Tuesday 24 April 2018

Abbey 2016 should not be a numbers game

Rally around: The Waking the Feminists public meeting at the Abbey. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.
Rally around: The Waking the Feminists public meeting at the Abbey. Photo: Colin O'Riordan.

Emer O'Kelly

The Waking the Feminists movement instigated in November is being broadly welcomed as setting the theatrical agenda for the forthcoming year. It was triggered not so much by the Abbey's announcement of its programme for the centenary year of 1916, as by a reaction to that programme which was as predictable as it was, frankly, knee-jerk.

This was re-enforced by Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail's equally speedy reaction to the social media storm and the subsequent hastily arranged massive public meeting: he apologised for the fact that his planned programme "did not ensure that our 2016 programme would reflect the experience of the nation as a whole." An objective observer might call that abject: although one of the conveners of Waking the Feminists (set designer Lian Bell) called it an expression of regret, "not in itself an apology".

Nobody bothered to point out that a mainstay of the programme will be a production of O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, a play which is profoundly representative of the female perspective on 1916. (To say that because it is written by a man it is not representative of women is as ridiculous as it is to claim that the same playwright's The Silver Tassie is not representative of anti-war sentiment and the devastation of the destruction of mental and physical war wounds because it is not written by a shell-shocked wheelchair-bound playwright.)

What has been set in motion is a movement towards playwriting "gender balance" at the national theatre. It is highly possible that this numbers game may be carried through under the new dual artistic directorship from the National Theatre of Scotland which will take over from Mac Conghail when his tenure expires in the middle of the centenary year. Without experience of a building-based theatre, of a theatre with a literary tradition, or indeed any tradition at all, it is possible to believe that the new directorate may flounder, and bow to the nearest, strongest, and most vocal pressure groups which face them. And that is not a recipe for a good national theatre. Equality is not a matter of numbers, but of access and opportunity.

Where theatre is concerned, it must also be a matter of excellence. The argument emerging from the Waking the Feminists movement would seem to be that a woman playwright having a play staged at the Peacock is less equal than a woman having a play staged on the main stage of the Abbey. That argument was made by the successful, award-winning playwright (and member of the Abbey Board) Deirdre Kinahan who spoke on RTE News. She pointed out that she (like other Irish woman playwrights) had been acclaimed in other countries and had her work staged widely, but had never had a play on the Abbey stage. What this ignored is that Kinahan's work has not been staged on the equivalent of the Abbey stage in any other country, as for instance on the main stage at the National in Britain, or on mainstream Broadway in New York. That is not to denigrate the work, but to point out that it is more suited to regional theatre, fringe theatre, or niche theatre.

The argument can be exemplified by two productions of Seamus Heaney's Burial at Thebes on the Abbey stage in 2004, directed in the grand manner by Lorraine Pintal; but four years later given a far superior interpretation by Patrick Mason on the Peacock stage. In those cases, small scale equated with artistic success.

Since the controversy began in November, numerous commentators have rallied to the cause with lists of women playwrights whose work has fallen into neglect or disrepute. What they fail to mention is that there is a fashion in plays as in everything else: numerous plays by male writers have also fallen into neglect or disrepute over the years, some deservedly, others unfairly. (Few would suggest that the plays of John McCann, mainstay of the Abbey in the 1950s, deserve a revival.)

The fact that a play has a woman author does not automatically make it worthy of constant re-visiting, starting with the Old Lady of Abbey Street herself, Augusta Gregory. As we go into the centenary year of 1916, it is unlikely that too many people will say a word of denigration of her plays (or anything else about her, including her arrogant snobbishness in treating her actors like domestic servants). But the fact remains that most of her plays are pretty terrible.

And those listed from the past 20 years in defence of women playwrights/theatrical feminism include Hilary Fannin and Elizabeth Kuti (sometimes by people who have not seen the work). I found those works flawed to the point of being dramatically poor and unsustainable. I would have come to the same conclusion had they been written by men.

This year doesn't need gender quotas at the national theatre: it needs only artistic integrity and quality, and maybe even some gender blindness which should be, after all, the essence of feminism.

Sunday Independent

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