Defending the Abbey

Like many people I’ve been reading yesterday’s Irish Times report about how a panel of experts has declared that the Abbey is not meeting its stated aim of producing ‘world class’ theatre. My views on this shifted during the day – starting with the original article, then looking at excerpts from the reports, before reading the reports themselves on the Irish Times website.

My opinion is that any suggestion that there is some sort of crisis at the Abbey is massively wide of the mark. Yesterday I read several Facebook comments from non-theatre people who appeared to be forming the impression that the Abbey is one more Irish institution that has Let Us Down – like the HSE, the Central Remedial Clinic, Fianna Fail, The Catholic Church, and so on. I don’t think that’s at all true and wanted to explain why.

And I also just thought it would be good to try to address some of this off Facebook.

First of all, I have to declare some interests. Since last year I have been working closely with the Abbey on digitising their archive. For a number of years I wrote reviews of shows in the west of Ireland for the Irish Times, mostly when Deirdre Falvey was Arts Editor. And for a short period 3-4 years ago, I also wrote assessments for the Arts Council’s theatre advisor – reports very similar to those published yesterday (I never wrote about the Abbey though). This is what happens when you live in a small country… But I mention it to show that, since I  can be accused of bias in favour of all three of those organisations, I would hope this might create the impression that instead I’m biased in favour of none of them. And I also just want to make clear that in attempting to defend the Abbey I am not attacking anyone else.

When I first read the report yesterday I formed the impression that a panel of international experts had thoroughly reviewed the Abbey, systematically and rigorously, looking at all aspects of the organisation – and had found problems there. That impression – my misinterpretation – soon gave way to the realisation that what we were looking at instead were assessment reports from some of the Abbey’s shows over the last two years. These were compiled by three people, named in the Irish Times.

Upon reading the reports, a few things struck me.

Immediately obvious is the fact that the assessors’ opinions often differ from each other. One might say a show is terrible and give it 1 out of 5; another will say it’s great and give it a score of 4 (see the reports on Shibari for a good example of this). That to me shows that the process has been thought through: there’s a recognition that people will differ in respect of taste and background, so if you have three of them, you’ll hope that things will average out in a fair way. The judging for the Irish Times Theatre Awards operates according to a similar principle.

Also obvious is the range of categories against which shows are being evaluated. Again this is only right. Some shows will be ambitious, taking risks – but that can in turn mean that those shows will not be well received by audiences or might have problems in terms of form. I’d remember, for instance, that plays like The Gigli Concert and even Observe the Sons of Ulster were not universally well liked when they premiered but now are seen as classics. So the range of categories allows the assessors to praise a production for being innovative even if audiences don’t much like it. Similarly, the assessors pointed out that, despite their criticisms of, say, Alice in Funderland, it connected very well with the audience. Or, to use a different example, Quietly was very highly praised, even though one of the assessors thought it was quite traditional (which in some ways it is).

This seems like good practice to me: the assessment is based on an awareness that theatre can be valued and appreciated for doing many different things. And there is an attempt to capture those different things.

Here’s the problem though: it’s almost impossible for a production to score highly in every category. If you want to be innovative (like Alice in Funderland) you risk losing marks for execution; if you want to engage with an audience, you lose marks for innovation.

And it seems to me that the assertion that the Abbey is not ‘world class’ is based on the fact that when you add all the scores together, shows are not reaching 5 or even higher than 4. But when you look at the evaluations you can see that it’s nearly impossible for this to happen – not with three different evaluators, and not with so many different categories. I would guess that if you read all of the Arts Council reports for the period in question you would find that no-one is doing ‘world class’ work.

In fairness, the world class label appears to be the Abbey’s, and reports seem to suggest they have had some opportunity to have input into who the assessors were and how the evaluations were to be done. But the overall point I’m making is that I don’t think the evaluations suggest that the Abbey is in any real sense failing.

Also notable is the extent to which personal taste plays a role. The three assessors are all men, all living in England (though one is Irish), and all of a particular age. But one of the noticeable things about the Abbey in recent years is that they are trying to appeal to many different audiences – the audience for Shush is not the same as the audience for Alice in Funderland and is not the same as the audience for Quietly or The Dead. It’s very clear that in some cases the assessors actually just didn’t like a particular show – that it wasn’t to their taste. And the scores reflect that.

Having read all the reports, then, it seems to me that most of the shows that the Abbey staged in the last two years were appreciated by at least one and often two of the assessors. They scored well in many of the categories most of the time. Individual assessors have negative comments to make (and a lot of the negativity seems to come from one assessor), but I was surprised when I read the reports to find so many positive comments. The headlines and report didn’t prepare me for that at all.

