A national theatre should be about more than celebrating past ‘glories’…

Two cheers for David Norris’s excellent suggestion that the Abbey Theatre should be relocated to the historic building of Dublin’s GPO

First of all it is owned by the State and due shortly to be vacated as a postal facility. There is therefore no acquisition cost. Moreover, it has historical associations with theatre. For many years it was the headquarters of Radio Éireann and all major radio drama was broadcast from there.

Second, the existing Abbey site could either be sold or used as collateral to raise funds for the building work. This should help to make the entire transaction exchequer-neutral. In any case in the event of a budgetary shortfall I have no doubt whatever that for so significant a national cultural project, EU support would be available.

Failing that, I am certain that the mystical combination of Yeats’s Abbey and Pearse’s GPO would lead to a positive queue of Irish American sponsors.

It happens that David has had some homework done on the site, by architectural students from DIT:

…it emerged from their researches that the site is more than adequate and indeed exemplary from the angle of spatial dimension and flies, backstage areas, scene docks, deliveries, as well as double auditoria and rehearsal space.

Moreover, as a result of the shelling from the gunboat Helga in 1916, the only remaining original element of the building is the magnificent portico and entrance facing O’Connell Street. The rest is effectively an empty shell awaiting imaginative redevelopment.

And as well as being central to the city’s self identity, it is extraordinarily well served by public transport:

…the location is very much in tune with the egalitarian aspirations of the revolution. It is the one building whose location is instantly and universally known to every citizen throughout the State.

It is easily accessible by every means of transport – train, tram, taxi, Luas, bus, proposed metro, car, bicycle, rickshaw and even shank’s mare. It will be both of the people and for the people.

His final closing argument:

Have we not yet had a surfeit of mediocrity? What a transfiguring impact the arrival of the Abbey would have on O’Connell Street and on the whole sorely neglected north side of the city! Dublin would at last become what it claims to be – a proud European capital.

How well it would gel with the idea of a new cultural hub, including the city council’s splendid plan for the redevelopment of Parnell Square, the flourishing Gate Theatre, the relocation of the central city library to the Ambassador cinema and of course the heroic James Joyce Centre in North Great George’s Street.

All great stuff from a Senator who has become a great Irish institution in himself… So why just the two cheers? Well, I buy everything about the argument, even “the relationship between the Rising and the literary renaissance, between Pearse and Yeats”. Yet, since that’s all about where the Republic has come from, I feel compelled to ask: where is it going?

Now I know you cannot expect a national theatre to chart the way forward: genuine innovation more often arises from the more marginal ends of the cultural melee. They are institutions after all, and they are necessarily restricted. But there’s a chance here, not simply to reach for an iconic, out in the open, heart of the city venue but beyond the kind of cultural stagnation that the performing arts has fallen into in the last two to three decades… And I’m thinking more than just Ireland…

The second from last item on the Today programme this morning (I’d embed it, or link to it separately but the Beeb don’t run to that just yet)… It’s a consideration of what happened to the avante guarde of the 20th and in particular the maurading genius of Sergey Diaghilev whose influence has been seen to give way to safety…

Somewhere in that debate the phrase ‘the revenge of the 19th Century’ was used to describe the wall to wall Swan Lake phenomenon in ballet… That for me is largely because the theatres housing those productions are magificent artifacts of that era, and they give best results reproducing the work of that time…

Any national theatre for Ireland should retain one eye at least on the future and the changing nature of society…If there is one form that reflects the new interconnected, peer to peer, networked, always on manner in which knowledge is transfered, then at least some of the new space should be given over to a theatre-in-the-round… And given to the charge of an artistic director with the instincts to properly exploit it…

Otherwise I suspect it will become just one more great opportunity ushered in with grand effect but in which the Irish fail to grasp the shapeshifting character of a future that is arriving even more quickly than it ever has before… The new Abbey could and should help give rise to a renaissance of its own, not just celebrate those literary and artistic triumphs of a not so dim past…

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