After the Abbey Debates – Where Do We Go Now?

It’s now a week since the Irish Times published documents about the Abbey’s artistic output since 2012. It’s been an interesting time. First we had Fiach Mac Conghail and Fintan O’Toole being interviewed (separately) on RTE’s Arena programme. The Abbey then released a statement about the matter, and Fintan O’Toole defended the newspaper’s actions in his column yesterday.

The Abbey statement and the O’Toole column largely repeat the position both outlined earlier in the week. The Abbey argues that the reports are only a partial diagnosis of the theatre, and that it was ‘cruel’ to publish them. The Irish Times states that there was no sign of the process being brought to a close, and has also pointed out that if it’s cruel to expose Irish actors and other artists to embarrassing public scrutiny, it was the Abbey that set up the assessment in the first place. O’Toole has also made the point that these reports would ultimately have resulted in the publication of a final report – and that the assessors were hardly going to change their mind about what they’d seen. How is it acceptable to publish that information when the report is finished, but cruel to publish it now, he asks?

So what’s interesting is that the debate has shifted from what the Abbey is doing to whether the Irish Times should have published the reports.  This effectively means that the debate has reached an impasse. A theatre company will always protect its artists from public criticism, and a newspaper will always protect its responsibility to query how taxpayers’ money is being spent. I can’t see either “side” moving from either of those positions until or unless there is another development in the story.

What’s also interesting is that, aside from contributions by Garry Hynes and Declan Gorman (about which more below) and a few others, the broader public debate has largely been based around opinions rather than analysis. And many of the common themes are slightly irrational as a result. I’d pick out three irrationalities in particular as being quite interesting.

What Kind of National Theatre Do We Want? One of the features of the debate is that lots of people think that the Abbey gets too much money, yet they also think that the Abbey should be doing much more – that it should keep the Peacock open, that it should tour, that it should produce more plays by women or in Irish or by recent immigrants to the country, etc.  It’s difficult to understand how the Abbey can both expand its activities and be given less money. A full review of the Abbey’s expenditure might help to focus some minds on this topic.

The Irish Times. I’ve also heard a lot of people saying that the Irish Times should never have published the reports. I think we should take a step back and think about that.

Let’s imagine we weren’t talking about a theatre, but about a medical unit – let’s imagine a national centre for pediatric medicine (NCPM). This unit aims to be world class, but there are tensions with the HSE about how it does its business  – leading to the appointment of an international review panel. The panel produces several interim reports, many of which raise doubts about whether this centre is meeting world class standards for the treatment of sick children. Those reports feature brief discussion of the output of people employed by directly by the Centre, and also of several sub-contractors and consultants – freelancers, in other words. The NCPM is due to meet with the panel in September 2013 but, for whatever reason, the meeting doesn’t happen. The HSE is now in doubt that the review process will conclude and there are ongoing tensions about the Centre’s 7 million p.a. funding.

What I’m attempting to do here is to create an analogy with the situation as it’s been described by the Irish Times (noting of course that the Abbey haven’t given their side of that story). But I would imagine that most people  would state in relation to the example above that any newspaper aware of such a story would rush it into print. And if you find the sick children analogy too manipulative, imagine we’re talking instead about about a National Centre for Fertiliser Analysis, run out of the Department of Agriculture, and costing enough money to keep 100 hospital beds open for a year. You’d get the usual uproar about unaccountable quangos straightaway.

I am not trying to minimise the sense of embarrassment or anger that some artists may have felt (though would note too that many artists have said in relation to the furore that they are well able to handle some negative public commentary). Here I would be inclined mainly to criticise the redaction, which was very inconsistently carried out. If I was redacting a report on, say Juno and the Paycock, and I wrote “the role of Juno, as played by XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX was not well done”, then that does nothing to disguise the identity of the actor. And there’s lots of that sort of thing in the reports. Likewise, some names that ought to have been redacted have not been. While i am reluctant to draw attention to this, I do need to support that assertion, so I would direct interested readers to the report on The Hanging Gardens to see an example of an actor’s name not being redacted.

I’d also say that the Times’s publication of those reports has allowed people to make up their own minds, and it’s notable that what this has done is actually to reveal more about the problems with the process than it does any problems with the Abbey.

