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Emer O’Kelly: 'Why does the Abbey only receive attention in the eye of a crisis?'

Irish national theatre should be much more than it currently is - and the reason for that is plain, writes Emer O'Kelly

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It's supposed to be about the art, not the politics: Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, joint artistic directors at the Abbey

It's supposed to be about the art, not the politics: Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, joint artistic directors at the Abbey

It's supposed to be about the art, not the politics: Neil Murray and Graham McLaren, joint artistic directors at the Abbey

When the letter of explosive protest against current policy at the Abbey Theatre, signed by more than 300 theatre practitioners, appeared last Tuesday, the reaction from the joint directors of the national theatre was immediate, not to say knee jerk and defensive. But they would, they said, engage with the theatre community to discuss the issues raised.

Graham McLaren and Neil Murray have been running the Abbey Theatre for two years; and only now, with the profession coming together in despair to protest at their methodology, are they making an effort to engage. Why?

Graham McLaren has said he doesn't engage with or pay attention to, professional criticism. All actors and directors say that, of course, but it appears that McLaren means it.

So, if he doesn't engage with professional criticism, and doesn't engage with the theatre community, who exactly does he engage with?

Therein lies the problem: there is no evidence that McLaren and Murray, former directors of the National Theatre of Scotland, have engaged with anyone since their arrival in Ireland.

It appears they do not realise the status of the Irish national theatre worldwide, do not know its history as a literary theatre, nor indeed the duties of a national theatre as set out in statute.

The Abbey receives €6.8m annually from the Irish taxpayer via the Arts Council. In the UK, its National will receive £66.8m (€74m) over the next three years.

Both companies have similar duties - the development and support of new talent in acting, directing, and playwriting; the preservation and performance of the national repertoire; the archiving of the national theatre heritage; and the opening up to their national audiences of the best in international theatre. Both companies have a history, and a clearly defined artistic rather than political duty.

In contrast, the National Theatre of Scotland was founded in 2005 as an artistic response to devolution - it had a deliberate base of nationalism rather than internationalism. It called itself a "theatre without walls".

Neil Murray, its executive producer from day one, had worked with the Marxist-inspired political company 7:84, and more recently ran Glasgow's Tron theatre, also ideologically political and leftwing.

McLaren, an actor turned director, came on board in 2013, already on record as saying that producing plays wasn't an end in itself, merely a means of "changing the f***ing planet". Effectively, niche theatre.

Also, whether the NTS accepted it or not, it was, in UK terms, a provincial theatre.

It wasn't a great background or record to run a renowned national theatre whose remit is to produce its own plays, rather than acting as a receiving house.

The letter was concerned chiefly with the financial problems the two men's policy of "co-production" (effectively handing over the Abbey's two stages to companies which used their own budgets, and did not eat into the Abbey's finances).

This policy, allied to a decision to engage in limited runs, reduced employment opportunities for practitioners. It also led to the eminent actor Jane Brennan revealing she was paid Druid's top salary of €850 weekly when that company's Richard III transferred to the Abbey for the Dublin Theatre Festival. The Abbey rate is €950.

The reactive statement from the Abbey claimed that their policy was based in part on reducing a deficit of €1.4m inherited over 11 years previously. This claim was quoted widely on radio and TV last week. It was inaccurate and a clarification followed: "In fact there was no overall deficit."

The 2016 accounts show an unrestricted surplus of €500,000 and losses in the previous two years were covered by the reserve, and were pre-approved by the board and by the Arts Council.

The McLaren/Murray statement in reply to the letter claimed that "these losses were incurred by the programming model that the signatories' letter appears to advocate - a predominance of large scale Abbey self-produced shows with little access for smaller independent companies and artists". Except, as said, there was no deficit to be wiped out.

It is startling to the point almost of incredulity that such an error should have been made: €1.4m is almost 26pc of the annual grant to the Abbey of €6.8m - a huge percentage.

And the letter from the practitioners pointed out that not a single Irish-based artist was employed by the Abbey since last September, and will not be until the end of February this year.

It's also worth noting that the policy of short runs and "co-productions" seems not to have been followed with productions which are personally directed by Graham McLaren. The 2017 Theatre Festival production of Dermot Bolger's version of Ulysses, was revived for a long summer run in 2018, and was also claimed as a "world premiere" which it was not. It was staged under Murray's aegis at the Tron Theatre in 2012, and that company toured with it to Dublin's Project.

And the commitment to touring Abbey productions was filled countrywide last summer with Jimmy's Hall, again a musical piece, and directed by McLaren.

It could be argued that the Abbey Board has only itself to blame for the huge discontent by the appointment of a directorship so unaware and without any experience of national-level building-based theatre, or literary theatre, or indeed the Abbey's remit.

That remit was made clear and reinforced in 2002 when the company faced bankruptcy, was bailed out, restructured, and handed over in good order to Fiach Mac Conghail, the first producer rather than director to control it the since that days of Ernest Blythe, and also the first to have single authority since Blythe's days.

In the intervening period, authority and responsibility had been divided between a managing director and an artistic director. That alone might have sounded warning bells. It had been widely held that a division of responsibility was part of the cause of the disastrous financial situation which the Abbey found itself facing into in the new century.

Yet, the board made it specifically clear that applications from a duo would be welcome.

Nor can the Arts Council escape blame for the current crisis. It has a difficult role in that it is the paymaster on behalf of the taxpayer, but it must also not interfere with the artistic autonomy of the company. But certainly, there should be no problem in exercising rigid financial control and ensuring financial probity.

Yet it was only with the Abbey caught with its pants down over not paying actors its own rate that the council stepped in last week to withhold €300,000 of 2019 funding pending "assurances" about the "quality of employment opportunities for Irish-based artists".

Has nobody from the Arts Council been exercising a financial watching brief, or indeed listening to the artists until now?

The letter from the artists was addressed to the Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan.

Her reaction was predictably lame: that she expected the sides to engage, and she "looked forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome". Yet to be fair, there was, and is, little she could do. The Arts Council is autonomous and has a duty to remain at arms length from the department.

One solution, which would be highly unwelcome to the Arts Council, would be for the Abbey, as a member of the Council of National Cultural Institutions, to be directly funded from the Department of Finance as are the other institutions. This was mooted a number of years ago, with the Abbey keenly in favour and the Arts Council resisting a reduction in its territory.

But as things stand, it begins to seem that our national theatre only receives the attention it deserves when a crisis strikes.

  • Emer O'Kelly is the drama critic of the Sunday Independent

Sunday Independent