THEATRE / How she broke the Abbey habit: Garry Hynes took on a riotous history and a hollow legend when she became director of Dublin's Abbey Theatre. She has fostered great new Irish plays and won awards abroad, but at home the knives are still out

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A HANDY qualification for the director of the Abbey Theatre is a deft way with a riot. W B Yeats was good at it: in 1926 on the first night of Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, he thundered: 'Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?' It was his second appearance in this role; the first had been during the riots that accompanied the premiere of J M Synge's The Playboy of the Western World in 1907. After another Plough in 1947, the Irish poet and diplomat, Valentin Iremonger, stood up in the audience to denounce the incompetence of the Abbey's artistic policy: 'Having seen what they did to O'Casey's masterpiece tonight in acting and production, I, for one, am leaving this theatre as a gesture of protest . . .'

A year ago Garry Hynes, the sixth director of the Abbey in seven years, was roasted in Dublin for her production of The Plough. It led the Irish Times to remark on the 'palpable sense of disappointment that the high expectations generated by her appointment have been so poorly realised so far'. That was the polite version of a chorus of abuse in Dublin's talkative theatrical community. A further critical assault attended the opening of The Power of Darkness, a new play by the Irish novelist, John McGahern. The Sunday Tribune said: 'To write a really dreadful play is easy. To have it put on in our national theatre should be difficult. The finger should be pointed at Garry Hynes . . . responsible for staging a recycled farrago of risible melodramatic nonsense.'

It was a shock to discover that the dogs had been unleashed on Hynes so soon. She took over in January 1991, and since then the Abbey's Dancing at Lughnasa has won an Olivier award in the West End and three Tonys on Broadway, and Deborah Warner's production of Hedda Gabler for the Abbey, which transferred from Dublin to London last winter, won a second Olivier. The Abbey has become a writers' theatre of distinction again, since many of the plays by Brian Friel and Tom Murphy, the brightest playwrights since Sean O'Casey, were first performed there. Though Hynes does not like the criticism, she seems able to take it; she is tough and those critics who try to gobble her up find her indigestible. She calls some of the recent comments on the Abbey 'pointless, vacuous, reactionary and irrelevant'. When Irish reviewers united against Hynes's production of Dermot Bolger's One Last White Horse, prompting a spate of articles on 'trouble at the Abbey', Hynes did not take it lying down. The theatre placed a full-page advertisement in the Irish Times quoting glowing reviews of the play by the British critics Michael Billington and Michael Coveney.

Colm Toibin, novelist and former theatre critic of the Irish Sunday Independent, says Hynes attracts criticism because: 'One, she's a woman, and two, she doesn't suffer fools gladly. That's difficult in any society. But the thing with her is that she won't compromise: she won't sit in pubs or attend dinner parties or insinuate herself with powerful people. She's not someone who puts her arms round you and calls you darling.'

THE ARTISTIC director's office is on the top floor of the Abbey, with an uninterrupted view of the roof. In a dark corner there is a portrait of W B Yeats, who was one of the company's founders (along with my grandfather, which gives me something of a distant proprietorial interest in the place). Her own books fill the handsome bookcase. She is 39, her dark curly hair is streaked with grey, and she wears a white T-shirt and jeans, no make-up and a single silver bangle. She is unmarried, her shoulders are narrow and her limbs small. When she was younger she would have been called a slip of a girl; fully grown, she is still under five foot, and her size must make people feel protective towards her. Some part of her remarkable toughness ('formidable' - Sunday Times; 'strong and single minded' - Telegraph Magazine; 'tough, canny operator' - Daily Telegraph) may be a way of saying that she does not need protecting.

Garry is short for Geraldine in Irish (Gearoidin, pronounced Garrogene), and she was born in Co Roscommon and brought up in Galway, where her father ran vocational training and she went to the Dominican convent: 'For an urban middle-class girl - myself,' she says, 'it gave me something to rebel against, but once a Catholic, always a Catholic; I can't understand my culture or my life without understanding my religion.' She is fiercely proud of Galway ('it had a strong sense of identity even then; it had energy, excitement, and now it's the fastest-growing city in Europe'). But she did not receive the theatrical nourishment she would have had in Dublin or London. She saw only three or four plays before she went to University College, Galway, but they were enough for her to make straight for the drama society and announce that she wanted to be a director. As a test, she was asked to do Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version, but couldn't cast it; in the library she found Brian Friel's The Loves of Cass McGuire and directed that instead. She does not recognise in herself the common characteristics of student directors: confident, bossy, ambitious. 'I remember thinking, 'I can't act'. Pretending to be someone else is a terrifying thought. The thing was that, along with other people, I could create a whole world. I felt absolutely right directing.'