Strategically, I also think there’s a need for the debate to move away from the Freedom of Information issues. In post-bailout Ireland, public bodies are under massive levels of scrutiny, and huge problems have been discovered with the management and budgeting of many of them – generating a great deal of public scrutiny and anger. And justifiably so. If you get taxpayers’ money you just can’t be seen to question how and when FOI is applicable to you – this will automatically generate huge levels of cynicism (or worse) from a public that thinks that publicly-funded bodies get too much money without being properly accountable. I think any attempt to advance this part of the debate will backfire very badly.  And indeed the comments about this issue on websites from ordinary members of the public are massively negative already. Best to move on from it.

Defending the Abbey. A final irrationality is that you can’t defend the Abbey  because it’s their ‘fault’ that the assessment was created. This view has been quite widely expressed – that the Abbey called for an international assessment, that it was they who used the world class term, and so on. So as someone said, the Abbey has “created a monster”. And as Fintan O’Toole said in his column yesterday, you can’t defend the Abbey by criticising the assessment, since it was the Abbey’s assessment in the first place.

I would disagree with that. The overall impression created by this story is that an international panel has declared the Abbey to be failing in some way. As I said in my own blog post last week, we need to defend the Abbey against that accusation, since it has a knock-on impact on everyone involved in theatre and the wider arts community – and also because it’s actually not true that the Abbey is failing artistically. You can defend the Abbey and still think that their work could be better, or that the Peacock should be open, or that the assessment procedure was still inappropriate. And i think we should be looking to shift the story to a consideration of the fact that Irish theatre generally is producing excellent work, despite the many challenges it faces.

So as I say, I think the debate has hit an impasse, with people adopting (understandably) defensive positions that are unlikely to lead to any progress.

Enter Garry Hynes. On Thursday, the Irish Times published a hard-hitting feature by Garry, in which she calls for a much broader conception of what policy should be about Irish theatre. She raises all sorts of major problems, most of them focussed on the future of Irish theatre – and how we can make sure that there will still be an Irish theatre in 10 years’ time. If nothing else, this was a brilliant and sophisticated piece of writing, and I know I’m going to be referring to it in my teaching for years to come. I know some people will disagree with the points in it, but the quality and level of analysis made Irish theatre look well.

And then on Friday, Declan Gorman wrote a blog post which makes similar arguments, saying that the debate about the Abbey is an argument about “the wrong thing” and that there are far more important matters for us to attend to.

These two contributions are massively important – and while people may agree or disagree with individual points made by Hynes or Gorman, the overall thrust of both articles is constructive and positive. And both raise a series of important questions.

The first is what kind of national theatre we actually want. I have heard and read a lot of different ideas about this. Some people suggest that we should simply close down the Abbey – and while I think that would be a disaster,  it’s a useful thought experiment: what would Irish theatre be like if there was no Abbey theatre?

In truth, the world would probably be appalled at what would seem an act of cultural barbarism, but it’s worth asking the question anyway. And if we want a national theatre, we need to think about how we pay for it – and indeed how we devise assessment systems that will persuade the public that their money is being well spent.

I hear a lot of people saying we should adapt the National Theatre of Scotland model. I’m not so sure. The NTS is brilliant and exciting and dynamic. But it’s only been around since 2006; it’s been driven by a remarkable  artistic director in Vicky Featherstone (now at the Royal Court); and its energy is partly influenced by the renaissance in Scottish playwriting (featuring remarkably productive playwrights like David Greig) – not to mention the renewed cultural energy in Scotland heading towards its independence referendum. So the NTS is one of world theatre’s success stories.

But that doesn’t mean it will still be working the same way in 10 years’ time – or that the NTS model would work here. So I have serious worries about the way in which many irish commentators see the NTS model as a quick-fix solution to Irish theatre’s funding worries.

Then there’s the national picture. People complain that the Abbey gets roughly half of all theatre funding. Look at the figures a different way though – how much theatre funding goes to venues outside Dublin 1 and Dublin 2?  In other words, how can we talk about an Irish theatre when most of the money is being spent within two postal codes?

Then there’s the matter of succession. Garry Hynes makes the great point that the Arts Council funds theatre in order of their date of establishment: the Abbey gets most money, then the Gate, then Druid, then Rough Magic, and so on. This raises the very serious question of how we fund the next generations of theatre artists.

Other questions. How do we support new writing, by all sectors of Irish society? How do we develop theatre craft generally – not just acting but also design and direction? How do we build new audiences? How do we create a system where the Irish taxpayer can be satisfied that their money is being well spent on Irish art? What role does the Arts Council have?

