I understand why people in Irish theatre are reluctant to openly criticise the Abbey in public. As someone whose professional relationship with the Abbey lasted precisely as long as the last two years of Patrick Mason’s tenure as its artistic director, and as someone who’s quite at home with the idea that I will never work there again, I have no problem with suggesting why this should be. People don’t want to criticise the Abbey for two reasons: 1.) they would like to work there, at some point, because the Abbey does at least pay people, and 2.) the Abbey, at least for the last 15 years, which is about as long as I’ve been paying attention to it, has been an institution that has no tolerance for criticism.
Reason 2 is not one that I’d’ve noticed for a long time. For all of my career in Irish theatre, I took it for granted that you dissed the Abbey at your peril, because they wouldn’t hire you. I was told as much, by people whose judgment I trusted at the time. And they were right.
But I no longer think that that’s acceptable. The Abbey is supposed to be a publicly-funded institution, not a personal vanity project. It is the oldest national theatre in the world. There is no excuse for it not to be much, much better than it is; it’s not like it’s not getting enough money. It is supposedly run by adults who make supposedly informed choices about what to do with the place. If the Abbey were producing consistently excellent work and everybody felt that it were a place where their voices was genuinely welcomed, then we wouldn’t be talking about it like this. But it isn’t, and everyone doesn’t, and the Abbey is responding to criticism in the manner of a sulky pre-teen who’s pissed off that every kid in class doesn’t seem to want to come to its party.
Like I say, I don’t write plays anymore, and so I don’t give a shit that if this Facebook post were to come to the attention of the Abbey’s management, my name – which was once, for about three years (1996-1998) on the Abbey’s list of writers who they liked to pretend for publicity purposes that they had a relationship with – will be added to their by all accounts unspoken and informal shit-list. But when the only emotions an institution can command among so many of the people most crucially interested in it are fear and resentment — not love, and not even basic respect — then the institution itself, in its current form, has clearly lost its raison d’etre.
I once was invited to speak out in public about the future of the Abbey, in the wake of the Ben Barnes era, which had comprehensively fucked me over and almost but entirely put me off playwriting. I voiced hope in the new management. I was clearly very, very wrong. I apologise to anyone I may have given false hope to.