In a couple of years she was running the drama society, putting on American plays she had seen during summers working in New York. She enjoyed it so much that when she graduated she saw no reason to stop. In 1975, she and two friends established Galway's first professional theatre company with a pounds 1,500 grant from the Irish Arts Council. They called it after a character in the Asterix comic strip: the Druid Theatre Company. The company soon established a reputation for direct, sympathetic and unsentimental productions of new plays by such writers as Tom Murphy and classics like Synge's Playboy. Druid's first production was described as 'definitive' - until they did another. They won awards in Edinburgh, and toured London, New York and Sydney. By ruthlessly peeling back the accretions of years, said one critic, Hynes revealed 'the living body of Irish theatre underneath'.

WHEN HYNES was first offered the artistic directorship of the Abbey in 1986, she was already regarded as the most promising talent in the Irish theatre. She shocked Dubliners by turning it down: she was happy in Galway, and the last thing she wanted to do then was to run the national theatre. In 1988 she directed a couple of plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon and London. The reviews were mixed; but what she recalls most clearly was her shock at how little the English knew or cared about Ireland.

Two years later she was offered the Abbey job again, and this time she took it seriously, negotiating terms with the board that would guarantee her artistic independence and give her the authority of a chief executive besides. By then she had had time to identify the many hazards involved in running the company.

The Abbey had a legendary reputation and was treated abroad with the same sort of reverence as the Moscow Arts Theatre and the Berliner Ensemble; as with them, the productions, mainly 'authentic' performances of Synge and O'Casey, rarely lived up to that reputation. 'It was as if the English only did Shakespeare,' says Deborah Warner, who directed the Abbey's Hedda Gabler. Moreover, the permanent company of actors, employed in the same way as civil servants, with a weekly wage and a pension, had begun to think like them.

This was part of the legacy of Ernest Blythe, a stubborn and myopic former politician, who acted as if criticism of the Abbey was a treasonable insult to the Irish people. For the 25 years during which he ran the theatre, and for some years after his death in 1967, it was difficult to detect any sense of purpose or direction there; the theatre was lost in a Celtic twilight. By the Eighties the work of the new generation of writers was being performed there, but the Abbey was a graveyard for Irish directors; in that decade there were six artistic directors in seven years. At its worst, the Abbey was characterised by smugness, arrogance and inertia. Colm Toibin says: 'The period between 1984 and the arrival of Garry Hynes marked some of the worst productions I have seen in my life.' That was what Garry Hynes took on. Deborah Warner says: 'I saw it with virgin eyes, and I now appreciate her incredible bravery.'

It has taken Hynes a year and a half to understand the Abbey. She now appreciates its precarious position as a political institution in Ireland: 'Because it is a major area of public life, you have to be careful not to abuse it,' she says, sounding like a person who wants to stay in the job long enough to give her strategy a chance. The strategy is to commission writers, trust them, and pay them as much as the budget can bear. (An Abbey author is guaranteed about pounds 6,000, twice as much as London's Royal Court offers.) She wants these writers to describe Ireland today, just as the great Abbey playwrights did earlier in the century. (If they do it well, and history is any guide, Hynes will have a moment of Yeatsian recall and appear on stage saying: 'Is this to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?')

The success of Friel and Murphy, and younger writers like Frank McGuinness, has suppressed some of the Abbey's feelings of inferiority: 'One of the things that's happening is a growing confidence that we can kick with the best of them,' says Hynes. 'To me the most pleasing thing so far is that the Abbey were in London, in one year, with both a masterwork by an Irish writer and a revitalised European classic.' She sees the future of the theatre as being something like that of Ireland itself: 'It's got a choice. It's either an exotic, a Celtic fringe; if it's that, we will be a backwater in 10 to 20 years. Or it's European; whatever political or social form Europe takes, the Abbey can be a unique European cultural institution, although, in order to do that, we'll have to revise quite a number of things.'

Hynes won't discuss some of these changes, such as her determination to put an end to the permanent acting company. The actors' union doesn't like that. Shareholders like Mauris MacConghail, suspicious of the surrender of executive power to Hynes, suggest slyly that it is the cause of unevenness in her work as a director. Ardent nationalists do not like the broad range of work she commissions, and regard productions of plays by dramatists like Ibsen as irrelevant to the preoccupations of the Irish theatre.

But there is no sign of compromise so far. Hynes has commissioned a number of new plays which will join the repertory next year. The principal production in the autumn schedule is Eugene O'Neill's sprawling The Iceman Cometh, directed by a Chicagoan, Robert Falls. That is the Abbey's offering for the Dublin Theatre Festival: a masterpiece by an American-Irishman, directed by an American with Irish actors in Ireland's national theatre. London producers, anxious to bring good work into the West End, which is notably short of it at the moment, are showing keen interest. Interest from London before a Dublin first night is a sign that the Abbey's international reputation is higher than it has been in living memory.

Of course, it will be hard to sustain. 'She's on a roller-coaster, and once she's on it, she can't get off,' says Deborah Warner. This takes nerve. All the evidence so far is that Garry Hynes has got it.

'The Iceman Cometh' previews at the Abbey from 10 Oct, opening on 14 Oct for a limited run (010-353 1 787 222); 'Dancing at Lughnasa' continues at the Garrick (071-494 5085).

(Photographs omitted)

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