If we could have a debate like this without it being used as an excuse to justify mediocrity (a common defence – “we’re being reviewed right now so we don’t have to be good”), and if it doesn’t get bogged down in a turf-war (now there’s a mixed metaphor), then all of this could be constructive.

What I’d like to see, then, is for speedy movement on the appointment of an Arts Council chair, and the replacement of its retired members. I think a detailed review of the Abbey, with the publication of a final report within an agreed timeframe, could be good for all concerned, though Eithne Shortall’s report in today’s Sunday Times suggests that may not happen now (behind a paywall so I can’t link to it). Some sort of debate about what kind of Irish theatre we’d like to have by 2020 would also be very useful. Some awareness that there is an Irish theatre scene in Dublin, and then several other Irish theatre scenes in Ireland, would also be helpful – and incidentally, the only national paper that is producing any kind of coverage of Irish theatre outside of Dublin is still the Irish Times (albeit to a reduced extent).

But as regards the Abbey story, I think it’s time to move on. The imminent premiere of Selina Cartmell’s Tender Thing – not to mention the opening of a great production of Skull in Connemara at the Gaiety – followed soon by the intriguing prospect of Annabelle Comyn directing Noel Coward at the Gate, and Conal Morrison directing Keane at the Abbey – all of this means that we can all just get back to the business of making, talking about, studying, and most importantly enjoying some excellent Irish theatre.

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Conor McPherson’s _Night Alive_ at the Donmar Warehouse

I was blogging yesterday about the transfer of Conor McPherson’s The Weir to the West End – but wanted today to write briefly about The Night Alive, which I saw last week.

At the Synge Summer School last month, many of the writers spoke about the difficulty of transitioning from one phase in their career to another. Writers like Marina Carr are criticised when they keep doing the same thing (in her case, writing plays set in the midlands), yet are then criticised when they try to do things differently. One writer cited the example of Conor McPherson’s The Veil as an illustration of this inconsistency, saying that it’s not that the play was in any way bad – it’s just that it didn’t seem like a ‘typical’ McPherson play, so audiences (or perhaps the theatre itself) didn’t really know what to make of it.

I found myself thinking about this a lot while watching The Night Alive at the Donmar Warehouse last week. It seems to me that it is a play that shows McPherson trying to move away from things he’s done before, but without abandoning them altogether. I’m reluctant to call it a ‘transitional play’, since doing so might imply that I think its only value is that it’s a step from one securely positioned play to another.

But there are some interesting developments to note.

A word of warning – there aren’t exactly ‘spoilers’ below, but anyone planning on seeing the play may prefer not to read this post.

The Ghosts are Metaphorical

When the Weir was first staged in Ireland, many people loved its old-fashioned ghost stories. But they also, I think, responded to the ways in which ghosts in the play operated as a metaphor for other things: loneliness, memory, nostalgia, the movement from a rural Ireland of simple darkness to a more urbanised Ireland of complex brightness. And the reason so many people – well, so many academics – were willing to take the ghost stories seriously is because the play operates on so many different levels (or, to quote Martin McDonagh, it ‘has layers’).

Over time, people began to wonder if the ghosts in McPherson’s plays were actually metaphors – or if, instead, he was just trying to scare us, playing on our sensations rather than our intellects. Probably the strongest example of this reaction came when Fintan O’Toole reviewed Shining City at the Gate, and complained about its ending. Here’s what he wrote:

It says a lot about Shining City that, like some corny slice of Jeffrery Archeresque rubbish, it has an ending that reviewers can’t reveal. An eloquent contemplation of the sheer sadness of real lives is boiled down to one short and stupid word: “Boo!” McEhlatton’s subtle acting (a scene in which he silently wraps a teddy bear for his daughter is vastly more haunting than any ghost or ghoul)… [is] betrayed by a gesture that reeks of panic and a loss of faith in the material.

O’Toole concluded the review by suggesting that Shining City features “some of his best and most of his worst work” (I’d note, however, that if my Google Alerts are to be believed, the play is regularly produced around the US).

That’s one of O’Toole’s harshest reviews – it’s most unusual to find him using words like ‘rubbish’, ‘stupid’, and so on. But he was right, I think, to make the point that McPherson’s writing is often “haunting” even when there are no ghosts around – and that point comes through very clearly in The Night Alive.

