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
“A powerful production of a play which while not Tom Murphy’s very best (a high standard indeed) is dramatic, suggestive, sad, sociologically and psychologically acute, and very moving. The production did justice to all these qualities.”
“A wonderfully acted production – certainly world-class acting from the whole committed and very talented company – of an Irish modern classic that . . . could certainly hold its own internationally.”
“The play has some beautiful writing and very interesting characters, but I wouldn’t describe this performance as world-class theatre . . . Let down by the lack of attention to detail both on the technical side and with some of the individual performances.”
The Plough and the Stars Overall score: 2
By Sean O’Casey, directed by Wayne Jordan, September 2012
“The acting was generally below a level I would have expected . . . Bluster replaced truthful emotion and the production seemed totally dislocated from the imperatives of its period . . . The acting felt old-fashioned and a world away from modern best practice . . . A long and wasted night which made me question why this play was being revived yet again. O’Casey is what the Abbey should do best, and not what it should just do often . . . To field a cast so under par in a production so emotionally barren is depressing.”
“This production doesn’t add much or particularly engage me . . . Competent but not much more. No real attempt has been made to make the production relevant to audiences today and the style of performance is comfortable and slightly old fashioned.”
“Variably paced, uneven performances, uncertainly directed . . . The vital second act was very well conceived and performed . . . The last seemed interminable.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray Overall score: 2.9
By Oscar Wilde, adapted and directed by Neil Bartlett, October 2012
“This was a high-quality piece of theatre that gave a different approach to this semi-Faustian tale . . . Very contemporary.”
“It would not set the world on fire, but for the most part it achieved what it set out to do.”
“A profoundly unsatisfying production, tediously full of self-indulgence and cliche . . . The camp embellishments came across as pure hokum . . . Far from ‘world class’, the adaptation was like a bad undergraduate production, lacking bite, edge and novelty and with no sense of economy or thought.”
Shibari Overall score 2.6
By Gary Duggan, directed by Tom Creed, November 2012
“It was very good to see the Peacock used for a new play by a talented young playwright, especially directed by the immensely impressive Tom Creed, but the pleasure stopped there . . . The connections were so unlikely, the characters so obviously drawn, and the writing so inadequate that the general effect was infuriating . . . In many years of going to fringe productions in London and Dublin I would rate this as a fairly low point.”
“This was a highly competent piece of theatre and although I wouldn’t call it ‘world class’ it was perfectly positioned in the Peacock . . . There was some lovely writing and all in all it worked well.”
Quietly Overall score 4
By Owen McCafferty, directed by Jimmy Fay, December 2012
“A powerful piece of theatre about the aftermath of the conflict in the North of Ireland . . . Evocative set. A good production that allows the actor and text to breathe, and three excellent performances.”
“Production values are high with fairly good performances . . . Nothing particularly innovative in the production but it does tackle a difficult and very contemporary subject.”
“A powerful, cleverly staged, completely gripping new play . . . One of the very best things I have seen at the Abbey.”
The Dead Overall score 2.3
By James Joyce, adapted by Frank McGuinness, December 2012
“Clunky and literal and (after a brilliant opening) the effect was of a rather lacklustre transposition of Joycean dialogue . . . Bad sets and some lamentable miscasting . . . There should have been far more ambition connected with the whole enterprise.”
“As a historical piece it is interesting, but I had hoped that a modern adaptation might reveal some more contemporary insights . . . An elegant production with many elements that worked well.”
“The adaptation was somewhat clunky and the production traditional and old-fashioned. The tableaux felt rather like a series of table mats at a fashionable dinner.”
King Lear Overall score 3.2
By William Shakespeare, directed by Selina Cartmell, February 2013
“Clear and accessible . . . never dull . . . a couple of very good performances . . . some interesting ideas . . . I was underwhelmed by the set design which with the costume design seemed a pastiche of Shakespearean designs of the 1950s . . . The production lacked the detailed work and finish which would have added depth to some of the characters.”
Drum Belly Overall score 3.7
By Richard Dormer, directed by Sean Holmes, May 2013
“A clever and brave piece of programming which works well . . . Technically good with dramatic lighting and sound . . . Some good writing and some good work had been done from a printed script to the stage version.”
“The play itself is rather uneven and the direction occasionally wavered in focus and tone, but the performances were uniformly first rate and the impact of the play considerable . . . Could be an effective contender in, say, an international festival, but perhaps not a major winner.”
“A bold play to present on the main stage . . . The acting was of a very high standard and the production was very well executed . . . Stronger on style than substance . . . Could have benefitted from more dramaturgical work before being produced.”
Major Barbara Overall score 2.5
By Bernard Shaw, directed by Annabelle Comyn, September 2013
“I don’t understand why the Abbey has chosen to produce this play at this time . . . The production remains faithful to the words and although it is not world-class, the evening never feels slow.”
“The production lacked flair and the arguments within the play were handled without wit or charisma . . . A disappointing evening at the Abbey that would just about have passed muster in an English regional repertory theatre.”
“Average rather than excellent; absorbing enough for a committed Shavian like myself but it didn’t come across as a vital rereading of a fascinating though flawed ‘think-piece’ play.”
Maeve’s House Overall score 4
By Eamon Morrissey, directed by Gerard Stembridge, October 2013
“This was a little gem of a piece . . . Carefully crafted and beautifully staged and performed. It touched on home, immigration and managed to weave in Maeve Brennan’s stories with delicacy and balance . . . Eamon is a masterful storyteller and a consummate professional . . . A beautiful set . . . Beautifully lyrical with seamless transitions into and out of the short stories.”
The Hanging Gardens Overall score 3.4
By Frank McGuinness, directed by Patrick Mason, November 2013
“Not a particularly challenging evening in terms of structure or style . . . Far from [McGuinness’s] best work . . . A good production with two inspired central performances and the cast around them also very assured. The set was uninspired . . . old-fashioned and aesthetically disappointing . . . I cannot say that I feel confident that if this play was by an unknown writer it would have received the attention it did or even necessarily have been staged by the Abbey . . . Good overall, but not world-class.”
“The structure of the play does make it quite ponderous at times and the children seemed to be a collection of contemporary issues to be commented on and ticked off as the play progressed. There was some lovely poetic line-by-line writing and I’m sure it would translate well to radio . . . A good production of a difficult play . . . Didn’t leave me with a particularly lasting impression.”