Friday 24 May 2019

‘Different voices’ and inequities

Emer O’Kelly is  still sceptical of  proposed reforms at the Abbey

Abbey Theatre

State of our theatrical nation

Joint artistic directors at the Abbey Neil Murray and Graham McLaren
Joint artistic directors at the Abbey Neil Murray and Graham McLaren

The board of the Abbey theatre (our national theatre) has apparently written to Josepha Madigan, Minister for Culture, saying that the “two points” raised by more than 300 theatre professionals in an embittered letter to the same minister in January, have now been addressed.

The professionals’ letter set out their reasons for believing that the national theatre was failing in its remit, and failing both professionals and audiences alike.

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Apparently unaware of this widespread dissatisfaction until then, the Arts Council announced it was withholding €300,000 of the Abbey’s annual grant of €7m.

The theatre undertook to “engage” with the profession, which was a breakthrough in that one of the joint directors Graham McLaren was on record as saying he disregarded all professional (journalistic) criticism, and a letter signed by 300-odd people was certainly proof that the theatre hadn’t engaged with those who make theatre in Ireland either.

The chair of the Abbey Board, Dr Frances Ruane, was interviewed recently on Morning Ireland, and said that the “two issues” in the letter had now been addressed. The pay issue (described by Dr Ruane as a “perceived inequity”) was one, she said. To cut a somewhat involved issue short, actors and other professionals working on the stages of the Abbey theatre would be paid Abbey rates from here on. That puts it baldly.

In “associate productions” with other companies, as for instance Druid, which brought its magnificent Richard III to the Abbey stage under that banner, the actors were paid the Druid rate, which is considerably lower than that paid in the Abbey.

And because the Abbey couldn’t tell other companies what to pay, Dr Ruane said, the Abbey would no longer stage “associate” productions. But “co-productions” would remain, as the Abbey could control their rates of pay.

Bryan Dobson asked if this meant that the “diversity of voices” would be reduced. This diversity had been translated in the profession’s open letter (the “other” issue) as an almost total dearth of work for Irish actors, designers and playwrights since McLaren and Murray took over. Dr Ruane disputed this but appeared to imply that the McLaren/Murray declared policy of “broadening the types of production” had now been diluted. And on face value, that aim of broadening seemed desirable and tenable, and an antidote to the cultural voices in Ireland who stridently demand that a “national institution” should limit itself to employing Irish personnel and producing only Irish work: a nationalist rather than a national theatre.

But in practice, the McLaren/Murray version of “diversity” has meant that in-house Abbey productions have reduced disastrously since they have taken over, and that was a derogation (at a minimum) of the theatre’s remit as a producing rather than a receiving house. It also meant abandoning the remit of developing Irish creative talent and staging the national repertoire.

And there was also a problem with what replaced in-house productions. Fresh from running the Scottish National Theatre, a political construct set up in the wake of Scottish devolution, the two seem to have maintained the essentially provincial range and level of their contacts since arriving in Ireland.

“Diversity” translated into work from niche/ provincial/ fringe/ political activist companies such as Stratford East and Glasgow’s Tron (Murray’s previous base). In fact there are times when it seems that the two men’s artistic souls remain in the Scottish Nationalist Party with not even a nod to Ireland.

Graham McLaren has expressed himself frustrated that nobody seems to want to write the great “state of the nation” play. But Fishamble’s Jim Culleton didn’t, and doesn’t agree.

In 2017 Fishamble announced a competition to find a “play for Ireland”. The result was 380 submissions; thirty were chosen for development during 2018, and the winner, The Alternative, will be seen at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Written by Michael Patrick and Oisin Kearney.

The Alternative examines what might have happened if we had no Rising, War of Independence or Civil War.   It’s set in 2019; we are holding a referendum on whether Ireland should leave the United Kingdom. And the prime minister is a Dubliner, and she’s home to take part in the final debate on the issue from BBC Dublin.

A state of the nation play? Three hundred and eighty people wanted to write one, but apparently not for the national theatre.

Asked by Bryan Dobson if the Arts Council grant had been restored, Frances Ruane said “two-thirds”. €100,000 remains outstanding. And it remains to be seen if the 17 actions apparently proposed by the board in a letter to Minister Madigan will prove satisfactory.

Those who have watched with dismay what has been happening to our national theatre may well feel that we need proof, not just declarations.

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