Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Thursday 27 June 2019

Drama at the Abbey: the story behind that letter and an unprecedented row

It's been a turbulent week at the Abbey Theatre, whose co-directors came under fire for the direction they have taken in the past two years. Critic Katy Hayes reports on what's behind an unprecedented row

Neil Murray and Graham McLaren
Neil Murray and Graham McLaren
Firing line: Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Joint artistic directors at the Abbey Neil Murray and Graham McLaren

Katy Hayes

An unprecedented bombshell landed on the desk of Culture Minister Josepha Madigan on Monday.

A letter complaining about the current direction of the Abbey Theatre was signed by more than 300 actors, designers and writers. It posed a number of challenges, but in particular questioned the diminishing numbers of Irish artists employed at the state-backed national theatre and also their pay rates.

The freelance nature of employment in the theatre industry has traditionally produced a very docile workforce. Workers who are always competing for a gig are slow to disadvantage themselves by sticking their head above the parapet in what is essentially an industrial relations row. So this was quite a shocking move.

The Abbey came back fighting on Tuesday, stating that its joint artistic directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray - who are British, as are several other heads of Irish cultural institutions, as highlighted this week by artist Robert Ballagh in a letter to a newspaper - took over from its former director Fiach Mac Conghail in mid-2016 and inherited a €1.4m deficit. They claimed the new programming policies had put the theatre back into the black and the artistic model being proposed by the letter writers had been a loss maker. The directors later retracted the claim of a €1.4m deficit (they said there was in fact no overall deficit) and apologised to the previous administration.

The Abbey has offered to meet representatives of the signatories to address their concerns.

Actor Denis Conway was a signatory. He has been working in London since last May. Conway was a busy actor on the scene in Ireland, in regular employment, and earning a number of acting awards. He last appeared on the Gate stage in April 2017, but with work drying up here, he set his sights on London. He was last year in a production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End and is currently in Chasing Bono at the Soho Theatre.

On Monday, he starts rehearsal for Glengarry Glen Ross, a UK touring production, directed by prestigious director Sam Yates.

Poisoned chalice

"When my kids were younger, I couldn't have done this," he says, adding that they are at the stage where their dad is no longer necessary on a daily basis, so he and his wife agreed that he'd try getting work in London. He is currently living in a houseshare in Chiswick.

Firing line: Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Firing line: Graham McLaren and Neil Murray. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

"I'd rather be doing this than sitting at home getting angry," he says.

Conway was sent the letter on January 4 and immediately signed it.

"I didn't know who else was attached to the letter. I expected there might be 10 people. I was quite flabbergasted by the number."

Louise Donlon, director of the Lime Tree Theatre in Limerick, one of Ireland's significant regional venues, has a nuanced response to the controversy.

"I feel huge sympathy for the two guys," she says. "The Abbey is such a poisoned chalice, and they did say they wanted to shake it up a bit. When they first talked about bringing in all the companies in the independent Irish theatre sector, as far as I can remember, everybody really welcomed that. You are inevitably going to take decisions that turn out to have unintended consequences."

Donlon wonders why the letter didn't go straight to the Abbey directors, before it went public. "Now it has all turned into this enormous row. It's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are not focusing on the positives as well."

"Actors, designers and directors," says Conway, "we're powerless really.

"What you're talking about there is some kind of strategy, and with this many people, you can't have a strategy. You can only have a cry, a cry of frustration."

So is there a solution?

Communication is key

Conway's runs like this: "Do less co-production, do more in-house production and run the shows for longer."

"If they want the theatre community to settle down and be happy, they need to communicate with them. They need to tell us what they are doing. Most industrial relations problems arise out of bad communication."

Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at NUI Galway, says he was not surprised by the letter because many of the complaints had been in the air.

This was especially the case since the premiere of Come From Away last December - a Canadian production heading to London's West End, featuring no Irish performers whatsoever.

"In football terms this is the equivalent of three-quarters of the first-team squad publicly rebuking their manager," says Lonergan.

"I think we can praise the two new artistic directors for their commitment to touring and to bringing in new audiences," says Lonergan, "but I'd like to see them doing more to explain what their artistic vision is."

Lonergan chaired a talk with Neil Murray in the Lyric Theatre last November: "He was very articulate and interesting about the theatre's direction, so it's clear the ideas are there. We just need to move past soundbites about 'changing the world' now.

"It's been notable that Brian Friel is enjoying a minor renaissance in London over the past couple of years, where his work is seen as urgent and exciting - so why aren't we seeing his work here?"

The practicalities of how actors make a living are not generally to the fore of public consciousness. But the Irish public takes delight in the success of Irish actors, once they make it big.

Ruth Negga, nominated for an Academy Award last year, was first seen by this critic on the Peacock stage. Andrew Scott, star of BBC's Sherlock, was first seen on the Abbey stage. Countless other big international stars have come from the theatre, including Stephen Rea and Liam Neeson.

The ecosystem of Irish theatre, with the Abbey at its core, is a vital nurturing ground for this talent.

And if the actors cannot articulate a defence of that ecosystem, who else can?

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