(Peter Crawley’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 12/7.)
Theatre in Ireland this year was bookended by two crises, a state of play mirrored by the work
It was a dramatic year for theatre, bookended by two moments of crisis. The first played out in the full glare of public attention. The other, which is happening now, has been observed more quietly, if at all.
Barely one week into 2019, Irish theatre was once again a news story. On January 7th, an open letter lambasting the Abbey’s production model, for Abbey directors Neil Murray and Graham McLaren’s perceived overreliance on staging co-productions and insufficient employment opportunities at the National Theatre, among other grievances, was signed by 312 theatre professionals.
So began a turbulent year for the Abbey, which dealt with the fallout in media statements, a tense committee hearing in the Oireachtas, and a series of meetings with industry representatives, finally yielding commitments and outcomes. By the time it announced its programme for 2020 this month, with a balance between self-produced and co-produced work that did not appear radically different, the outcry had faded away, either because communication between involved parties had become clearer, or because such an explosion of protest could only immolate the building or fizzle out.
Overshadowed by the furore at the time was the kind of co-production in question, when Karl Shiels brought his dark double-bill The Ridleys to the Peacock. This might have been a breakout moment for Shiels’s Theatre Upstairs, the actor/director’s tenacious home for short-form new writing, and a launch pad for new careers.
Sadly, it turned out to be the theatre’s swansong: a couple of months later, Theatre Upstairs announced its closure after nine years in business. In any circumstances, the end of a venue committed exclusively to new work would feel unnatural, like the loss of promise. But that sensation became unbearably tragic in July when Shiels, a tireless advocate for new artists and energising audiences, died at the age of 47.
Photo: Irish Times