My friends, let us be frank. This is no mere kerfuffle. It is not even a brouahaha. This is a full on clusterpickle. I refer of course to the controversy following the release by the Irish Times of the findings of the Abbey Theatre’s independent assessment…you have no idea what I’m talking about do you?
Okay, little background. The Abbey Theatre was founded in Dublin in 1902 by WB Yeats and others to showcase Irish writing and culture and played an important part in fostering a sense of unique cultural Irish identity in the early twentieth century. This in turn fed into the political and military independence movements of the time which finally resulted in the creation of an Irish Free State in the twenties. This is why, from 1925 onward the Abbey became the first state-subsidised theatre in the English speaking world, a status it retains to this day (although it is not fully funded by the government and never has been). We can argue about the appropriateness of a theatre being even partially funded by the taxpayer but I would argue that this has been hugely beneficial to both parties. Firstly, the Abbey is a major part of Ireland’s reputation as a literary powerhouse; Yeats, O’Casey, Synge, Hugh Leonard, Brian Friel, Frank McGuinness, Tom Murphy, Conor McPhearson…all have worked with and been supported by the Abbey at one time or another, and this commitment to new writing continues to this day. Contrast this with the other venerable institution of the Dublin Theatre scene, the Gate, which now deals almost exclusively in either classics from the theatrical canon that can be assured of a big draw or adaptations of popular novels. That can be assured of a big draw. And that’s not a diss on the Gate, but the fact remains that in a theatre scene as small and yet as fiercely competitive as Dublin’s, there is precious little room for error for a theatre the size of the Gate. One flop could kill them, and when you’re in that situation the last thing you can afford to do is experiment. The next great Irish playwright to emerge will almost certainly emerge from the Abbey, not the Gate, because government funding allows the Abbey to take the chance on the next big thing. And I will be waiting by the phone.
Now, when you receive tax-payer money there is of course a responsibility to ensure that money is being spent well. This is why Fiach MacConghail, the director of the Abbey Theatre, and the Arts Council who provide the Abbey’s funding, asked three independent experts to assess the Abbey’s productions for a year. Honest criticism is very hard to come by in the Irish theatre scene because a) you don’t want to insult someone you may be working with in a few months’ time and b) EVERYBODY KNOWS EVERYBODY. This is why the three assessors were chosen from outside Ireland, an English professor of Irish history and two theatre directors, one English and one Scottish. The resulting report was pretty tough, but then that was the point. This was supposed to be a frank, take no prisoners, tell it like it is sort of report to allow the Abbey to work on areas that needed improvement. And that would have been that. But then, enter the Irish Media…
The Irish Times requested access to the report from the Arts Council for the full report under freedom of information legislation and published the whole damn thing. Not only that, but they refused a request by Fiach to at least redact the names of the individual actors, writers and directors who came in for criticism by the panel (you can read his dignified response to the whole mess here). Which is what is known in the theatrical world as a “dick move”. It is also known as that in other worlds. And now the Irish theatre scene has basically blown up over this. People are feeling betrayed and humiliated, accusations are flying, critics of the Abbey are crowing like big massive cocks (the birds of course) and basically, in a word: DRAMA.
Now if you’ve come here for a sober and dispassionate take on all this you’ve probably come to the wrong place. I love the Abbey. I go whenever I can get a babysitter, a great many of my friends work there in one capacity or another, they trained me as a playwright for a year, have supported me as a writer for five, staged the first ever professional production of my writing on the Peacock stage. I owe these guys a lot so let me be very clear that I am in their corner here. But I’m not going to dispute or criticise the findings of the panel, who were asked to give their honest opinion and gave it. And that opinion basically boils down to: “We saw twelve plays. Four of them were awesome (though we can’t agree which ones). Five were solid. And there were three that we thought really needed to be better for a professional theatre (although again, we can’t agree which ones).” What I would dispute, however, is the implication by the Irish Times and others that these findings mean that the Abbey is not a “world class” theatre. That somehow, being one of the most historic and storied theatres in the English speaking world that has and continues to foster the best in new Irish writing means nothing unless three individuals go to twelve plays and love every single last one of them. Because theatre doesn’t work like that. No three people will ever agree on what makes a fantastic piece of theatre. I have stood in lobbies after a show cursing the two hours that I will never get back while my wife stands trembling beside me in the still lingering throes of near religious theatrical ecstasy. Some people will now genuinely, with a straight face, say that the Abbey should produce “better plays” or risk losing its funding. Okay. How will you measure that? Write down for me what makes a good play. If it’s financially successful? If it’s “ripped from the headlines” relevant to the present day? If it’s timeless in its themes and message? Creating theatre is not chemistry, it’s alchemy. It’s the fusing of a million different elements, egos, talents, words, hopes, sweat, blood, prayers, fear, madness and a huge big frothy dollop of luck and throwing it onstage and hoping something sparkles in the darkness. It is not something that can be quantified and planned and worked out to the last decimal place (and if it was I sure as hell wouldn’t want to watch it). You cannot increase the quality of Theatre Output by 30%. If there are obvious problems with the way some plays are produced then obviously that should be addressed (which was the point of the whole exercise in the first place). But no theatre can produce exceptional theatre 100% per cent of the time. That’s the whole point. It is exceptional. All any theatre can do, be it a small parish hall or the National Theatre, is to honestly and whole-heartedly work to make every piece of theatre as good as it can be. Speaking from personal experience, in the Abbey Theatre that is all they ever do. And they will make mistakes. In the words of another Irish writer who never had any sort of relationship with the Abbey because that would make this ending so much more effective, damn it: “Ever try. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
NOTE: This post originally stated that the Abbey is the only theatre in Ireland to receive public funding. This is incorrect, many theatres and theatre companies in Ireland receive some level of government subsidy. Thanks to Derbhle Crotty for the correction.