And who is to say what “world class” is anyway? Too often in Ireland, world class means “as good as what they have in London”, but I don’t think that’s a reasonable criterion to judge the Abbey against. For instance, the comment about how one show would be fine for an English regional theatre really bothered me  – it shows a different sense of cultural context from what we have here in Ireland.

Also, much was made about one aspect of one production being judged by one assessor as below the standard acceptable in professional theatre – but when you read the other reports, that just seems like, well, one opinion (which is what it is). Again when I first read this remark I thought this view had been formed after long and careful examination of large portions of the Abbey’s work. Obviously I wasn’t reading things very cleverly yesterday…

I suppose what I’m really saying is that I don’t think there’s a story here at all. I gather that some kind of longer report may be in the offing, so perhaps we’ll find out more then.

I’ve also read some criticism of the reports themselves – the they are harsh or ungenerous or perfunctory or whatever. I have some sympathy with the assessors here, to be honest. They didn’t write these reports to have them read by a wide public, nor to be read by the people whose work they are assessing. Their frankness about some things – the bald declarations that an actor is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or words to that effect – will make very hard reading for some people. But if the assessors were writing for publication they would have done what we all (should try to) do, which is to support criticisms with specific examples, and to try to frame criticisms constructively (“how can we make this better” rather than “this is why you failed”). When you are writing for assessment, you tend to take all of this as read. I know this myself from grading academic work – a comment on a student’s paper will be written one way if for the student, and another way if written for an external assessor.

Nevertheless, I also am very bothered about the information posted about actors. Some names have been redacted but identities are obvious from context. And some names have not been redacted. Directors’ and designers’ names have not been redacted at all (fair enough: we’d know who they are anyway). Some people have said that there is no difference between these reports and published reviews, but I disagree. Reading these reports is like overhearing a conversation about you – something you’re not supposed to hear, something that will perhaps seem to confirm the insecurities that everyone sometimes feels: that perhaps what people say to our face is not what they say when we aren’t around. As I read those reports, I felt like I was invading the privacy of some of those actors and artists (and the assessors too). That made me very uncomfortable, and I’m not sure that the importance of the story merited the embarrassment that will have been felt by actors and other artists.

Then there’s the timing. As a friend of mine said, the Abbey has been getting loads of love over its (brilliant and inspiring) Theatre of Memory Symposium. It’s a terrible shame that this report had to appear on the last day of that symposium, overshadowing what should have been a moment of triumph for the theatre. The Times accessed these documents under Freedom of Information, and some are very recent, so it’s apparent that they have not been sitting on them for a long time. And they would probably argue that there was no reason for them to delay running the story (and I’m not saying they should have). But I find it very sad that at a time when everyone I spoke to was coming away feeling positive about the Abbey, we are now back to this tired old story of how much money it gets and how it’s in a permanent state of crisis, etc.

I know people have their problems with the Abbey. Yes it should tour more, and yes it would be great if the Peacock was open more often, and yes it occasionally produces work that is not universally loved, and yes it gets more money than everyone else. Looking at the assessment reports, I find myself agreeing with some of the criticisms and sharing some of the pleasures. I also totally disagree with some of the statements . And that is all normal.

For my part, I have liked a lot of what I’ve seen at the Abbey in recent years (loved Arturo Ui, Quietly, Terminus, Christ Deliver Us, No Romance, and many others). And I have been occasionally frustrated and bored and surprised too (that’s what happens when you go to the theatre). What I do know, though, is that for the first time since the end of Patrick Mason’s tenure, I would not want to miss any show produced by the Abbey. This is because I know that even if I don’t personally like it – or even if I think it has some flaws that could have been avoided – I can still be assured that it will be interesting and that the people involved are trying to create work that will connect with an audience (or with several audiences). It always feels energetic and committed.

So I don’t think the Abbey is consistently producing “world class” work – but I don’t know of any theatre that is. I do think it’s doing a good job though, and deserves credit for that.

Incidentally, on Friday at the symposium I was speaking about how there have been very few plays by women on the Abbey’s main stage. I have had a few queries about that from people wondering why I left out the Peacock, if I’m including the Queen’s years, etc so I am going to post something about that in a few days just to explain the methodology, and also to mention some women writers who should be more widely known.

BUT one thing I do want to make clear is that the Abbey under Fiach Mac Conghail is producing proportionately more new plays by women than at any stage since the period 1904-1913 (when Lady Greogory wrote 20+ works for the stage). This again shows how difficult it is to evaluate a national theatre: it’s not just putting on plays, it’s also trying to break down a decades-long pattern of neglect and oversight.

