The most important event in Irish theatre in the coming year will take place off-stage: there will be a new Director (Artistic Director) at the Abbey.
he jury is still out as to the success or otherwise of Fiach Mac Conghail's tenure, a deliberation which will not be resolved until there has been time for his successor to lay him or herself open as a target for the poisoned darts of public opinion. It is quite probable that opinion will then stabilise, and Mac Conghail will be claimed to have been as visionary as he was artistically able. Because that's what happens in the Abbey Theatre. Each Director becomes by tradition and outside inclination a bedraggled Aunt Sally, their work to be compared unfavourably with earlier "glory years".
The problem for a national theatre is that artistic vision and integrity become confused with political emphasis. Every commentator has a personal view as to what constitutes the correct political stance for a "national" theatre. And for far too many that means a nationalist theatre, presenting Irish work, using only Irish artists, and tailoring the stage to offer a political view of Irish society, frequently with reference to the "hopes and vision of the men of 1916."
This is likely to be particularly the case as we approach the centenary of the Rising.
And nobody seems to realise that such a view is stultifying and disastrous. A national theatre is truly national only when it is artistically and politically open to the world, its emphasis solely on the presentation of as comprehensive a range as possible of fine theatre, from cutting edge contemporary through the classics of the national and international repertoire.
Indeed, it's arguable that Mac Conghail's tenure at the Abbey has been marked by too much political awareness rather than too little. He is an intensely political being, as instanced by the staging later this month of a symposium on "The Theatre of War," significant for its echoes of both the Great War and 1916, two polarising elements of Ireland's history incapable of resolution. Such symposia, for all their apparent diversity of opinion serve only to embed the national consensus, without ever questioning the legitimacy of our basic assumptions.
Theatre, particularly a national theatre can best serve society, (perhaps can only serve society) by standing outside the consensus, and allowing its work to speak, for good or ill.
In this coming year, for instance, the Abbey's programming will include two co-productions with the Belfast Lyric. Gratifying as a cross border initiative and "dividend of the peace process," it smacks of an eagerness to endorse government policy, rather than challenging and/or influencing it.
When the Arts Council last year inaugurated a review of the Abbey's structures (with the theatre's consent) by consultants Bonnar Keenlyside, the comparisons chosen were the Royal Court in London, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, among others. The choice displayed management-think to a massive degree. It was size that mattered. Nobody seemed to notice that none of them was a national theatre, and therefore none had the responsibilities and remit of such an institution.
And the artistic review instituted by the Abbey itself became bogged down (through the selective presentation of interim findings uncovered through FOI) in the definition of "world-class" theatre. It was a convenient rod with which to beat Mac Conghail, the expert panel not including in their brief, reports of equivalent productions in other countries, which might equally have fallen below the subjective standard of "world-class."
Fiach MacConghail's successor will have his or her work cut out; but at least the incoming Director will be handed a theatre capable of causing continuing controversy; the challenge will be to combine that with good, diverse theatre while remaining on a reasonably even financial keel as funding for the arts shrinks further in quantity and drops lower and lower down the list of political priorities.
Where the other main companies are concerned, the Gate's audience is a limited one, dedicated to pretty escapism, and resistant to both intellectualism and any kind of social realism. Michael Colgan is Ireland's longest-standing impresario by far, and there is a danger in staying within a comfort-zone. The longer an impresario remains in place, the more necessary it becomes to question and innovate. This is particularly the case when taxpayers' money is involved: drifting is not an option.
Garry Hynes, on the other hand, seems unstoppable with Druid. She continues to offer fire and brimstone in her productions, from John B. Keane, through Tom Murphy. Defiantly using only an Irish canvas, through her insistence on excellence, she has internationalised the company to an impressive level, Druid's work continually mentioned as one of our most valuable artistic exports while maintaining its roots firmly in Galway.
Fishamble will begin the year well, with Pat Kinevane's latest one-man play Underneath, which premiered briefly in Limerick last month undertaking an extensive national tour. Annie Ryan will revive her Corn Exchange production of the superb adaptation of Eimear MacBride's A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing at Project.
But these companies, along with Lynne Parker's Rough Magic, are battling fierce odds. It must be admitted the Arts Council's resources are under severe pressure, but the relentless emphasis on "community" projects can only continue to damage theatre, and all the professional arts.
Sunday Indo Living