Joyce McMillan: former NTS duo unveil radical new season at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre

Neil Murray and Graham McLaren outside the Abbey Theatre in Dublin PIC: Lensmen Photography
Neil Murray and Graham McLaren outside the Abbey Theatre in Dublin PIC: Lensmen Photography
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By any standards it’s been a long transition. It’s 17 months now since it was announced that the National Theatre of Scotland’s executive producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren would be leaving to become joint artistic directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland’s national theatre; and it’s been a time of upheaval for the company they left behind, with the sudden departure of NTS artistic director Laurie Sansom, and the appointment of Jackie Wylie as his replacement.

Now, though, the changeover is complete; the former Abbey director Fiach Mac Conghail has stepped down, the new artistic directors are at their desks, and last week – with a modest fanfare – they announced their main Abbey Theatre programme for 2017, titled What Happens Next Is This, and featuring a dozen productions in the Abbey’s main house alone; details of the programme for the Abbey’s legendary studio theatre, the Peacock, will follow soon.

And if the programme seems like a busy one, it also has a decidedly different flavour from recent Abbey subscription seasons, which tended to feature about six big in-house productions each year; because in a flipside to the theatre-without-walls model developed by the NTS, the new directors’ first impulse, on moving into the Abbey, seems to have been to throw open its doors, and draw into it a generation of brilliant Irish theatre artists who have not worked there in the past. The largest single element in the 2017 programme involves revivals of brilliant recent Irish shows not yet seen in the context of the nation’s national theatre; they include Enda Walsh’s recent plays Ballyturk and Arlington, Druid Theatre of Galway’s recent acclaimed production of Waiting For Godot, Rough Magic’s 2015 show The Train – about a group of 1970s Irish feminists who took a train to the North to demonstrate the absurdity of Ireland’s contraception laws – and the Corn Exchange’s 2004 piece Dublin By Lamplight, about the founding of the Abbey itself.

“Our first thought was that we wanted to shake up the rhythm of the season,” says McLaren, “to put on more shows, and turn them over in a more varied way, so that some run for six weeks and some just for ten days. It’s a chance for us to build relationships quickly with a wide range of artists we want to work with; and then also to extend a hand of friendship to Irish artists who have had very little chance to work here in the past.”

“We definitely felt that there was a generation of Irish artists whose work hadn’t been given its place here so far,” says Murray, taking up the narrative. “The Abbey underwent a huge financial meltdown in the early 2000s, and since then I think there’s been an understandable emphasis on stability. I also think there’s been a reluctance, for a while now, to talk in broad terms about the Abbey’s role as Ireland’s national theatre. But we do feel, now, that we want to say to theatre-makers and audiences that this is your national theatre; and that we want to see the whole range of Irish theatre-making celebrated here.”

This open house for other Irish companies is not the whole story of the 2017 Abbey season, though; and there’s a definite Scottish accent to some of the other work Murray and McLaren are planning. The Abbey’s own main stage productions will include two shows that respond to the recent uproar at the Abbey over the representation of women artists – a revival of Teresa Deevy’s 1930s feminist classic Katie Roche, and a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland and Theatre Royal Stratford East of Emma Donoghue’s own stage version of her novel Room, based on the horrifying Josef Fritzl case, which will be directed by the NTS’s Cora Bissett, creator of Glasgow Girls.

There will also be a touch of NTS-style outreach, as the company stages a touring pub show based on Roddy Doyle’s Two Pints blog, and opens a new stage version of the Ken Loach-Paul Laverty film Jimmy’s Hall in Leitrim, where the story is set. And there will be a Christmas revival, with an Irish cast, of John Tiffany’s great NTS production of 21st century vampire story Let The Right One In – a revival which will also be seen in Scotland next year, with a Scottish cast.

“Well, we wanted something different for next Christmas,” says Murray, “and Let The Right One In is just such a wonderful, wintry story.

“Is it difficult to stage a programme as busy as this with the resources the Abbey has, in tough times for Ireland? Well yes, although we’re finding that everyone here is being brilliant about working as ingeniously and flexibly as possible with what we’ve got. That’s one of the main difference from the NTS, in fact; that it’s a much bigger team here at the Abbey, over 100 people, and we have to make sure that everyone is on board.

“But the biggest difference, for me, is that whereas the NTS is so new – and many people in Scotland still don’t even know we have a national theatre – in Ireland everyone knows about the Abbey, and has an opinion about it, because this theatre is part of the story of the founding of the state itself. So there’s a much greater weight of history and expectation here; but also an opportunity to encourage all those people who know and care about the Abbey to be part of it again – to come in here, to see the shows, and to join the argument about where Ireland is now, and what happens next.”

*The Abbey Theatre’s 2017 programme opens on 10 February; further details at www.abbeytheatre.ie/2017/