Yeats' Abbey Theatre loses its mystique as audiences desert

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The Independent Online

Dublin's Abbey Theatre, long regarded as one of Ireland's premier cultural assets, has become mired in financial crisis and internal turmoil when it should be celebrating its centenary.

Dublin's Abbey Theatre, long regarded as one of Ireland's premier cultural assets, has become mired in financial crisis and internal turmoil when it should be celebrating its centenary.

The theatre, associated with the greats of Irish culture, including W B Yeats, Augusta Gregory, Sean O'Casey and J M Synge, is embroiled in an off-stage drama which rivals its front-of-house productions.

Mounting debts, disastrous box-office numbers and a very public row between board members and the theatre's creative director, Ben Barnes, have rather overshadowed the festival to celebrate the founding of what was intended as a cornerstone of Irish cultural and artistic life.

In one sense the show is bound to go on, since the Irish government has committed itself to rebuilding the dilapidated theatre at another inner-city location. This should provide it with a fresh start, but the sense is widespread that its problems are deep-seated and will take years to put right.

The Abbey has never won any praise for its architecture, one critic denouncing its "puny utilitarianism", while another summed it up as: "Cramped, ugly and uninviting, it has never been popular either with artists or with audiences."

But its history is regarded as far more glorious and inspiring than its built form, connected as it is with many of the great names of 20th-century Irish literature.

As co-founder of the Abbey with Lady Gregory, Yeats had a vision of the Abbey as part of his attempt "to create a whole literature, a whole dramatic movement" based on Irish mythology and folklore. This emphasis on a distinctly Irish culture was one of the wellsprings which led on to Irish independence.

In its early years riots broke out at productions of Synge's Playboy of the Western World and O'Casey's Plough and the Stars, causing the Abbey to show more caution about subsequent plays.

None the less, the name of the Abbey has had a continuing international mystique and attraction.

But even as the theatre celebrated its centenary year, the celebrated critic, Fintan O'Toole warned of the "grotesque possibility" of the Abbey's demise.

Debts of more than £1.7m, exacerbated by the poor audiences, prompted the board to call for job cuts of up to a third of the theatre's staff. At the same time, Barnes was recalled from Australia where he was touring with Tom Murphy's The Gigli Concert to face a vote of no confidence.

He survived, but was subsequently forced to apologise for an e-mail in which he accused his critics of "a disgraceful attempt" to have him sacked: "In time-honoured tradition, the forces ranged against me used the opportunity of my being out of the country to scapegoat me for problems which are most decidedly not of my making," he wrote.

Barnes reportedly plans to quit for a post in Canada when his contract expires. Theatre management are negotiating with unions about the job cuts, and there are hopes that a drive to win back audiences and bring in sponsorship will ensure that in future, at least, the drama at the Abbey remains on stage.

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