The Abbey, Ireland’s National Theatre was established in 1904 and became the first State-subsidised theatre in the world, and ultimately one of the best brands in world theatre. Worthy, certainly; old, yes: the question is more whether it is any good, or any good bearing in mind the resources that go into it.
The Abbey suffers from structural problems – physical, artistic and organisational. Director/CEO Senator Fiach MacConghail is a consummate arts-administrator-politician with uniquely strong links to Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. He has streamlined the board, steadied the finances and avoided the once-vaunted Dermot-Desmond-driven mistake of moving from its historic home to Docklands. In 2012 it cleverly purchased buildings adjacent to its current home at 15-17 Eden Quay, for €1,500,000 involving a mortgage of €1,125,000.
In creating the position of director, and giving it to MacConghail, a producer not a director, the Abbey board decided to establish a new senior management structure with clear lines of decision-making, authority and accountability. He runs the show with a cast of uncelebrated subordinated directors and managers and a Board headed by former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon which includes former Docklands Authority board member Domhnall Curtin and some in-house actors and directors such as Jane Brennan and playwrights such as Tom Kilroy. It is a registered charity that banks with AIB, receives legal advice from Arthur Cox and receives sponsorship from the corporate blue chips.
When he took up the job MacConghail negotiated ‘bailout funding’ of €4m from the government, and, before the downturn, managed to bring the Abbey to all-time high levels of grant aid from the Arts Council. Unfortunately the accounts are not without hazard. The income and expenditure account showed an operating deficit of €1,403,554 for 2012. The Arts Council Revenue Grant provides financial life support by way of a 3-year funding agreement. €21,300,000 for the period 2011 to 2013 at €7,100,000 per annum. Out of the €7.1m: gross staff costs are €6m annually, and that without the repertory company whose loss is so bemoaned at least by the likes of former Director Ulick O’Connor. In 2012 staff numbers were 142. Box Office receipts for the Abbey and Peacock Theatres totalled €2,319,528 in 2012. The box-office takings were roughly matched by losses for the period, at €2,378,272.
Fundraising is a tradition dating back to original patron Annie Horniman who bought the first Abbey building. The Abbey’s US tour in 2010 presented ‘The Plough and the Stars’ for the MacConghailean purposes of establishing The Abbey Theatre Foundation to raise funds. A tour of England in 2013 pursued a similar strategy. In 2014 there were 615 donating members whose collective contributions reached a bearish €120,636. Fundraising activities have unedifyingly diversified to offer wedding packages. A couple can even hire the Abbey’s ‘dedicated wedding co-ordinator’ to plan that big day, and guests enjoy ‘the wonderful atmosphere of the Yeats Lounge’.
MacConghail started with a solid and appropriate vision, A 2006 article in the New York Times claimed MacConghail “has commissioned new work that tackles life in contemporary Ireland, and departing from previous practices, he handed those plays over to young directors who previously only dreamed of working on the Abbey’s main stage. He appointed Conor McPherson, who had said he felt snubbed by the Abbey, as the theater’s 2006 playwright in residence. And directly thumbing his nose at tradition, he declared at least a temporary ban on revivals of classic plays by Sean O’Casey and John Millington Synge, which have long been the theater’s staple fare”.
It quoted then US-Ireland Alliance President Trina Vargo to the effect that MacConghail was actually returning the Abbey to its traditional role of breaking boundaries and defying the status quo, part of the theatre’s original mission as set forth by the Abbey’s founder, William Butler Yeats.
But early aspiration was confounded and the big problem now is the Abbey’s directionless artistic policy, bereft of imagination and adventure. Its artistic output is once again patchy and unimaginative with exceptional crescendos – like ‘The Late Late Show’ really, a victim of its success or reputation – but more hushed and in Town.
Most audiences appear merely to endure the night of theatre it serves up, with its middle-brow, middle-aged, only-half-dressed-up Southside-yielded cultural conservatives downing Carlsbergs during the interval. The Abbey rarely constitutes a big night out.
