THEATRE / Small fires backstage

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
OVER the past few years, with the huge success of productions such as Dancing at Lughnasa and Deborah Warner's Hedda Gabler, the Abbey Theatre has recaptured something of the glory it knew in the era of Yeats, Lady Gregory and Sean O'Casey. Behind the safety curtain, however, there has been an unmistakable smell of burning and earlier this year the smoke-detectors reached full screech with the announcement that the head of the theatre, Garry Hynes, would not be seeking a renewal of her contract in December. While some put this down to a simple clash of personalities, others have taken it as proof of a long-term malaise at Ireland's National Theatre.

Certainly statistics suggest the latter: Ms Hynes will be the sixth person to leave the post of artistic director since 1985, casting the theatre in the embarrassing role of Henry VIII. A diminutive but dynamic 39-year-old, she came to the Abbey from the acclaimed Druid Theatre in Galway, which she had created from nothing; her tenure in Dublin, though, has been marked by some spectacular flops as well as successes. The reason she gives for her departure is that 'the board has never accepted either the need for reform or the urgency of it'. She hasn't said what kind of reform she has in mind, but since some of the theatre's practices date back more than 50 years, there has been no shortage of educated guesswork.

The Abbey is, for instance, one of the few theatres outside Eastern Europe with a permanent company of actors who are guaranteed jobs for life, and, although this is being phased out, it remains a source of much dispute. There is also a system by which shareholders elect directors to the board (though the shares are assigned rather than bought and sold). A further problem is that this National Theatre isn't very national at all - despite a pounds 2 million grant from the Irish Arts Council, it can seldom muster the resources to perform outside the capital.

There are some, however, who felt that Garry Hynes's problems were primarily of her own making - that she had been out of her depth at the Abbey, and that, whatever her artistic gifts, she was poor at handling people. 'She's personally charming, and as a director of a certain kind of play incomparable,' says the theatre's former chairman, Professor Augustine Martin; 'but I found her impossible to work with. The board is a marvellous one, with people like Frank McGuinness and Deirdre Purcell, but Garry just isn't a team player.'

The Abbey's new chairman, James Hickey, denies that the board is resistant to change, though he certainly feels no sense of urgency about it. According to him, the recent turnover of artistic directors may look alarming, but two of the last six were never intended to be more than stop-gaps. Nor does he feel desperately anxious about the fact that, in spite of the huge boost to its revenue from Dancing at Lughnasa, the theatre is still in the red: 'I see no reason for anyone to go around saying that there's a crisis, either financial or artistic.'

Fintan O'Toole, the Abbey's literary adviser during Garry Hynes's first year, thinks that she has a genuine grievance and that the situation is very serious indeed. 'It's very difficult to make things happen at the Abbey. Because it's publicly funded but operates as a private company, it exists in a kind of limbo; the fundamental questions, like how it should spend the money it gets and what it should be doing, haven't been asked since 1904. This isn't a simple conflict between an artistic director and a board about what plays to put on, it's something much slower - and more dangerous . . . There is a feeling of things continually not being resolved.' He believes that the Irish Arts Council's decision to cut the Abbey's grant, if only by five per cent, reflects this and bodes ill for the future.

Patrick Mason, the director of Dancing at Lughnasa and Wonderful Tennessee, has recently been named as Hynes's successor, and is a popular choice. After 20 years of working with the Abbey, he understands how the system operates, and says he believes that necessary reforms have already been implemented. Indeed, he plans to take a step backwards by re-establishing a committee drawn from the board, the company and the shareholders to discuss repertoire. If the smouldering is to stop, a great deal will depend on his efficiency as a sprinkler system.