Culture shock: ‘Cruel’ and unusual? The facts of the Abbey story

Just what form of public accountability will the National Theatre tolerate?

Transparency theory:  Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, addressing the Theatre of Memory symposium last week. Photograph: Alan Betson

Transparency theory: Fiach Mac Conghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, addressing the Theatre of Memory symposium last week. Photograph: Alan Betson

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:00

Imagine for a moment that the headline on the Irish Times news story about the Abbey had been “Panel endorses Abbey Theatre’s ‘world-class’ status”. Would the director of the Abbey, Fiach Mac Conghail, have suggested that the publication of these glowing assessments from an independent expert panel was wrong? To suggest that he would is to demand suspension of disbelief far beyond even the most absurdist piece of theatre.

So let’s be clear: Mac Conghail’s problem is not that The Irish Times has published internal reports obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It is that those reports are, in some cases, sharply negative. The attempt to turn this story into a 19th-century melodrama by repeatedly accusing The Irish Times of being “cruel” is an effort to distract from the simple truth of this affair: that a process which Mac Conghail, in his own word, “initiated” has produced some bad news for the Abbey.

A few facts might not go astray. The first is that Mac Conghail was a prime mover in setting up the international review panel. The documents we have obtained from the Arts Council show very clearly that he was involved at every stage in the process: in insisting on the review process; in agreeing – in some detail – the criteria the assessors should use; in agreeing that Roy Foster, Nick Kent and Mike Griffiths were suitable assessors; and in jointly funding their visits. He received each report shortly after it was written and, presumably, discussed it with his board and with the artists involved.

This is important because some people who have commented on the affair seem to believe that they are defending the Abbey when they attack the review process as ill conceived. If it is ill conceived, those who were involved in its conception are the Arts Council and Mac Conghail himself. It is not The Irish Times’s evaluation of Abbey productions; it is the Abbey’s. If people have complaints about that process, they should address them to the man who initiated and oversaw it.

The second point concerns the timing of The Irish Times story. This has two aspects. One is the hysterical accusation that The Irish Times arranged to hold the story so that its publication would undermine the three-day Theatre of Memory symposium that concluded at the theatre last Saturday. Niall MacMonagle, in a letter to the Editor, alleged that “The Irish Times deliberately attempted to throw a hand grenade” at the event. Apart from showing complete ignorance of the way newspapers work, this also makes me a suicide bomber, as I was myself an enthusiastic participant in the symposium. One can but despair that serious questions about a major Irish public institution are reduced to this level of wild conspiracy-hunting.

Much more substantially, Mac Conghail maintains that it was wrong of The Irish Times to publish the reports “halfway through a private evaluation process”. We’ll come back to the “private” bit, but is the evaluation process halfway through? In fact the time frame for the process is completely unclear. Mac Conghail said on Arena, on RTÉ Radio 1 on Monday night, that it was to take “a year, two years”. He also said that it was envisaged that it would take in 10 or 12 productions. The material published by The Irish Times meets both criteria: it covers 12 productions over a period of more than 18 months.

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