I’m  supporting the Abbey because of what’s happened with Limerick, and Panti, and Margaretta D’Arcy (not that I am comparing all of those directly). This story about the Abbey hurts everyone who is trying to make, teach or enjoy art in this country. It undermines people like me who are trying to persuade parents that if their children study Arts subjects like Drama and English, they will get good jobs afterwards. It undermines the young student who proposes to a friend that maybe they should try going to the theatre rather than the cinema. And it undermines artists who need to make a case about issues of genuine importance – funding, succession, international touring, and so on.

So, after a brilliant Theatre of Memory symposium, and because of the consistency of the work it’s been doing since about 2009 – and because I think it matters – and because it drives me crazy as much as it makes me happy – and because of all of the reasons above,  I want to express support for the Abbey. And I hope others will too.


9 thoughts on “Defending the Abbey

  1. Well Said. I would think a National Theatre should not always be compared to World Class. Some work is awkward, odd , original, and often flavour of the month. Sometimes it has to reflect what is happening in small areas of the nation. Other times it is influenced by the popularity of say, Love/Hate or the exposure of the shame in our poor misguided country. Other times it has to be O’Casey, Shaw, Murphy, Friel, and the plays to be written. And surely it has to be about individual actors and directors. Sometimes it has to be a mirror, for what we are, for what we don’t want to be or admit, or cast a look forward, IF we are not careful…


  2. Surely it’s a sorry indication of a drab, number-crunching quantitative mindset that declares that theatre can be accurately assessed according to some “objective” numeric scale?


  3. Yes, it’s very similar to what we experience at university level, where our own work is being ranked 1, 2 or 3. It’s understandable that the public wants a sense that their money is being well spent – on theatre, on education. But a lot of the time it feels like we spend so much time dealing with assessments that we’re not actually getting any of the work done that we’re supposed to be paid to do. I think there always has to be an acceptance that any form of assessment, whether of teaching or theatre, will be flawed – especially if you don’t ask the students and audiences respectively


  4. I agree, Patrick. I was wondering on Sat. morning what references to the I Times meant, and realised when I bought a copy to read on the train home. I was dismayed – and wished that the timing could have been better. Especially as the reason the Abbey should have been in the news was for the symposium. I came away from those three days feeling that, under Fiach MacCongail, the Abbey is trying hard to place itself for a 21st century audience, in its role as national theatre, and just as a group of individual theatre makers.


  5. I agree with much of what you say here re the problems in assessing whether any play is a failure or success. But the issue of how much funding The Abbey receives is far from a “tired old story.” It concerns me both as a citizen and a theatremaker. In 2012 The Abbey received over 50% of what The Arts Council spent on funding Irish theatre. With the amount of money the AC has to spend on theatre ever getting smaller, the Abbey got over half of it. That is a problem. How can The Abbey serve Irish theatre if its existence results in a lack of funding for the majority of Irish theatremakers? Lyn Gardner wrote in the Guardian last week about a similar problem in the UK where burgeoning artists are losing out on funding as the big national institutions are protected, thus resulting in a clear danger to the future of the art. The Abbey is too big, costs too much and is more a museum of Irish theatre than a dynamic centre for the future of our art. If the young theatre student is struggling to convince her friends to accompany her to the Abbey, it’s not because of Saturday’s report in the Irish Times but because the plays on our national theatre’s stage are almost always of the past, not just in content but also in form. Let us see what is up next up at The Abbey – John B. Keane’s ‘Sive’. When was the last time a piece of devised theatre was staged at The Abbey? Have TheatreCLUB performed there? Moonfish? Not the Peacock now, but The Abbey?

    The last play I saw at The Abbey was a rather tame attempt at staging ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’. I know that the costume budget for that production alone could have funded an entire theatre company for the year. These costumes came from London and involved flying each member of the cast over there for fittings. All while The Abbey has its own costume department! And when I saw the play I thought that the costumes were just ok, nothing spectacular. This is Irish Water style carry-on.

    Part of the problem for me is that I forever forget that The Abbey exists. I hardly ever check out what is showing there. I didn’t hear a word about last week’s symposium until Patrick tweeted about it. Ticket prices and the lack of touring are issues also. In fact The Abbey would be almost worth the huge cost to the state if it meant that ticket prices were kept low so that all of us could afford to visit. Yet the tickets start at €13, add to that €20 for a return on GoBus and I have to fork out over thirty quid for a cheap seat at the back for what is invariably a piece of theatre that holds no interest for me. The Abbey is not somewhere I think of going to see superb theatre. And The Abbey hardly ever comes to me. Maybe my taste in theatre is too specialised but I crave for something new, for the future. I do not think I will find that at The Abbey.