The play is about a middle aged man called Tommy, played by Ciaran Hinds, who takes in a prostitute who was beaten up by her boyfriend. Over the 100 minutes or so of the play, there are no ghosts (in the traditional sense). Yet there is a moment featuring Brian Gleeson that is genuinely frightening and unnerving, and the play’s conclusion is  surprisingly similar to the end of Shining City, in that both end with the unexpected appearance of a woman. And at the end of The Night Alive, the audience should find themselves wondering if what they are seeing is reality, dream, or something else. So as in Shining City, the lines between the real and the supernatural are being blurred, but here to much more subtle effect.

VB Night Alive 1300x500

This confirms that for McPherson, ghosts and the ghostly are a way for him to present onstage the loneliness, guilt and shame that his characters embody so eloquently. I’m not sure if we’ll see another ‘ghost play’ for McPherson, but I do think his writing is going to continue challenging our views on life and death, the spiritual, the real, and so on.

And this leads to the second interesting feature, which is:

A new approach to philosophy (involving religion?)

The published edition of the script begins with an epigraph from one of the gospels, describing the adoration of the Magi. Or, as we’d put in Ireland, the arrival of the ‘three wise men’ to pay tribute to Christ. In the play itself, one of the characters describes a dream in which he’s visited by one of the magi, who describes a strange vision to him. So there is some interesting religious imagery at work in the play.

There’s also a series of comments about the relationship between time and perception – expressed most clearly in a discussion about how time slows down as you approach a black hole (a fact that is invoked in the play as evidence for the existence of God).

McPherson was a Philosophy student at UCD and while I believe he wrote his MA thesis on Mill, he seems to be drawing a lot on philosophies of perception, or perhaps phenomenology, in his recent work. There was quite a bit of this in The Veil, which explored how the individual’s perception of reality can shift according to various factors. Similarly there is a sense here in which time can slow down or speed up depending on where a person is or what he/she is thinking.

The references to the magi have a lot of resonances in the play – these are men who follow a star to worship a being that is both human and divine, and I think McPherson is trying to show us how men like Tommy can transcend their circumstances by idealising others, finding epiphanies in the everyday.

I’m not sure where McPherson is going with these ideas but it feels like he’s working through a series of questions about space and time.  And indeed those questions have been there since The Weir, a play that tricks us into believing that 90 minutes in the theatre is actually a night’s drinking in a pub.

Dramatically, those questions also have the impact of raising the stakes for Hinds’s character, since we understand that his idealisation of the woman in the play offers him a way to reverse or slow down time… And that in turn leads to the next point –

“Same Old Show”? – Women in McPherson

In that O’Toole review of Shining City McPherson is also criticised for his charactersiation of the only female character in that play, whose dialogue was described as ‘clunky’ and whose role was a ‘hopeless task’ for Kathy Kiera Clarke  (according to O’Toole). That review came out at about the same time as Karen Fricker published an article called “Same Old Show”, which complained about the idealisation and objectification (and hence the marginalisation) of women in plays by McPherson and O’Rowe.

Those who have criticised McPherson for his presentation of women characters won’t find much to revise their views in The Night Alive. As Fintan Walsh puts it in his review for Irish Theatre Magazine:

[McPherson’s] writing doesn’t exactly degrade her [Aimee, the play’s only female character], but it doesn’t give her anything interesting to say or do either. She never develops beyond being the stimulus for men to reflect on men, and their experience of the world. Though in a beautiful performance a compelling [Caoilfhionn] Dunne manages to suggest rich layers of light and shade in the role, it’s underwritten. While there are similarities with the part of Valerie in The Weir – another female who arrives into a male universe out of the blue – this character isn’t even given the opportunity to speak at length.

I’m not sure if I fully agree that Aimee’s part is underwritten. She certainly seems to say less than the men, but Dunne does add a lot of depth to the role by using silence and shifting from defensive to open postures and so on. But it’s true to say that she is the stimulus for men to reflect upon themselves whereas we never get any sense of what her own reflections about herself might be. But that’s simply because this is a portrait primarily of Tommy – and everyone in the play is there largely to help us understand him.

But what struck me most about the characterisation of Tommy is that he seemed exactly like a Billy Roche character. Roche and McPherson collaborated on Eclipse together, and McPherson has directed one of Roche’s plays – so it’s not much of a surprise that Tommy comes off a bit like the male lead in Roche’s The Cavalcaders or Owen in On Such as We.

