‘I had never really thought about leaving Scotland,’ says Graham McLaren, but in 2016 he and Neil Murray were lured from the National Theatre of Scotland to become joint directors of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Murray had experience as manager and producer at the Tron as well as at the NTS, while McLaren had been director with Babel Theatre, which he co-founded, before moving to the NTS, and the two went as one bulky package.
Anyone even taking a seat in the Abbey foyer will feel the hand, warm and encouraging or cold and clammy as it may be, of Irish history and culture, so it is no surprise if McLaren says that taking charge was a personal and professional challenge of a special type. The imposing portraits on the walls – W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Miss Horniman, Brendan Behan and various founding actors – peer down. He found himself in the unique situation of moving from the youngest national theatre in the English-speaking world to the oldest. ‘I am the first from “outside the parish”, as they say here. There were other artistic directors who were not Irish, but they had been long resident here.’ Any doubts about the scale of the task were quickly dispelled. ‘We came over for the Dublin Theatre Festival, and the taxi driver turned and said – “Are you the fellah that’s taking over at the national theatre?” In Glasgow, they would say – “What! We have a national theatre?” Here everybody knows about the Abbey.’
‘That same weekend Brian Friel died, and there was an eight-page supplement, exquisitely prepared, in the Irish Times. I cannot think of a single artist anywhere in Britain who would command similar respect. Unfortunately, I found myself reported prominently in the same paper shortly afterwards when I made a terrible gaffe. I was on stage at a poetry event and cheerfully announced that until then I had thought that Yeats (Yates) was a wine lodge. A dark silence fell. Afterwards the actor Stephen Rea came up to say, Graham, if that’s your idea of Scottish humour, you’ve a long way to go.’
He has come a long way, sorting out his views and building on acquired experience. He plans to make the Abbey a company more open to touring, taking it to places not accustomed to having live theatre on their doorstep, perhaps something he has brought from the NTS. The chair of the board, Frances Ruane, paid him a compliment, one of many, for having made the Abbey more accessible to visiting companies. The evening we met, a work entitled Here All Night, by a company with the extravagant name of Gare St Lazare Ireland, was performed in the main auditorium. It turned out to be an adventurous piece of Beckettiana, a compilation of excerpts from Beckett’s novels movingly recited by Conor Lovett, to the accompaniment of original music by Paul Clark, a fascinating exercise in tradition adapted.
Beckett is one of the authors who should be at home here, but there are many unspoken expectations surrounding the Abbey, and not only over production values. The biggest switch for the new artistic director might be the necessary change of mindset from being a pioneer to being an inheritor, albeit one who is keen to continue innovating, experimenting, taking risks. ‘Ireland had its national theatre before independence. The people who appeared on stage were among those who laid down their lives at the Easter Rising. There are plaques to commemorate those who died with grease paint on their faces,’ as he colourfully puts it.
‘That’s a far cry from putting on Black Watch. I savoured the fervour of the first ten years of the NTS,’ he says, while realising different talents are needed here. Among European theatres, perhaps only the Comédie Francaise has a comparable status, and that venerable institution never generated the number of riots causing outraged theatre-goers to descend onto Dublin’s streets to protest at the unwelcome depiction of the country in plays by Yeats, Synge and O’Casey, and latterly by Frank McGuinness in Caravaggio. Such a response is the dream of theatre people. It proves theatre matters.
So what is his own fire, the force that drives a man like him to make theatre? His reply is not modest. ‘It’s quite simple. It’s what we all seek. How are we going to change the world? The only reason for putting myself through the hell of making a spectacle of myself, as my mother would say, is I believe we could change the world. You could count on one hand the number of theatres which have changed the minds and hearts of people: the Berliner Ensemble in its day, the Schaubuhne perhaps, Dario Fo. In those cases, there were artists engaged in changing the world, and what is amazing about the Abbey is that from its inception it has been able to do that.’
One of the intellectual and aesthetic dilemmas in governing the Abbey is the troublesome question of the role of tradition, although it was so, more unexpectedly, in Scotland. Ireland’s theatre tradition is enormously richer and more resplendent than Scotland’s, but already when the NTS was established there were those who believed that its prime purpose should be to tend to what was already there, to give a second platform to works which had been produced only once in the Tron or the Traverse, been praised by the critics and then consigned to the attic.
