Dublin's most famous theatre: From drama to crisis

One of Ireland's best-loved artistic icons, the Abbey Theatre, celebrated its centenary last year. But, reports David McKittrick, as much drama goes on behind the scenes as on the stage
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The real farce, they are saying, is not on stage but behind the scenes and the mismanagement has been described by the Arts Council as "mind-boggling".

Unsurprisingly for a theatre born out of the fiery ideals of Ireland's greatest poet, WB Yeats - who wished to create "a whole dramatic movement" to emphasise Irish folklore and mythology - the Abbey may be suffering from overambition.

As the first state-maintained theatre company in the English-speaking world, the theatre has been no stranger to financial woes but the current crisis, with debts running to at least €5m (£3.4m), could require more than the idealism of the past.

This was not in the script. Its elevated status and long history, together with annual subsidies from the Irish government, might be thought to give the Abbey strong advantages.

The Abbey should now be basking in the afterglow of its centenary celebrations last year. Instead it is in a perfectly shambolic state: rudderless, broke, undergoing personnel changes and embroiled in internal bitching and backbiting way beyond the theatrical norm.

There are endless ideas about how to put things right, but there is no sign of strong leadership or the emergence of a consensus that might turn its fortunes round and rescue it from the theatre of the financially absurd.

The cast of characters includes the government, the Arts Council, the theatre's board as a whole and Ben Barnes, who has recently stepped down as its artistic direction. Each can be portrayed as either goodies or baddies in this particular drama.

Denunciations extend to the very top politically, with Bruce Arnold, the critic, blaming the prime minister: "Bertie Ahern is totally out of his depth on most cultural issues - nowhere more so than in relation to theatre, which he never goes to and of which he has no understanding."

Other critics portray Mr Ahern's ruling Fianna Fail partly as basically philistine, but it has continued to subsidise the Abbey and it is committed to providing a brand-new theatre to replace the present obsolete premises. These have been described as "cramped, ugly and uninviting"; audiences go to Abbey despite, rather than because of, its utilitarian architecture. But the replacement theatre will not open its doors for five years or more and, in the meantime, the sorry financial mess will have to be cleared up and the Abbey's world-wide reputation restored.

John O'Donoghue, Ireland's Arts Minister, has described the theatre's administration as Victorian in style, and indeed much about the old place has the air of a bygone era. The past weighs heavily on the Abbey, which has been close to the heart of Irish cultural life since Yeats and Lady Gregory launched their near mystic effort with the declaration: "We will show that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery and easy sentiment, but the home of an ancient idealism."

The Abbey came to be seen as one of the key components in a distinctly Irish culture, which helped lead to Irish independence in the 1920s. Its contribution was rewarded in the same decade by the fledgling Irish state when it effectively nationalised the Abbey in recognition of the political importance of theatre in the pre-television world.

Despite this, it had money problems right from the start, but these were overcome partly by sheer idealism. One chronicler recalled: "Abbey actors issued from no academy. Drawn direct from the people they, even at the outset, acted unpaid, for the sheer love of the thing.

"From these boards sounded the inborn imagery and rhythm of Irish speech - an Ireland hitherto voiceless and little-known." Its later history was uneven. It included instances of daring experimentation: riots broke out, for example, at productions of J M Synge's Playboy of the Western World and Sean O'Casey's Plough and the Stars.

But at other points it opted for caution rather than artistic licence, to the despair of the more adventurous playwrights.

One of its less glorious periods came when an authoritarian former government minister, Ernest Blythe, controlled it as director for a quarter of a century, encouraging a mixture of "cheap kitchen comedies and endless theatrical homages" to those who had rebelled in 1916.

The 1960s and 70s saw a revival, however, with the emergence of writers such as Brian Friel and Hugh Leonard, leading to successful London and Broadway runs. Today the Abbey has the task, not always easy, of combining the old and the new; it is seen as having a national duty to keep the classics alive while encouraging innovation. Tonight's production, for example, is a bit of both. Wilde's play is an old favourite: this time the twist is that it is being staged with an all-male cast.

The Abbey's centenary last year brought critical successes such as an excellent Playboy of the Western World and an acclaimed The Shaughraun. But these were expensive ventures, and they were part of a hugely ambitious programme both in Dublin and on tour. It was probably this centenary effort which set the Abbey on the road to ruin and created its present difficulties. Its finances were already slightly wobbly and its book-keeping practices opaque.

The big centenary push was a courageous drive for growth, but it was also an extravagant spending spree. Artistry prevailed over accountancy and the theatre was living well beyond its means. The extent of this crisis took some time to become clear. Emergency meetings were rapidly organised when it emerged that the Abbey's 2004 deficit was €900,000. There were dire warnings that something had to give.