    Perhaps it is very unfair of me to criticize The Abbey if I hardly ever attend. Maybe I should make 2014 the year that I take a greater interest in our national theatre, go see more plays and then decide if it’s worth us keeping it on. But I have only so much money to spend on going to the theatre every month and find it hard to justify the expense of going to Dublin to see ‘Sive’. In Scotland, the national theatre is not a building, it is the organisation that helps to bring the people’s theatre to the people. Maybe we should do the same here in Ireland. Let The Abbey take care of itself as a private concern, playing Keane, Casey and Plunkett for the summer tourists. Give us artists the money then saved to go out and make the future of Irish theatre.


    • I understand where you’re coming from on a lot of this – the kind of theatre you’re interested in isn’t necessarily the kind of theatre the Abbey will stage. They have had quite a few devised pieces in recent years (Frefall, As You are Now So Once Were We) and they did open up the Peacock and then the main stage to Thisispopbaby, so they have certainly been aware of these issues.

      As for SIVE – I would just say that theatre is not just about writing, it’s also about acting, design and direction, and the Abbey has a responsibility to develop all of those crafts. We perform in the classical repertoire or the canon as a way of developing technical skills – some of the best acting I saw last year was in the 400 year old King Lear for example. I am going to SIVE with great excitement because of the director, whose Colleen Bawn about 15 years ago was one of the best production I ever saw. Yes, it’s an old play but that doesn’t mean it can’t contain surprises.

      As for the NTS model – yes, I hear lots of people saying the Abbey should close the building and do the same thing. But the NTS model is only about 13 years’ old, and it’s running in a country that has some brilliant emerging writers and a very lively political scene. Let’s see where it is in 10 years though before we say that it’s the best practice model for running a national theatre – right now I think it’s one massively impressive example, but I’m not sure that it has the kind of longevity a building-based national theatre would have.

      So as you say yourself I think really it’s best actually just to go and see the work before people judge it. I don’t see many tourists there any time I go.


      • As far as I know, of the shows you mention, only ‘Freefall’ toured. So while it may appear unfair of me to criticise what The Abbey does when I hardly ever attend, the reality is that The Abbey’s lack of touring means that the so-called National Theatre is in fact a Dublin theatre. This question is worth repeating – why do I hardly ever see work by my National Theatre? Because the plays put on by The Abbey rarely interest me and invariably require a trip to Dublin to see them.

        When I knock ‘Sive’, it’s not because I have a problem with old plays (I truly don’t – some of the best work I’ve done recently was in Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’) but because when I consider the amount of funding that The Abbey receives, I expect to see more work that is new. By new, I don’t necessarily mean that the play be new but that how it is done is something that we haven’t seen before. So when I hear that the Peacock is closed whilst at the same time The Abbey is putting it resources into another production of ‘Sive’, well it doesn’t make me feel any more confident or happy about my National Theatre. Also, it is possible, very possible to hone technical skills whilst staging something new – believe me, I know.

        I don’t think that we need to wait another ten years to see what happens with the NTS – it’s clear that the current model we have in Ireland with our National Theatre is not working. It is time for leadership, vision and bold choices. When the NTS was set up, you can be sure that they looked at The Abbey and said let’s not make that mistake. You say that the NTS is running in a country with “some brilliant emerging writers.” Well we have some pretty awesome up-and-coming writers and devisors (the writer isn’t everything in theatre) in Ireland too. I am (obviously) blown away by what Moonfish are doing. TheatreCLUB excite me lots. That’s just two. There’s also Dick Walsh, Meadhbh Háicéid and I’m not bad at this myself too. We are legion!

        So whilst I still agree with you and your assertion that it is very difficult to simply say whether or not a theatre is reaching international standards (whatever the hell that means) I am glad that there is now a national dialogue happening about The Abbey and its massive allocation of AC funding. And it’s not just the likes of me on the fringe who are saying that the current model is wrong. Gary Hynes makes some very important points in her article in yesterday’s IT – “Fixing the Abbey: where next for the National Theatre?”. She takes issue with The Abbey’s lack of touring. She asks why the Peacock is closed. She has valid concerns about the lack of artistic vision. She insightfully states that “the continuing hegemony of the Abbey is hurting not only Irish theatre as a whole, but it is hurting the Abbey even more.” But most important of all, she talks about the lack of proper policy in how the State relates to the Arts and the result of this “policy vacuum” — “the Abbey, as the oldest and most venerable performing arts institution, gets the most money, with other organisations lining up – more or less in the chronological order of their founding – to share the rest.”

        That’s the bigger point in all of this. The Abbey doesn’t exist on its own. In order for it to operate in the way that it does, every year the AC’s theatre funding has to be halved – with one half going to The Abbey and the other half to the rest of us. As I’ve already said, this would not be so bad, if it meant that The Abbey toured nationally, provided a meaningful platform for burgeoning artists and did all that was required from a national theatre. But it does not do these things. I think therefore that we can all agree that the current situation is untenable and big changes, tough changes are needed.


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