The plot thickens as our national theatre faces some serious drama

Theatre is a place where power is distributed very unevenly, writes Gerard Howlin. 

IT supposedly shows all, but mostly the people who count are seldom seen. It shares with the arts generally a bravado about speaking truth to power, but largely it’s a go-along, get-along place. There is a lot more kissing of hands backstage than biting the hand feeding those on stage. The stepping-up of more than 300 theatre people to complain stridently about the changed model of production at the Abbey, our national theatre, is a real moment of drama.

The letter of protest signed by so many is curiously addressed to Minister Josepha Madigan and also curiously focused on the theatre’s co-directors Graham McLaren and Neil Murray.

Power fundamentally lies with neither, nor ultimately does responsibility.

They may be the most prominent characters in the plot, but they are far from being the most important.

It is the board of the Abbey which has power over policy, and bears all the responsibility for the change of direction at the national theatre. That change is not accidental. It is not connived by theatrically invidious foreigners like the Scotsmen McLaren and Murray. It was planned for, provided for and supported by the board. That is a statement of the obvious, but overlooked in the brouhaha.

The appointment of co-directors, who direct theatre as distinct from running it, and the hiring of non-Irish directors and alumni of the National Theatre of Scotland, was a determined move-on.

It occurred under a very odd circumstance too, and one which left much to be desired in terms of governance. The former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon had already served two five-year terms as chair of the board when his tenure was extended again for a further year.

Bizarrely, and entirely incorrectly in my view, he took upon himself the responsibility to lead the recruitment process to replace the long-serving and outgoing director Fiach MacConghail.

Outgoing Abbey thatre director director Fiach MacConghail
Outgoing Abbey thatre director director Fiach MacConghail

Long-serving chairs, replacing long-serving CEOs, just as they themselves are about to leave, seldom ends well and so it has proved. It is no secret that McMahon was not a stalwart of a regime he presided over for so long, and effectively swept away by remaining long enough to replace it.

Changing everything at the end, and then leaving, is as good a definition of power without responsibility as can be imagined.

Obvious facts, peculiarly overlooked since the letter of protest was published on Monday, is that McLaren and Murray came from the National Theatre of Scotland. Much of what is complained of here now is intrinsic to a successful model there.

This modus operandi was their calling card. I don’t know them personally but my clear sense is that they are doing exactly what they said they would, if given the chance, which they were. The grounds for complaint are clear.

On the basis of Monday’s letter, I think they are largely misdirected, however. Knowing where power lies, and how pressure can be applied, is different from knowing your lines.

If MacMahon is the author of a living legacy at the Abbey, he is nonetheless gone. The chair of the board is now Frances Ruane, formerly of the ESRI. It is an arts appointment in the tradition of Viceroys sent out to govern unruly natives. It’s implicit that they need someone to look up too, and we need someone to keep them in order.

But that’s a bigger issue, and definitely one for the minister. It will be a test of character, and a litmus test of Madigan’s real sense of the arts, whether she breaks out of the professional status of solicitor and appoints a replacement to the outgoing chair of the Arts Council Sheila Pratschke, who similarly is of the arts and speaks truth to power regardless. But that is another more imminent issue.

Back at the Abbey, the body corporate which is the board bears all the responsibility for policy and governance including accountability for expenditure. This bears specifically on rates paid to actors and others in co-productions.

If I were advising the artists who have complained, I’d suggest their first port of call should be the chair and board. By focusing on McLaren and Murray they have gone down a cul de sac. This is a policy issue, which is what boards are for.

The second person I would seek out is the chair of the Public Accounts Committee Seán Fleming. His committee has a crowded agenda, but the Comptroller and Auditor General can best and most swiftly get to the bottom of what goes where, what the Abbey budget is used for.

Categorical guarantees were given to the Arts Council about rates of pay for co-productions. This issue is months old and the council has withheld €300,000 as a warning shot. Yet loud complaints persist. It is a fundamental question.

A very curious assertion from the Abbey is that the current directors inherited a deficit of €1.4 million. In fact the accounts show a surplus of €488,000 was carried into 2017. The ‘deficit’ it turns out was the investment of an accrued surplus in 2016, an important centenary year. I love theatre. I prefer my facts served straight-up, thank you.

What is the Abbey for?

The bigger issue, however, is none of the above. It is this: what is the Abbey for?

It was founded to be something more than a transfer lounge for shows travelling from Broadway to London. It is to be distinctly Irish, and a platform for the best from abroad. It is to nourish writers and feed the entire theatre ecosystem as a national institution. It has obligations far beyond any commercial or other theatre. Its board is either not seized of that mission, or unable to understand the difference between setting policy and following it through with accountability and support.

One thing the board is seized of is building a new Abbey Theatre, fronting onto the Liffey. But the National Theatre of Scotland has no theatre building. Opening its modest offices Scotland’s culture secretary said, “the National Theatre of Scotland should not be constrained by any city, by any building, by any stage”.

That is a radically different model indeed. Perhaps it is worthy of discussion. But no such discussion has taken place. Instead personnel change brought policy change, and that change is happening completely outside the context it is imported from.

As the supporting ecosystem for Irish theatre dries up, looking longingly at air fix models of new theatre buildings is no substitute for finding and supporting great Irish playwriting now.

Offstage, a behemoth called the National Children’s hospital is gorging available capital resources. What is euphemistically called rescheduling of other projects is ominously promised, but remains unexplained.

The irony and the present danger is that the Abbey might indeed fully imitate the Scottish model.

The Abbey was founded to be distinctly Irish, and has obligations beyond any commercial or other theatre

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