But there was a bigger shock this month when, apparently almost by chance, someone examining the accounts discovered the real deficit was actually double that. The ensuing outcry was of operatic proportions. Consultants, meanwhile, delivered a devastating report highlighting accounting errors, misreporting of revenues and poor financial controls. It found no indication of theft, fraud or misconduct but said the system had allowed errors to go undetected.

Unsurprisingly, the report recommended sweeping changes. Heads rolled in May as both the theatre's managing director and artistic director resigned with Mr O'Donoghue speaking of "gross incompetence" in financial management.

This week Olive Braiden, the chairman of the Arts Council, emerged from a 12-hour meeting to say that its members had been deeply shocked "and extremely angry at the sheer extent of the mismanagement of public funds, the sheer extent of which is mind-boggling".

The Council said it would hand over enough money to meet immediate running costs and pay salaries, but that the theatre's board must "dissolve itself" and step down. The Council added, in a slightly theatrical ultimatum, that if the board did not go there would be no more money.

Mr Barnes, one of those at the centre of what he calls "the sturm und drang surrounding the Abbey", has accused his enemies of scapegoating him. He complained that the theatre suffered from "kamikaze financial fluctuations" well before he took over.

He set out the dilemma, which exists well outside Ireland's shores, about finding a balance between art and money: "The truth of the matter is that theatre has become a minority art form unless you devise the most popular programme and shamelessly play to the lowest common denominator. To do this brings down the odium of the media art police - but not to do it risks the wrath of boards and finance committees with their focus on the bottom line."

And yet there is an unexpected, last-act, twist to all this. Despite all the anger and the rhetoric, all the backstage storm and fury, the actual show must go on, and it has.

The Abbey continues to function, if on a rather less ambitious scale than last year - and quality has not slumped. Sales of seats for tonight's Importance are reportedly going well. Even Arnold, who says that virtually everything concerned with its direction and management is in chaos, adds: "Even so, good plays are being put on. There is good acting and directing. There is some good writing, and seats are filled."

The surprising paradox is that fascinating dramas can be mounted simultaneously on both sides of the theatre curtain; that, thus far at least, the noises off have not ruined the performances or audience enjoyment.

Most commentators agree there will have to be not just emergency re-adjustments but a cold, hard look at how to modernise the Abbey's systems, together with a complete rethink of funding arrangements.

The air of constant uncertainty should be dispelled, they say: there is just too much dramatic tension. Reforms will be introduced as the new Abbey is built; if all goes well, a simultaneous fresh start can be made both physically and financially.

Most Irish people will never see the inside of the Abbey, for theatre is very much a minority art. But even in this television and film age, opinion polls indicate that the Irish public is supportive of theatre in general and the Abbey in particular, and the sums of money involved are not gigantic - especially not in prosperous modern Ireland. Although this controversy has worried many, it has done nothing to dispel the goodwill for the Abbey and its unique role as Ireland's national theatre. But as the curtain goes up tonight it seems the Abbey is finally learning the importance of being solvent.

A national treasure

1903

The Irish National Theatre is founded by Nobel-Prize winning WB Yeats and Lady Gregory.

DECEMBER 1904

The Abbey Theatre opens its doors for the first time.

1907

JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World opens. The mere mention of a petticoat sparks rioting in the audience, which, in the words of the lead actor, becomes "a veritable mob of howling devils".

1919-1920

Anglo-Irish civil war interrupts performances; the Irish Independent declares: "When the Abbey is gone, the mirror of Ireland is broken."

1925

The Abbey becomes the first ever state-subsidised theatre in the English- speaking world.

1926

Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars causes rioting with its treatment of the Easter Rising and disillusionment with nationalism.

1951

The original buildings of the National Theatre (the Abbey and Peacock theatres) are damaged by fire and productions relocate to the Queens.

1959

John B Keane, Kerry writer who captured the grim reality of 1950s Ireland, gets his first knock-back from the Abbey. The theatre later relents.

July 1966

The Abbey Theatre, re-housed in new buildings on its original site at 26 Lower Abbey Street, opens to the public.

1990

Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa premieres to critical acclaim.

2001

Tom Murphy, known for depicting Ireland's transformation from deeply traditional to hi-tech and modern, is honoured with an Abbey retrospective.

2004

Centenary year sees celebratory performances, but extravagant spending leads in part to present funding crisis.

20 July 2005

Report into Abbey's finances reveals lax controls led to losses of €1.85m (£1.28m) - double the expected figure. Prospect of immediate insolvency looms.

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