The Irish Times view on the Abbey Theatre: Grievances must be resolved
Actors and writers who were once devoted to the national stage no longer feel a sense of belonging there
There is an onus on our National Theatre to continually refresh its in-house repertoire. Why else does it receive such a high proportion of public funding for theatre in Ireland? Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In October, Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan expressed satisfaction with the way the Abbey Theatre had responded to concerns about job opportunities and pay rates and its failure to develop more new work by Irish playwrights. She described its handling of these issues as “a real demonstration of collaboration between theatre practitioners, between the Abbey and various other stakeholders”. It was, she said, “an ongoing conversation”.
That conversation was loudly interrupted last week with this newspaper’s revelation of accusations that the theatre had reneged on commitments to redress the situation. The original signatories to an open letter condemning an approach to programming that reduced the number of roles for Irish actors and other freelancers, along with the Writers’ Guild of Ireland, contend there is little evidence of sufficient improvements to indicate the theatre was in fact collaborating with the sector in the way the Minister perceived.
The board and directors may be tempted to reference the recently-reported 28 per cent rise in box office receipts and audience growth to defend its policies, but that would be missing the point. There is an onus on our National Theatre to continually refresh its in-house repertoire. Why else does it receive such a high proportion of public funding for theatre in Ireland? There can be a costly but necessary risk element in the gestation of new work, but the Abbey seems unwilling – or uninterested – to take this on. Recent neglect of the Irish canon and the Abbey’s own rich repository has also been condemned. The co-production model adopted by the new directors may be good for the Abbey coffers but not the many artists denied work as a result.
Those who established the theatre saw it as the incubator for new drama that would “bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland”. The only deep emotions at the moment belong to the many actors and writers who had once devoted their talents to the national stage and no longer feel a sense of belonging there. Their many grievances are legitimate and must be resolved.