Monday 24 October 2016

A double act wasn't in the script for the Abbey

The appointment of a Scots duo to the directorship of the national theatre sends mixed messages

Emer O'Kelly

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Pictured (left to right): Neil Murray and Graham McLaren of the National Theatre of Scotland have been appointed as the new Directors of the Abbey Theatre. They will commence as Directors Designate on 1 July 2016 taking up their tenure full-time from January 2017.
21/07/2015 Pictured (left to right): Neil Murray and Graham McLaren of the National Theatre of Scotland have been appointed as the new Directors of the Abbey Theatre. They will commence as Directors Designate on 1 July 2016 taking up their tenure full-time from January 2017. PIC: LENSMEN PHOTOGRAPHY, DUBLIN

A team of two Scots will take over as joint directors at our National Theatre in January 2017. Neil Murray and Graham McLaren will overlap with Fiach Mac Conghail, the outgoing director, for the previous six months, joining him at the helm half way through the significant year of 2016.

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The two currently work with the National Theatre of Scotland - founded in 2005 - Murray as executive producer and McLaren as associate director. They will both have the title of Director at the Abbey, an implied division of authority and responsibility between the artistic and the executive.

The last time we had that was in the disastrous run-up to the Abbey's near-bankruptcy in the early 2000s, after which the archaic Articles of Association of the National Theatre Company were changed to allow a single buck-stopping position at the company head. Mac Conghail was the first appointment under that structure. He was also the first non-creative (i.e. producer) appointment to run the company (at least in modern times; there could not have been an entity or personage less creative than the late Ernest Blythe). Mac Conghail has been in receipt of as many brickbats as compliments since then, often due to an entrenched feeling that a "creative" person should hold down the top job.

Yet those who are loudest in that contention seem to reserve their criticism only for the Abbey, accepting without criticism Michael Colgan, also an executive producer and non-creative, as the "artistic director" of the Gate (the other building-based production company in receipt of substantial state funding), a position he has held unchallenged for more than 30 years.

In terms of budget, there have already been mutterings about the salaries to be paid to Murray and McLaren, as to whether they will "share" a salary or will each receive a full salary (which is subject to public service norms, and is currently only slightly more than half the package paid to Michael Colgan by his board). The Abbey is not disclosing its new salary arrangements, but in comparison with the Gate, for instance, the salaries seem less than an issue.

But a recent event across the water might be noted in the Abbey board's decision to appoint a joint directorship: in April, the chief executive of the Royal National Theatre (RNT) in the UK, Tessa Ross, resigned after only six months in the job. The joint leadership team, with Rufus Norris as artistic director, was not working, she said. It was emphasised that Ross's decision was "purely down to structure" and had nothing to do with personality clashes with Norris. For the RNT "at this time" Ross said, "the new leadership structure with a separate role of chief executive, is not working". One person should be in charge.

And since one person has been in charge at the Abbey, the theatre has regained financial stability. While having to make some safe production decisions in a time of huge financial cutbacks, it has continued to fulfil the brief of a national theatre, which covers a far wider remit than merely putting the cliched "bums on seats".

Almost exactly a year ago, the Arts Council, which holds the Abbey purse-strings, published the results of a report it had commissioned from consultants Bonnar Keenlyside (coincidentally a Scottish-founded company) to examine how "available public funding might secure the best outcomes in the current environment". The comparisons the consultants used included London's Royal Court, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre. They appeared not to consider the Abbey, our national theatre, as comparable to the National in Britain, or for that matter, the Royal Shakespeare, which is the custodian of the national repertoire in Britain, as is the Abbey here.

The comparisons were with niche/local theatres, and the recommendations overall included a recommendation that the Abbey should be run under a "system that is led and managed by the Arts Council" (the commissioners of the report) with an Arts Council officer to "manage the process and system and be responsible for ensuring clear understanding, clear communications, and an annual cycle".

Whether Neil Murray and Graham McLaren have been made aware that their tenure will effectively be controlled by the Arts Council rather than their having creative and financial autonomy (within public accountability) is not clear. But their joint and separate experience, while impressive, is very much within the niche sphere. And despite the undoubted success they have made of the National Theatre of Scotland since its inception, and with all due respect to Scots nationalism, Scottish theatre is effectively provincial in the UK context. It could, perhaps, be put on a par with the relation of Belfast's Lyric to the overall theatre picture on the island of Ireland.

Also, the National Theatre of Scotland is not building-based, and while that offers artistic freedoms, the challenge of stabilising and growing a building-based audience for the Abbey and Peacock and combining the stated ambition of more touring and an increased international presence, may well prove to be overwhelming in the "current climate".

In addition, the Bonnar Keenlyside recommendation was for the Abbey to concentrate on Irish writing and plays about Ireland, while the Peacock should concentrate on low-budget productions. And since the Abbey board's appointment of the new directors-designate seems to run very close to the Bonnar Keenlyside/Arts Council recommendations/requirements, it seems entirely possible that the two - who say they plan to share equally in artistic and management duties - will, nevertheless, as outsiders, feel that they must define "national" as dangerously close to "nationalistic". This would bring us back to the bad old days (so often lauded as the Abbey's "great" days) when the theatre saw its job as holding up a seriously clouded mirror to Irish nature, reflecting an "official" version of our society that had little to do with either reality or indeed, desirability.

WB Yeats and Lady Gregory founded the theatre as a political concept couched in a literary form; after independence their successors turned it into the cultural arm of the civil service. Neither concept gave us a national theatre worthy of the name.

Murray and McLaren say in their joint statement of intent that they want to "build an organisation that challenges assumptions around the words "national", "theatre" and "Ireland", and deliver a truly exciting, successful and sustainable Irish theatre". Given the ambiguities with which they are dealing, and the struggle between artistic freedom/excellence and political interference as represented by the Arts Council (not to mention financial restrictions) they have a tough task ahead.

To succeed in it, they must have broad horizons beyond niches and parochialism. And on a personal level, let's hope they both have very broad backs. They'll need them.

Sunday Independent

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