From the stormy reception given to Synge and O’Casey plays at the beginning of the last century to the more recent Waking the Feminists movement, the Abbey Theatre has a history of making news as well as art.
Now it’s being talked about again, with the latest controversy centering on what is being produced on its stages and, crucially, by whom.
Neil Murray and Graham McLaren took over as directors of the Abbey in 2016. The two had worked together at the National Theatre of Scotland and, from the outset promised change, aiming to open the theatre's stage to those who mightn't have felt represented there before. Their passion for the cause can be in no doubt, a television documentary made about their first season shows McLaren giving rousing speeches to staff and performers and talking about theatre ‘changing the f’ing planet’. Meanwhile, slightly more sober, but no less ambitious language is used in the theatre’s strategy 2019 – 2023 which can be read on its website and talks about the Abbey providing challenging experiences for audiences, reflecting and nurturing Ireland’s artists in all their diversity and making and presenting the broadest possible range of theatre.
Audiences too could be forgiven for thinking that things have been going well at the national theatre. The new directors instigated a system of giving out free tickets to some performances, leading to queues down Abbey Street, and shows like Jimmy’s Hall and Roddy Doyle's Two Pints took the theatre’s work out to a non-Dublin audience and even into public bars. Meanwhile plays like an adaptation of Louise O'Neill's novel Asking for It (co-produced with The Everyman in Cork) were praised for being contemporary and relevant while the current winter show, Come From Away has generated good reviews and significant social media buzz.
A theatre like the Abbey can function in two ways; by producing its own work in-house, and by putting on work originally produced elsewhere.
There was therefore some surprise outside theatre circles when an open letter to the Abbey Board, the Arts Council and the Minster for Culture and Heritage was circulated last Monday afternoon. Signed by over 300 members of the theatre community, many of them well-known names, the letter outlined what it said was theatre practitioners’ ‘deep dissatisfaction’ with the direction the Abbey has taken under its new directors and said that the freelance community, in particular, had been ‘cast adrift’.
So what seems to be the problem? A theatre like the Abbey can function in two ways; by producing its own work in-house, and by putting on work originally produced elsewhere. Those who signed Monday's letter claimed the theatre is staging too many outside productions or co-produced work, saying this has had a serious impact on employment prospects at the Abbey and on rates of pay. The letter argued that fewer people are now directly employed by the theatre and claimed that working conditions for non-acting staff including directors and designers had also deteriorated. It also says that the Abbey’s programming policy has had a knock-on effect on other theatres, because ‘receiving theatres’ who stage independently produced shows have seen gaps in their schedules because that work is now being put on at the Abbey. The authors of the letter singled out Come From Away for particular criticism, saying that as a commercial Canadian piece of work, running in Dublin before it transferred to the West End it represented the ‘last straw’.
Audiences too could be forgiven for thinking that things have been going well at the national theatre.
Shortly after the letter became public, The Abbey issued a robust defence of its position, saying it continues to produce a ‘significant’ number of in-house shows and that over the past two years it has led on gender equality and opened its doors to companies and artists who did not previously have access to it. It also pointed to rising audience figures and, regarding Come From Away, said the show was programmed for its artistic integrity and is expected to return a profit that would be invested in the Abbey programme.
The theatre also said it had huge respect for the artists who signed the letter, and took their concerns very seriously, and invited the representatives of those concerned to meet management to discuss the issues raised.
Arts Minister Josepha Madigan also acknowledged the letter, and said she would welcome a meeting of the two sides. Meanwhile, the Arts Council revealed it had previously sought assurances from the Abbey in relation to employment for Irish based artists and that it was withholding a portion of the theatre’s funding, E300,000 pending confirmation that its conditions had been met. In fact, the issue had been raised as far back at the Arts Council’s October board meeting and The Abbey has now said a working group has been established to give the Arts Council the information it is seeking.
On Friday afternoon, the theatre said it had held a discussion with the signatories about the proposed meeting. At the time of writing, details haven't been finalised, but The Abbey said it's listening 'attentively and with respect' to all viewpoints and hoped a meeting would lead to a 'better and more resilient theatre community for all'.
Watch: Graham McLaren in The Abbey: A Riot Of Their Own
The next production scheduled for the Abbey main stage is Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls - adapted by the author herself, it’s an Abbey production and is being directed by Graham McLaren. This will be a noteworthy production for several reasons, not least because book is also the One City One Book choice for Dublin city this April.
The Abbey Theatre will be hoping that the drama onstage will be the focus of public attention by the time the play opens on February 24th.