Abbey confidential: outside experts unimpressed by our national theatre
An internal report by international assessors suggests the Abbey Theatre needs to stage much better productions if it really wants to be world class
10-8-05 Photograph: Matt Kavanagh Exterior/interiors at the Abbey Theatre for Arts
Reports by an independent panel of assessors suggest that the Abbey is struggling to meet its aim of being a world-class theatre. The assessors, appointed jointly by the Arts Council and the Abbey Theatre itself, gave just four of 12 productions marks that would rank them as very good or excellent, or extremely close to that. Four ranked as good and four were judged to be somewhere between good and acceptable.
Although some of the Abbey’s work drew high praise, some aspects of some productions were judged by individual assessors not even to reach “an acceptable standard for professional theatre presentation”.
The Abbey describes its mission as “to create world-class theatre that actively engages with and reflects Irish society”. Yet, asked to judge whether “the work presented is excellent when compared to best international practice, ie the extent to which the work is ‘world class’ ”, the assessors were broadly unimpressed. In only three productions did any one of the three panel members judge the standard to be world class in this sense. In no production did more than one panel member judge it to be world class. On the other hand, in three instances a panel member judged a production to be of an unacceptable professional standard.
The Irish Times obtained the reports under the Freedom of Information Act. The assessors’ names were blanked out, but The Irish Times understands that the three members of the “artistic evaluation” panel are Roy Foster, professor of Irish history at Oxford; the distinguished English theatre director Nicolas Kent; and Mike Griffiths, former administrative director of the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.
The proposal to appoint the panel took shape in September 2011. A draft memo obtained from the Arts Council records that “the Abbey Theatre now seeks to put in place an independent three-person panel of international experts to undertake the artistic evaluation of its work”. Its role would be to deliver “a robust evaluation of the Abbey Theatre’s work and role as Ireland’s national theatre” and allow the Abbey to “benchmark itself internationally”.
The suggestion was that the group would contain a director of international repute based outside Ireland, a design or technical expert of international repute, also based outside Ireland, and an academic or cultural practitioner with a “strong knowledge and sense of Irish cultural, social and political life”. The membership of the panel and their judging criteria were agreed with the Abbey’s director, Fiach Mac Conghail.
Beginning in May 2012 with Alice in Funderland, these assessors have so far submitted reports on 12 Abbey productions. Not all panel members saw each production. Panel members also gave written comments under each heading.
The three productions that one panel member considered to be world class were Tom Murphy’s emigration saga The House; Owen McCafferty’s drama about the aftermath of violence in the Troubles, Quietly; and Richard Dormer’s Irish-American crime story, Drum Belly.
At the other end of the scale, the three productions that one panel member considered to be below acceptable professional standards were a revival of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Gary Duggan’s debut work, about sex in contemporary Dublin, Shibari.
Alice in Funderland Overall score: 3.1
By Phillip McMahon and Raymond Scannell, directed by Wayne Jordan
“The idea of taking Alice in Wonderland through a Dublin drugs/youth-culture/gay prism was appealing and ambitious . . . The actual production, in terms of pyrotechnics, costumes, use of the set, was also imaginative if not always successful . . . The writing was not up to the challenge of the basic idea. It missed the intelligence needed to update or parody a classic . . . The audience – largely young – were immensely supportive and responsive, which was very good to see . . . I found it too long and too self-indulgent but I am very conscious that I was surrounded by people who would answer this question very differently.”
“Extremely well acted, designed and directed. The level of singing and musicianship was high. The cast extremely talented and enthusiastic . . . The quality of the writing was disappointing.”
The House Overall score 3.8
By Tom Murphy, directed by Annabelle Comyn