The directors' artistic vision won't be revealed through the admirable benevolence of coproduction but through their in-house productions. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
When introducing the Abbey Theatre’s programme in 2017 there was a line used by Graham McLaren, one of the good-natured artistic directors of the theatre. “It’s not people like us who run a national theatre. It is us,” he said, with encouragement. “You don’t have to have an Edwardian frock coat”. It was such a nice reassurance of the national theatre’s approachability, promising to include new collaborators and draw new audiences, you could miss what sounded like a subtle dig against W.B. Yeats.
Traditionalists may grimace at that shot against one of the Abbey founders but McLaren and his co-artistic director Neil Murray have hardly led the theatre into disrepute. With a dramatic surge in shows, rising attendance and an improved box office, the first two years of their administration look good. A casual observer could be surprised that the Abbey is being protested by over 300 artists from the independent sector.
That increased activity is down to the artistic directors’ new model, featuring more shows over shorter runs, something radical compared to previous years. In 2015, for instance, the theatre employed artists for two co-productions and seven in-house productions programmed to run for at least three weeks, with one even lasting nine weeks.
In 2019 we can expect two new co-productions running between one and two weeks, and only three in-house productions with the longest run belonging to The Country Girls at six weeks. Artists are now employed on shorter contracts.
Having a generous amount of theatre for audiences to see is a strange complaint to make but what if it starves the workforce that the wider theatre industry relies on? “It has caused devastation in our ranks,” read a letter of complaint received by Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan this week, signed by 312 artists.
Public reactions to that letter were easy to stoke without the Abbey’s misplaced claim of inheriting a £1.4m deficit (leading to an apology to the previous artistic director, the always canny Fiach Mac Conghail), and the unsettling tribalism in the letters page of the Irish Times against Murray and McLaren, who are from Wales and Scotland respectively.
Those distractions aside it’s easy to understand the concerns of the Arts Council, which has frozen the Abbey’s funding until it evidences more opportunities for artists. If that involved increasing the number of in-house productions, it wouldn’t only generate more employment, it would clarify the national theatre’s current artistic vision.
Artistic manifestos are often vague, and usually don’t reference specific endeavours. Launching the Abbey’s 2019 season last month McLaren showed surprising reverence to Yeats and the theatre’s founders by quoting their aim to “bring upon the stage the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland”.
But a more revealing policy from that time came from Lady Augusta Gregory, another Abbey founder. When a moneyed producer tried to tempt Yeats away from the theatre, she wrote to another director: “The right of first production of Yeats’s work is our chief distinction”. You could disagree with that commitment but there’s no denying its pith.
Whatever McLaren and Murray’s artistic vision is, it won’t be revealed through the admirable benevolence of co-production and receiving shows from other companies. The Abbey’s artistic vision can only be revealed through its in-house productions.
In looking at shows where the current artistic directors have chosen the play and creatives themselves, it’s difficult to see what their artistic vision is. That reduced strand of work has mostly sought inspiration from existing works (Jimmy’s Hall, Two Pints, Ulysses, What Put the Blood, The Unmanageable Sisters, The Country Girls), making room for only two new plays (Porcelain, Come on Home) and two revivals from the canon (Katie Roche, On Rafferty’s Hill).
When I met other regular theatregoers and asked them to point out a breakout performance or the return of a leading actor in those productions, I was met with shrugs.
It’s odd to make such grievances when the theatre is taking one of its biggest risks in years by putting three new plays on the Abbey Stage. The hope would be that if Citysong by Dylan Coburn Gray, This Great Village by Lisa Tierney-Keogh and Last Orders at the Dockside by Dermot Bolger all find audiences, they may help restore new writing as a common event on that stage.
That suggests that the theatre is actually in good hands. They just shouldn't take in-house productions for granted, as if hearing what the Abbey has to say wasn't a national pastime.