Gov’t nixes a move for Abbey

Dublin theater also makes news with new play

If success were measured in column inches, Ireland’s national theater would be the most accomplished in Europe: The Abbey has been making headlines for a month solid.

The current wave of Abbey-centered interest began in early February, soon after the opening of Sebastian Barry’s play “Hinterland.” As reported in Variety(Feb. 11-17), the play caused a national furor over its barely veiled depiction of controversial former prime minister Charles Haughey. After the Irish Times’ chief theater critic, Fintan O’Toole, gave “Hinterland” a mixed-to-positive overnight notice, referring to it as “rather like Haughey himself: deeply flawed but utterly compelling,” the paper took the unusual move of publishing a second-look review by its literary correspondent, Eileen Battersby, who had the opposite reaction, calling the play “a vulgar, tacky travesty” and “moronic.”

Meanwhile, several news journalists argued in high-profile outlets that the play’s unflattering depiction of the Haughey character was unfair to Haughey and his family.

At the Abbey’s annual season-release press conference on Feb. 13, artistic director Ben Barnes struck back, advising journalists that their comments on something they know little about — the artistic merit of plays — were unwelcome. This prompted, ironically, another avalanche of coverage, with a largely indignant media slapping Barnes yet again for what the Sunday Times referred to as an “immoderate outburst.”

Just as the “Hinterland” furor was starting to quiet down, a government announcement has again put the Abbey on the media firing line: On Feb. 20, after a highly public wrangle that has lasted for more than a year, it was announced that the Abbey is going to be rebuilt on its present site rather than move elsewhere in the city.

It has long been acknowledged that the current Abbey building, which opened in 1966, is inadequate for the theater’s needs, as well as aesthetically unpleasant both inside and out. Various solutions to the problem were presented, ranging from gutting and rebuilding on the theater’s historic site on Dublin’s near north side to starting from scratch elsewhere.

Artistic director Ben Barnes took dramatic action on the matter in February 2001 when he announced the Abbey’s preferred option was to move to a site south of the river, in Dublin’s burgeoning docklands area, which had been offered to the theater free of charge by the Dublin Docklands Development Authority.

This announcement backfired on the Abbey when Prime Minister Bertie Ahern indicated his displeasure about the prospect of the theater moving to the south side — it’s currently located in Ahern’s own inner-city constituency. The story became a media football that spun out of the Abbey’s control.

More recent media accounts have centered on the relationship between the Abbey and arts minister Sile De Valera. The Abbey board had been in consultation with De Valera about the building issue, but their proposal for a south-side move, delivered in October 2000, remained unanswered when the Abbey, in apparent exasperation, moved forward with its February 2001 announcement.

The minister now clearly is attempting to reassert her control over the issue: It was De Valera herself who made last week’s announcement, emphasizing that staying on site has always been the option she preferred.

There appeared to have been little or no consultation with the Abbey about the announcement. Nor has the theater been allowed to see several surveys on the issue conducted for De Valera’s department by the Office of Public Works.

De Valera has announced that the building project will be pursued through a public-private partnership — meaning significant funds must be raised from non-government as well as public sources — but has not indicated the level of funding the government is willing to commit to the project.

Among the many outstanding issues that remain are the design of the building; the square footage it will require (it’s widely felt the current site is too small, but expanding outward will mean negotiating with a number of neighboring small and large businesses); where the organization will be housed during redevelopment; how the public-private financing will work; and, of course, how much the whole thing will cost.

The government is bandying about a 100 million euro figure ($86.9 million) as the total cost, but this seems conservative. It also seems unlikely the project will be anywhere near complete for the celebration of the Abbey’s centenary in 2004.

What’s gotten almost completely lost in all the furore is the theater’s 2002 season program, which includes world premieres from playwrights Marina Carr, Bernard Farrell, Gerard Stembridge, Joe O’Byrne and Aidan Matthews; a collaboration with the innovative independent theater company Corn Exchange; and new productions of Hugh Leonard’s “Da” and O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars,” the latter directed by Barnes and slated for a U.S. tour produced by Jed Wheeler.

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