TAITMAIL Abbey blues

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In Ireland, the Abbey is almost synonymous with theatre. The Dublin playhouse has been woven into the history of the nation, not just the dramatic arts.

It was founded against a background of intensifying cultural and political nationalism by Irish actors and writers, including WB Yeats, as a seedbed and training ground for native Irish talent. It was the Abbey that staged a series of nationalist works that inspired Irish revolutionaries. It was at the Abbey that theatrical giants like John Synge and Sean O’Casey first came to public attention.

But lately the renowned theatre has been suffering a crisis of self-confidence, a nervousness that seems at odds with a national mood of self-belief, fuelled by economic recovery and the dawn of a new social liberalism, evidenced in referenda approving gay marriage and abortion.

In 2015 the theatre was rocked by a protest campaign by women in Irish theatre outraged at the fact that a year’s programming contained precisely nothing by women writers. After a media storm, the Abbey backtracked and had to make good on a promise to include more work by women.

Hopes were high with the appointment of co-directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren in 2016, fresh from success at the National Theatre of Scotland, who promised longed-for change, aiming to open the theatre's stage to “those who mightn't have felt represented there before” while challenging audiences and nurturing diversity.

The new directors instigated a system of giving out free tickets to some performances, leading to queues, and took the theatre’s work out to a non-Dublin audience and even into public bars. Box office takings went up and critics applauded.

But the new regime’s reliance on co-productions, many from abroad, has upset the delicate ecology of Irish theatre and in January a letter signed by over 300 members of the theatre community, including a clutch of well-known names, was sent to Irish culture minister Josepha Madigan, expressing "deep dissatisfaction" with the Abbey’s new policy.

Practitioners claimed that they had been “cast adrift”, with outside productions reducing employment prospects and rates of pay. Fewer people were directly employed and working conditions for freelances had been reduced. The complainants pointed out that for six months, not a single Irish-based actor appeared on its stage and not a single Abbey contract was given to an Ireland-based set designer on the main stage in 2017 or 2018.

The Abbey’s programming policy has also had a knock-on effect on other theatres, they added, because “receiving theatres” who stage outside-produced shows have seen gaps in their schedules because that work is now being put on at the Abbey. Ireland’s Arts Council, which dispenses a E7m euro annual subsidy to the Abbey, followed up the letter by announcing it was withholding E300,000 of the theatre’s funding.

Stung into action, the Abbey executive and board agreed to hold talks with the theatre sector about their concerns and promised to include more Irish writing in future. In May, however, the dissenters wrote again to Madigan, claiming that the theatre was dragging its feet.

Now one of Ireland’s foremost cultural commentators has entered the fray.Irish Timescolumnist Fintan O’Toole accuses the Abbey of downgrading its ambitions to be “world class”, and points out that the expected stardust from the National Theatre of Scotland has yet to be sprinkled on the Abbey, as the reputation of the NTS still outshines the Dublin theatre on both quality and quantity.

O’ Toole adds that “the current directors have taken an unprecedented step in programming three seasons without staging plays by Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Synge, Gregory, O’Casey, Friel, Murphy and most of the other dramatists who have made Irish theatre internationally significant.”

Instead, it is relying on adaptations of already popular novels or films.

“If the Abbey is not a world-class theatre, is not interested in the canon of Irish drama and has been worsening the conditions for most theatre practitioners, what is it for?” thunders O Toole. “One searches in vain for an answer.”

Other critics have piled in, pointing to the lack of Northern Irish writers featured on the Abbey stage, not to mention those from the Irish diaspora in the US, Australia, Canada or Britain.

The Abbey’s status as a national theatre is both a blessing and a curse.  Its role in the creation of the state meant it became the first state subsidised theatre in the world, back in 1926, and assures it of first dibs in the race for arts funding ever since. It has also enjoyed access to an extraordinary canon of dramatic writing stretching back to the 18thcentury and including some of the foremost writers of the 20thcentury.

But the 21stcentury has seen the rise of a new Ireland, spearheaded by a new generation of young people who have little time for historic shibboleths, and none for organisations which trade on past glories. And yet that new Ireland also wants to see a stage on which its own hopes and fears, ideas and arguments are played out. What’s more, the new generation of talented writers, designers, composers and actors, many of whom are recognised internationally on stage, TV and film, also expect an opportunity to display their prowess on the premier platform of their home ground.

Fintan O’Toole acknowledges that the Abbey has been a perennial whipping boy since it was set up, (both Joyce and Beckett sniped at it in their own works) and cannot expect a free ride for its E7m subsidy. But if theatre is to take its place in the cultural renaissance that Ireland is experiencing in the novel, in dance, or the visual arts, then the Abbey must once again climb on to the high-wire and perform its difficult balancing act for a second century.

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