The Irish Times view on the Abbey Theatre: legitimate grievances
The plethora of revivals of successful shows may be good for the box office but is doing little for renewal of the creative repertoire
Graham McLaren and Neil Murray, the directors of the Abbey Theatre. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Throughout its long history the Abbey Theatre has seldom been without controversy of some kind. Yet to have more than 300 Irish theatre practitioners sign an open letter of condemnation is unprecedented. Following their appointment, the theatre’s directors – Neil Murray and Graham McLaren – became the darlings of the sector by opening the doors of the theatre to a more collaborative approach, working with and inviting in other smaller independent companies to avail of the national stage. But that policy has now backfired.
Behind the anger of the open letter is justifiable concern that the freelance sector has been “cast adrift”. Most of those working in Irish theatre are freelance. The final insult of the directors’ new programming model appears to have been its Christmas production – a show bought in from abroad, again unprecedented. The letter starkly states the consequence: the Abbey has had “five and a half months without an Irish-based actor directly employed”. This is hardly appropriate given the Abbey’s origins as a theatre founded by Irish actors and writers, and it is certainly not acceptable given that it consumes half the State funding directed to theatre in Ireland by the Arts Council.
The litany of grievances against the new directors is further compounded by the claim that as a result of their policy of working with the independent sector, actors are being paid lower rates, up to 25 per cent less in some cases.
Artistically, questions might also be raised. Although the Abbey staged the Druid Shakespeare’s Richard III as its main Theatre Festival offering in 2018, surely its responsibility is to originate its own productions. The plethora of revivals of successful shows may be good for the box office but is doing little for renewal of the creative repertoire or reputation of our national theatre.
On their appointment, the directors said they believed they could “tap into the amazing talent and resources that exist in Ireland”. They appear to have done so, but in unexpected and damaging ways.