently on sale at and begin at a donation level of $10. Complimentary viewings for first responders and essential workers have been made possible by an anonymous donor. Each collection from this independent theater initiative is available to stream over a strictly limited 4-day period.

The Homebound Project features costume consultation by Andy Jean, original music and sound design by Fan Zhang, and video editing and design by Milan Misko

“The child hunger crisis needs our attention at this critical and traumatic national moment,” says co-creator Jenna Worsham. “We are very grateful for the exquisite work of our volunteer artists and generous support from audiences around the world. In light of the virus’ surge and continuing crisis, the Homebound Project staff felt strongly that our shared mission to help those most vulnerable should continue.”

“Children are living through a devastating hunger crisis in our country,” said Tom Nelson, president and CEO of Share Our Strength, the nonprofit behind the No Kid Hungry campaign. “We’re truly grateful to The Homebound Project team for stepping up again to help feed the 1 in 4 kids who may be facing hunger right now. Actor, producer, viewer or otherwise, it’s going to take all of us to get these children the food they need.”

“As the pandemic continues, children from Manhattan to Maui and everywhere in between are struggling,” said Rachel Sabella, director of No Kid Hungry in New York. “From helping schools purchase food supplies and PPE to fueling national and state policy wins, the incredibly generous donations made through The Homebound Project are truly helping ensure more kids can eat.”

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(Christopher Mims’s article appeared in the Wall Street Journal, 1/23; Photo from The Wall Street Journal; via the Drudge Report.)  

A century after playwright Karel Čapek coined the word ‘robot,’ we finally have the technology to make the stuff of science fiction a reality—for better and for worse

On Jan. 25, 1921, Karel Čapek’s play “R.U.R.”—short for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”—premiered in Prague. It was a sensation. Within two years it had been translated into 30 languages, including English, to which it introduced the word “robot.” Čapek’s vision of unwilling slaves of humnity destined to rise up and destroy their makers has shaped our view of both automation and ourselves ever since.

In a century-long dialogue between inventors of fictional and actual robots, engineers have for the most part been forced to play catch-up, either realizing or subverting the vision of robots first expounded in books, movies and television.

Now, the reality of robots is in some areas running ahead of fiction, even ahead of what those who study robots for a living are able to keep track of.

Heather Knight is an engineer, “social roboticist” and one of 13 core faculty in Oregon State University’s robotics program. One day in late October, she was shocked to find the campus crawling with a fleet of autonomous, six-wheeled vehicles made by Starship Robotics. The San Francisco-based company had contracted with the campus dining service to provide contactless delivery.

“We’re at the point where not even the people in robotics know there are going to be robots on campus,” she adds.

This new visibility of robots—now in storeshotels and health-care facilities, as well as on our streets and above our heads—is an indicator of their evolving nature. It’s also the outward sign of a watershed moment.

In 2019, 373,000 industrial robots were sold and put into use, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a not-for-profit industry organization that conducts an annual, global robot census based on vendor data. That number has grown about 11% a year since 2014, to a total of 2.7 million industrial robots in use world-wide. Industrial robots—descendants of the Unimate robot arm first installed at a General Motors factory in 1961—are the kind common in manufacturing, performing tasks like welding, painting and assembly. They work hard, but they’re not very smart.

Also in 2019, 173,000 “professional service robots” were sold and installed, according to the federation. That number is projected to reach 537,000 units a year—a threefold increase—by 2023. These are the kind of robots businesses use outside of manufacturing. They perform a wide variety of functions, including defensewarehouse automation and disinfection in hospitals.

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 (Xan Brooks’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/22; Photo: The Guardian; via Pam Green.)

At 86 and in lockdown, the actor finds herself in the rare position of not working. Instead, she talks about theatrical ghosts, her friendship with Harvey Weinstein and definitely not being a national treasure

It’s all go for Judi Dench, stuck at her house in deepest Surrey. What a freewheeling week; she is beside herself with excitement. Yesterday, she explains, she received her Covid vaccine. This required a trip to the village and was the first time she had left home since she can’t remember when. Then today it’s a phone interview, the thing she is doing right now. Her cup runneth over. Her world has turned Technicolor. “I’m not even joking,” she says with a sigh. “It’s nice to actually have something to do.”

Lockdown, I fear, is not the life Dench was born to. She used to practically eat and drink on the stage, but the theatres have closed, who knows for how long. She used to bounce from one film set to the next, but now production is mothballed and the industry has gone to ground. All of which means that she is confined to the house, an 86-year-old actor shoved into what she hopes is a partial and temporary retirement. She gets up each morning determined to keep herself busy. She crawls back to bed with most of the tasks left undone. After a while, she admits, the time starts to drag.

Dench recently learned a new word: synesthesia. “And I thought; ‘Well, that’s me.’ Because I always saw the days of the week in colour. I never gave it a second thought, it’s just how my mind works. And all of a sudden it’s not there any more. The days of the week have no colour at all. There’s no structure, no planning.” She is marooned with her memories and mementoes and various unquiet ghosts.

As luck would have it, her most recent film similarly throws her in among ghosts – although here, again, the experience soon starts to grate. Blithe Spirit is a galumphing reanimation of Noël Coward’s 1940s farce, played with gusto but fatally heavy-footed. Dench co-stars as Madame Arcati, a preposterous old medium who was previously embodied by the likes of Margaret Rutherford and Angela Lansbury. Down the years we have grown accustomed to seeing Dench making herself blissfully at home in any film, big or small, but her role as Arcati feels like so much heavy lifting. She huffs and she puffs. She falls into the orchestra pit. If the film is a notch or two up on 2019’s calamitous Cats (in which she played Old Deuteronomy), it is still a far cry from the heyday of Philomena, or Notes on a Scandal. Blithe Spirit is running on vapour, shouting to be heard. In the end it is a bit of a ghostly presence itself.