Ireland’s National Theatre still purveys the shame-faced revivals alongside self-consciously ‘new plays’ that led to motions of no confidence in then artistic director, Ben Barnes in 2004 just before MacConghail took over. It still commissions plays of no impact, including a thespian-free David McWilliams one-man-show – a pity since MacConghail’s artistic obsession is relevance and he comes via the Project Arts Centre. Regular stand-offs with the Arts Council have depressingly been money rather than quality oriented, though this might be expected of a body run by arts administrators. The Abbey’s artistic weaknesses can be blamed on a series of uninspired and unwieldy boards and in-house failure to find plays that set the theatrical scene on fire. The Abbey plods on swamped by its glorious past – no golden dawn of course but two famous plays of long ago and a national canon that beat into the sensibilities of three generations of dutiful schoolchildren but never matched the literary genius, or literary impact, resistering elswehere over the century. By now the legacy, the National Theatre thing, is noteworthy for the confines it erects around the Abbey – its theatrical museum status.
Certainly the theatre’s first phase was credible: it made history. When the Abbey opened for business on 27 December 1904, Yeats’s ‘On Baile’s Strand’ and Lady Gregory’s ‘Spreading the News’ proved lesser artistic fare than ‘The Well of the Saints’ whose author JM Synge would achieve international controversy with ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ in 1907. However, it was O’Casey’s ‘The Plough and the Stars’ which became the ultimate Abbey Theatre party piece with its closing scene of Dublin in flames during the Rising, British ‘Tommies’, IRA snipers and Fluther’s comedy. The first production caused a riot. The production of 18 July 1951 reached a grim off stage finalé: “in less than an hour the backstage was destroyed, the stage badly damaged, the auditorium roof collapsed”. Nothing new rose phoenix-like for a long time. And not just physically.
The theatre kept going at the Queen’s until 1966. The new Abbey re-opened with Walter Macken’s ‘Recall the Years’ followed by ‘The Plough and the Stars’ reflecting revivals and more revivals that persist to this day. The new theatre was the blue-brick building resembling a warehouse, with glass windows along the top and cinema-entrance doors. It was driven by modernist views of theatrical functionality, ideas which Yeats had endorsed. That it didn’t work for actor or audience seemed of little concern, at the time. Unbreached sight-lines were the obsession until MacConghail, and architect Jean-Guy Lecat, cleverly overhauled the place five years ago at minimal cost, rendering it more intimate by reducing the capacity of the theatre from more than 600 seats to a more manageable 492 seats. The addition of the balcony bar tacks on a popular if artless pillared effect to the same still-dilapidating structure.
The artistic deficiencies cascaded down the decades with a staple of essentially folkloric material from Walter Macken, Louis D’Alton, MJ Molloy and Bryan MacMahon (father of the judge) onwards. Post-Synge kitchen-sink melodrama in dialect dominates. In the mid-century, Teresa Deevy was a talented post-Ibsenist alongside Máiréad Ní Ghráda, writing plays of social conscience that found little support in the Ireland of the times.
The best mid-century Irish playwright, Denis Johnston, was overlooked as potential artistic director for the Abbey. His classic comedy ‘The Old Lady Says No’ was rejected by Lady Gregory and not produced by the Abbey until 1977. The play was a critical and theatrical success at The Gate, where Edwards and MacLiammóir discovered not only Johnston but Orson Welles and James Mason, outstripping the Abbey’s dreary traditions before the more predictable and commercial hand of the overpaid Michael Colgan took over so comprehensively.
Yeats had infamously, albeit rightly, rejected ‘The Silver Tassie’. It is an O’Casey artistic failure. Paul Vincent Carroll’s ‘The White Steed’ was rejected in 1938 as it “would prove offensive to the priesthood”. Hugh Hunt resigned as artistic director and went on to produce it in the US. Alan Simpson, who brought Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ to the Pike Theatre, resigned after nine months as Director of the Abbey. The Abbey rejected Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ deeming it ‘filthy rubbish’. It was not produced there until 1970. Meanwhile, Tomás Mac Anna produced many O’Casey plays retrospectively if obsessively. Lelia Doolan lasted two years as artistic director. Garry Hynes lasted three years.
Various directors served time afterwards. Vincent Dowling, Joe Dowling, Patrick Mason, Ben Barnes who oversaw the sensationally successful production of John McColgan’s ‘The Shaughraun’.
The present incumbent Fiach MacConghail was appointed in 2005 as ‘Director’ leaving a famous gap for artistic director that was brutally – almost to the point of unfairness – exposed in a 2014 report, to the delight of Fintan O’Toole who may have been pulling a few of the strings. It limelighted the National Theatre’s failure to achieve best international standards of drama.
