A year in the life of The Abbey: breathless enthusiasm and air-kissing luvvies

TV Review: In The Abbey, A Riot Of Our Own there is endless enthusiasm but whether the directors are winning in their crusade to shake things up, it’s hard to tell

Directors of the Abbey Theatre Neil Murray and Graham McLaren: vision and ambition go hand in glove

Directors of the Abbey Theatre Neil Murray and Graham McLaren: vision and ambition go hand in glove

 

Pray that in your next life, you’re even a fraction as enthused and enamoured of your job as Graham McLaren and Neil Murray appear to be. The two Scotsmen became joint directors of Ireland’s Abbey Theatre in 2017 following the departure of Fiach Mac Conghail. If The Abbey, A Riot Of Our Own (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 10.15pm) is anything to go by, their vision and ambition go hand in glove. “The first thing I do in the morning is check how many tickets we’ve sold the night before,” admits Murray. McLaren is every bit as invested: “We want to change the world, and the way we will change our little corner is through the theatre,” he declares.

Much of documentary making is about being in the right place at the right time, and in fairness, director Maurice O’Brien’s cameras arrive at the Abbey during 2017, a spectacularly fortuitous year. Waking The Feminists has shaken Irish theatre to its boots, prompting the Abbey’s new gaffers to take decisive action to redress gender imbalance (which they appear to do, in the end: 2018’s programme boasts productions written by 42 per cent male writers to 58 per cent female writers). In 2017 the Abbey are creating the highest number of productions – 15 in all – with the most strained budgets in decades. There is talk of a significant renovation project.

McLaren and Murray are evidently grappling with the delicate balance between running a national theatre and a commercial one; there is much enthusiastic talk about opening the space for other art forms and purposes. 2017 also marks the first year that Abbey productions will tour 16 counties across the country. Critical junctures galore, in a word.

“Is the Abbey ready for the kind of programme we want to introduce?” they both ask. It’s the right question, the only question, but a question that ultimately remains unanswered here.

There is a mere glimmer of personal investments made on the part of McLaren and Murray, as well as the professional: “I’ve uprooted my family, I’ve put everything I have on the line here,” admits McLaren. “I’m home, exhausted, wake up and do it all over again.”

As angles go, O’Brien has been gifted an embarrassment of riches. A compelling narrative arc is waiting to be grabbed here, with perhaps one problem; turns out that there indeed can be too much of a good thing. O’Brien has captured a surplus of great moments on camera, from prop maker Eimear Murphy unveiling a pram from the 1926 premiere of The Plough And The Stars to Ulysses actor Bryan Burroughs having a moment of quiet reflection before the curtain rises. Yet these are all too few, and at least five minutes of footage of luvvies air-kissing each other on opening nights could have been done away with to present even more of these insightful gems.

The Abbey: A Riot Of Their Own is near breathless with enthusiasm and vim, flitting from one production to the next: Jimmy’s Hall, Ulysses, The Unmanageable Sisters, Not A Funny Word. Yet in the great rush to be an exhaustive account of a year in the life of the National Theatre, the emotional temperature – not to mention the famously electric atmosphere of theatreland – have remained somewhat unchecked.

McLaren and Murray’s likability and earnest ebullience ably carries the hour-long documentary, yet whether they are winning in their crusade to shake things up, it’s hard to tell. Of his production of Dermot Bolger’s version of Ulysses, McLaren muses: “It’s hard to know if I’m offending people or breathing new life into it.”

Presumably, he’s realised by now that this is entirely the point.

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