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The National Theatre in London, Sept. 21, 2020. Governments around the world have tried to support the arts during the pandemic, some more generously than others. Lauren Fleishman/The New York Times.

by Alex Marshall, © 2021 The New York Times Company; via Pam Green 

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In December, owners and operators of theaters and music halls across the United States breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the latest coronavirus aid package, which finally set aside $15 billion to help desperate cultural venues. But that came more than six months after a host of other countries had taken steps to buffer the strain of the pandemic on the arts and artists.

Here are the highlights, and missteps, from eight countries’ efforts.


President Emmanuel Macron of France was one of the first world leaders to act to help freelance workers in the arts. The country has long had a special unemployment system for performing artists that recognizes the seasonality of such work and helps even out freelancers’ pay during fallow stretches. In May, Macron removed a minimum requirement of hours worked for those who had previously qualified for the aid. He also set up government insurance for TV and film shoots to deal with the threat of closure caused by the pandemic. Other countries, including Britain, quickly copied the move.


Germany’s cultural life has always been heavily subsidized, something that insulated many arts institutions from the pandemic’s effect. But in June, the government announced a $1.2 billion fund to get cultural life restarted, including money directed to such projects as helping venues upgrade their ventilation systems. And more assistance is on the way. Germany’s Finance Ministry intends to launch two new funds: one to pay a bonus to organizers of smaller cultural events (those intended for up to a few hundred people), so they can be profitable even with social distancing; and another to provide insurance for larger events (for several thousand attendees) to mitigate the risk of cancellation. Germany is not the first to implement such measures; Austria introduced event insurance in January.


In July, the British government announced a cultural bailout package worth about $2.1 billion — money that saved thousands of theaters, comedy clubs and music venues from closure. In December, several major institutions, including the National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company, were also given long-term loans under the package. Even with the help, there have already been about 4,000 layoffs at British museums alone, and more in other sectors.


European cultural aid hasn’t been enacted without controversy. In November, Poland announced recipients of a $100 million fund meant to compensate dance, music and theater companies for earnings lost because of restrictions during the pandemic. But the plan was immediately attacked by some news outlets for giving money to “the famous and rich,” including pop stars and their management. The complaints prompted the culture minister to announce an urgent review of all payments, but the government ultimately defended them, and made only minor changes.

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(Chris McCormack’s article appeared in The Irish Times, 1/13; Photo: When the curtain came down on Our New Girl, did it come down on innovative programming along with it? Credit: Ros Kavanagh.) 

One billion years ago, before the advent of TikTok musicals and streamed monologues on YouTube, plays were staged in buildings called theatres. It’s difficult to imagine now but viewers sat side by side, with little space between them, in the presence of actors giving live performances. Like other odd rituals of yesteryear, such as fertility dances and human sacrifices, live plays no longer exist in this moment in time.

As we hang tight in another lockdown, who remembers what was happening before all this? Was live theatre getting interesting before the pandemic? Oh, yes.

If you were in Dublin last March, perhaps you were one of the last people to see Our New Girl at the Gate Theatre, a riveting play set in a strange London house and following a self-doubting mother battling through the gaslighting tactics of her scheming husband and nanny. Never mind its sophistication as a psychological thriller meets sexism satire, Our New Goirl was a play that a short time ago you wouldn’t expect to get produced.

Not a lot has been said about the game-changing season of 2019, when the two full-time production houses, the Gate and the Abbey, made a rare commitment to putting several new plays on their big stages. Deduct the number of co-productions with independent companies and the figures were still impressive.

The Gate mounted three new shows: Lucy Kirkwood’s intimate disaster play The Children, one of the most acclaimed offerings that year; David Eldridge’s subversive romantic drama Beginning; and Pale Sister, Colm Tóibín’s play that a secondary character from Greek tragedy centre stage.

The Abbey Theatre did the same maths. Instead of reserving new plays for the smaller Peacock stage as usual, the main auditorium was home to three new plays: Dylan Coburn Gray’s spoken-word family saga Citysong; the suburban middle-class satire This Beautiful Village by Lisa Tierney-Keogh; and Dermot Bolger’s stevedore drama Last Orders at the Dockside.


“So what?” I hear you ask. If you’re someone who prefers to wait for the next revival of a Martin McDonagh or Shakespeare play, or to see an adaptation of a book such as The Great Gatsby or Asking for It, that’s perfectly fine. Those projects don’t carry the same risk. It’s an old rule of thumb that putting on a classic play breaks even and taking a chance on a new play costs an arm and a leg. Yet if relying on old plays becomes the norm, it risks making writing for big amplifying stages a closed shop. Worse for you and me, we lose out on seeing what new talents can do with the resources of large theatres at their disposal.

To figure out the last time there was such a cornucopia is to go back some years. One could say 2009, the last time the Abbey Theatre put as many new plays on its big stage. If looking for a period when the Gate Theatre also played ball, you’re talking about 2002. That was the chock-full year of political dramas Hinterland and Ariel; the Neil LaBute romance-thriller The Shape of Things; the drawing room drama  That Was Then; Frank McGuinness’s Gates of Gold; Brian Friel’s Afterplay; and comedies Lovers at Versailles and See You Next Tuesday.

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