Middle-aged, middle class male assessors, including Professor Roy Foster, appointed jointly by the Arts Council and the Abbey itself, gave just four of 12 recent productions ratings that were “very good” or “excellent”, or very close to it. O’Toole, one time ‘Literary Advisor’ to the Abbey was vituperative:
“It would be easy, if you read only the conclusions of the independent review of the Abbey Theatre commissioned by the Arts Council, to see it is a Shakespeare comedy: Much ado about Nothing. That the Abbey should concentrate on Irish writing, that it should restore the Peacock to the heart of its operations, and that it needs to tour more – these are recommendations that any regular theatregoer could have offered for free. But the report, by the Scottish consultancy Bonnar Keenlyside, is much more searching, radical and critical than the headline conclusions would suggest.
In effect, the report is arguing for nothing less than a return by the Abbey to the point at which it started 110 years ago – as a gathering of creative artists rather than a “national cultural institution”. If it is to be taken seriously, this return to founding principles requires a profound change, not just of emphasis, but of the Abbey’s entire mindset.
There’s a lot of important detail in the report but the most striking statement is quite simple: ‘Few of the Abbey staff, and none of the senior staff, are theatre artists or writers, directors or designers’. This ‘contrasts clearly with comparable theatres internationally’”.
The report found that the Abbey takes an ambitious approach to many plays but fails to follow through on it. It often miscasts or underuses the performers, who aren’t always directed to find depth or subtlety. Productions entertain but don’t affect. And the standard of new writing is not nearly up to best international standards.
Perhaps the Arts Council is most at fault but there seems to be no policy – not just to support new writing, but on acting, design and direction too.
The Abbey has always managed to produce plays by international writers according to its foundation policy such as Lorca, Pinter, Eugene O’Neill, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams.
But it cannot progress on these or on classics by Boucicault, Goldsmith, Shaw and Synge. And this is where it loses its way.
Later home-grown, low-intensity folkloric work like Friel’s ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’, John B Keane’s ‘Big Maggie’, Tom Murphy’s ‘Bailegangaire’ and Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ are actually the same play with slight variations. McDonagh’s ‘Beauty Queen’ from the Leenane Trilogy is hardly an Abbey find though certainly within its tradition of kitchen sink though with some Tarantino violence thrown in for modernity. His better work, ‘The Pillowman’, is not identifiably Irish. Murphy is stylised enough for an endurable night of theatre though for example ‘The Gigli Concert’, a great play certainly, exposes his greatest flaw – the obsession with characters who narrate through lengthy soliloquy. Stewart Parker’s ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Heavenly Bodies’ are far better.
Friel and Keane represent a theatre of rural domesticity fulfilling the mainstream Abbey-audience expectations which date from George Fitzmaurice’s plays. Later purveyors of the same genre include Tom Mac Intyre. The plays of Hugh Leonard and Bernard Farrell represent a move from the rural kitchen to the urban living room involving a suite of furniture and ultra-modernised to include a TV and some swearing. Keane and Friel are of course masters of kitsch kitchen-sink. In Friel’s case all the way from ‘Philadelphia Here I Come’ to ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ (even in the Meryl Streep movie version). Only for those who worship at the Abbey’s altar of mainstream.
The Field Day Theatre Movement, washed through with Friel, was another reincarnation of kitchen-sink, with gobbets of history pushed into the dialogue, purporting to reflect – and resolve – the ‘Irish Question’. Field Day history plays were deliberately meant to obliquely reflect ‘the Northern Ireland Troubles’.
Contemporary playwrights beyond Field Day, such as Conor McPherson in ‘The Weir’, usually set their work in the pub and otherwise used the O’Casey model of the tenement room morphing easily into the bedsit, as backdrop.
Even commissions, as Ben Barnes admitted in 2004 in the case of Heaney’s ‘The Burial at Thebes’ which was a cobbled version from Sophocles can constitute “rarefied drama of ideas and [be][/be] an acquired taste”. One of the board called it “a waste of time and space’. The play otherwise known as Antigone demands an authentic version by Anouilh, Jebb or Watling.