The issues are more acute in the Abbey, where the theatre is more than stage and stalls, but it has to avoid becoming a heritage institution even if the institutional names are of a stature that entitles them to be viewed as having a place among the great names of western drama. That tradition is carried on by living authors whose works have been produced in the West End or on Broadway, so what is the balance to be struck between continuity and discontinuity in tradition, or Tradition? Is tradition something to be preserved for its own sake, or managed, manipulated, cultivated and innovated, or alternatively treated as an embarrassing elderly relative at the fireside who wants to discourse on the golden days long gone? How many approaches or how much schizophrenia can be tolerated?
A production of The Plough and the Stars is currently in the Abbey repertoire, but it was commissioned some months before McLaren took over, and while he speaks admiringly of O’Casey he adds, ‘I don’t think I’ll do O’Casey because he’s simply been done too often. I remember Vicki Featherstone getting into trouble when she was artistic director of the NTS for asking why she should do certain Scottish plays. The unstated coda to the opinion she expressed was – “Why should I do a particular work unless an artist comes to me with a really good idea about, for instance, Thrie Estaites?” Similarly if someone comes along to suggest it’s about time we did a version of Riders to the Sea, that’s a sympathy plea, but it’s not enough. I will always reply – “Envelope me in the passion. Make me understand why it needs doing now”.’
He speaks with focused passion, his ideas running away with him and coming out with a force of eloquence and a fund of expletives, as he ponders various aspects of his position. ‘Neil and I are the first directors to be released from some historical responsibilities. We have brought some perspective and energy of the kind John McGrath, Giles Havergal and Vicki Featherstone brought to Scotland. They transformed us Scots. I think the clarity we have brought here has been refreshing.
‘The job of an artistic director is to make things move on. Politicians have legislation, Charles Dickens had his pen but a theatre has a stage and five hundred people who will listen. That is a privilege and a responsibility, but the task is to foster change. The question with NTS was what could it be? Here the question put to me at the Abbey is what should it be? The problem inherent in that question is that we might end up looking over our shoulder at … the list is endless. We could be in the position of those people who are managing the estates of Brecht, Beckett or Lorca. Whatever their intentions, they are killing them. They have reverence, not respect.’
The task is to navigate between these similar but antithetical concepts, between stultifying reverence and healthy respect. ‘There was an American director who used to say that the greatest collaborator with Shakespeare is the individual theagre-goer, so my job is to say to these young artists who want to stage a revival, to take the work and pull it apart, because otherwise we’ll never have another O’Casey. I have respect but no reverence. I respect the canon and convention, but I have no reverence for them, nor should I have. The Irish tradition is rich and vigorous. At the NTS, we used to say that as a national theatre we are fifty years behind London but a hundred years behind Dublin.’
Any aim to change the world will involve a venture into politics, something which can be achieved either by providing a forum for preachy agit-prop or for more subtle forms of dramatised clash and debate. Can theatre deal best with current issues or should it restrict itself to examining underlying values and directions? When we met, the topic of the day in Ireland was abortion with the referendum still ahead. Unexpectedly McLaren pointed to the impact of a play by the Quebecquois writer Michel Tremblay which had been performed as a comedy in Scotland under the title The Guid Sisters, and which he directed in the Abbey as The Unmanageable Sisters. ‘It did not have the resonance in Scotland it had in Ireland, but at its heart is the tragedy of teenage pregnancy. I saw women in tears on the stairwell because that was their experience, and in forty years no one had ever told that story. Political theatre is best conveyed in the John McGrath style, by combining political content and popular form. These are the two wires, like earth and live. Put them together and they spark.’
There are other ways of making sparks fly. In the days of Babel, McLaren staged several much admired productions of Greek tragedy. ‘I was inspired by the purity of form and was obsessed by the idea of catharsis. Ena Lamont Stewart was dealing with the same issues as Sophocles, but in different circumstances. A tragic character is one facing forces greater than himself, and often these are related to social and political issues. That was the case with Lamont Stewart or Joe Corrie. There was the same potential for catharsis and tragedy.’ He is looking again at the Theban Trilogy, and it might well provide what he calls one of those ‘Oh my God’ moments which theatre is uniquely placed to offer.
In his present position, facing the demands of tradition and iconoclasm, moving from a new national company in Scotland to a venerable company in Ireland, Graham McLaren compares himself whimsically to Marty McFly, the baffled hero of Back to the Future. In both places, he has to strike a balance between past and future. A high-wire artist has an easier job.