As Roche does so often, McPherson is  showing what happens when a male figure idealises a woman, using her to justify and rationalise his own existence.  But I don’t think he’s saying that this is a good thing. Aimee becomes the territory that the men in the play fight over – as happens in The Weir too – and I think McPherson is providing a very accurate representation of how (some) men perceive women in presenting matters in this way. So again this is a theme that’s developing interestingly – and contrasts with The Birds, in which two women compete over one man. In short, I think there’s a lot more to be said about gender in McPherson.

 Another link with Billy Roche…

…is the play’s use of music: Conor McPherson remains the Irish playwright whose i-pod I’d most like to steal  borrow. Music has been important in his recent plays – I’m thinking here of how Neil Young features in Shining City or John Martyn at the end of The Seafarer. What’s notable though is that those songs aren’t essential to the action – you could easily end The Seafarer with something other than “Sweet Little Mystery” and although it mightn’t work as well, it won’t ruin the play.

Here though a Marvin Gaye song (“What’s Going On”) is essential to the action, and there is a dance scene in which a lot of the things that haven’t been said up to that point in the play become obvious. I was slightly critical of Elaine Murphy a few weeks ago for including a dance scene in Shush, on the basis that we’ve seen a few too many of them in Irish drama over the last 23 years (since Lughnasa and Digging for Fire). I was slightly surprised to see McPherson doing this here too for the same reason: it’s not like him to try something that’s been so well done by so many others.

Yet there is something interesting going on with his use of music here, which includes a lot of Talk Talk, and which concludes with Father John Misty’s “Funtimes in Bablyon” (with thanks to Fintan Walsh for identifying the song for me). And indeed the scene with Marvin Gaye works very well indeed.

In the past, I have sometimes been critical of  productions (especially in student or fringe settings) for using contemporary music, firstly because I think that a well known song can take us out of a play rather than intensifying our awareness of it, and secondly because I think music is sometimes used because a director or actor doesn’t know how to convey an emotion or idea by, well, directing or acting.

There are times when I think McPherson is at risk of this problem here  – if you leave the theatre thinking about Father John Misty rather than McPherson, that could be a problem.

But thinking about his work overall, I’m very excited by what he’s trying to do with the integration of music into his action. I don’t see him joining the growing group of people who are staging Irish musicals at present, but he’s showing an awareness of the dramatic power of music – and the musicality of drama – that is starting to remind me of Tom Murphy.

McPherson the Director

As ever, McPherson is at his best as director in the work he does with the actors. The performances are very impressive – especially from McElhaton, who gives a beautifully sympathetic portrayal of a man who (to paraphrase the Marvin Gaye song) doesn’t know “what’s going on” most of the time, but who is doing his best to make sense of the world around him anyway. McElhatton manages to portray an affecting blend of perplexity and good-naturedness that I found myself thinking about for a long time after the performance finished. Everyone else was great too, but that’s the one that stuck in my mind.

I was also interested in the development of what we could almost call the McPherson ensemble. Hinds has been in The Seafarer, The Birds and Eclipse; Jim Norton has been in Port Authority, The Weir, The Seafarer and Eclipse and The Veil; Dunne has been in The Veil; McElhatton has been in Shining City and The Seafarer. This isn’t quite in the same territory as Druid’s use of ensemble, but I’m enjoying seeing these actors work through these roles over a long period – 15 years in the case of Norton.

As for the staging – the Donmar space is very intimate, and this production was played almost fully in the round (with seats in front of and to the left and right of the stage) – so we had a sense of almost being in Tommy’s bedsit during the action. And a lot of the entrances and exits happened when the actors walked between the rows of seats. I enjoyed the sense of deep immersion that resulted from the staging, but wondered how the play would work on a standard pros arch stage. I suspect that what we’d lose in intimacy we might gain in tension: we never really feel that Tommy’s space has been invaded or transformed and while it’s not necessary that we do, I’d be curious to see what the impact of a more self-contained set might be

Where Next?

As I write above, The Night Alive feels like McPherson is heading in some very interesting new directions. But I would want to emphasise that in itself it’s also a very good play, and it’s been given a great production with a first-rate Irish cast by the Donmar. I’d hoped we might see it at the Gate in this year’s Dublin Theatre Festival (as has happened a lot in the past) but for the moment we’ll have to wait for news of an Irish production (just as we are still waiting for an Irish production of The Veil). It would be good to see one.