Mid-summer fodder from the Abbey in 2015 will be Marina Carr’s ‘The Bog of Cats’, an Oirish dialect version of Greek tragedy, set in the bog but betraying the usual tedious deference to classic European models, which are of no importance in our real lives. Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Brecht are often marshalled to ram home faux heft.
Behind ‘The Bog’ is the celebrated Selina Cartmell whose recent ‘King Lear’ equalled – for this author anyway – the revival of ‘Pygmalion’, in exceedingly low artistic values. The Lear cast achieved every theatrical No-No behind a creaking cranked-up front-of-stage platform. At least she has had the wit to fall out with Michael Colgan. Some comfort now he has been stage-reconciled with Tom Murphy.
The problem with the Abbey is therefore not merely its mendicancy. It is the necessity to include in the mix the Standards, in-house, hot-housed productions, deference to the tiring European, and the fatal lack of iconoclasm.
Worse still the Abbey sucks up half of all state funding for theatre, denying energy to some more interesting provincial companies. Garry Hynes makes the great point that the Arts Council funds theatre in order of their date of establishment: the Abbey gets most money, then the Gate, then Druid, then Rough Magic, and so on. The continuing hegemony of the Abbey is hurting not only Irish theatre as a whole, she says, but it is hurting the Abbey even more. Just as all the theatres and organisations that have come into being since the Abbey was founded should be allowed to evolve – and indeed over time, to succeed and fail – so too should the Abbey. Holding on to some of the laudable aspirations and achievements of the past will not ensure a vital future for any of us.
Writing in the Irish Times, Garry Hynes asked of the Peacock:
“How could it be part of any well-thought-out strategy or understanding of the responsibilities of the National Theatre to commit significant funding to it over a three-year period while tolerating the effective closure of what is, to all intents and purposes, the engine room of the Irish theatre? The future of the Abbey comes through the Peacock. And if a National Theatre is not about the future, then it is increasingly forced to fall back on institutional rhetoric rather than excellence of performance, to justify its existence”.
It also has to be asked: where does the chair and board of the Abbey stand on this? The Peacock going dark for such long periods of time is something that surely, as a strategic issue, had to have board approval?
One of the independent assessors of the Abbey, English director Nicolas Kent considered:
“It is quite difficult to assess the Abbey as world-class when it is only operating 1½ auditoriums. If you’re really only using one stage, you can’t give a sense of the range and diversity that would be expected from a national theatre”.
Nevertheless, aided by national university curriculums which maintain these plays as the canon, and supported by Arts-Council-funded presses such as Gallery which can be accurately called its play-publisher, the Abbey has long failed experimental theatre. Even in the Peacock.
You’d almost feel sorry for MacConghail whose heart is in the right place, and who is nothing if not democratic, but whose limitations are intrinsic to his professional background and his job title.
For example, nearly 40 writers have been commissioned by the Abbey under Mac Conghail and he has made a valiant effort to encourage women writers. In 2009, the Abbey announced the pilot of a New Playwrights Programme embracing six: Aidan Harney, Lisa Keogh, Shona McCarthy, Jody O’Neill, Neil Sharpson and Lisa Tierney-Keogh.
Efforts will be made to focus younger writers next year on the theme of the 1916 centenary. The Abbey now has a partnership with the Public Theater in New York, where it has presented two new plays; ‘Terminus’ by Mark O’Rowe and Sam Shepard’s ‘Kicking a Dead Horse’. The current ‘Shadow of Gunman’ production is staged jointly with Lyric.
But where does it all lead? Gimmicky productions such as the lugubrious Conall Morrisson’s all-male ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ superimposing Wilde as a character into the action won’t do; and just don’t say enough. We need topical plays that soar. Fintan O’Toole has written that the Abbey has been best when it engaged in what he called ‘artistic arrogance’ or a Yeatsian willingness to say to its own audience, “we don’t give a damn what you think”.
In the quest for a replacement for Senator MacConghail watch for the next artistic director(s) emerging from, you guessed it, in-house Abbey personnel, this time to an Irish Times fanfare. Probably Jimmy Fay. Battler Willie White, father of the Dublin Theatre Festival, will not get a look in. No non-nationals.
There is no chance for someone who has the necessary clear sight of disgraceful, effervescent Ireland and who wants to take some risks to explain and steer it, artfully. Because unlike in the early years what matters most at the Abbey now is that the show go on and on. •
By Kevin Kiely