Standing up for Fintan O Toole

January 22, 2014

The reaction to Fintan O Toole’s recent article in the Irish Times, Abbey Confidential, has exposed a petty, reactionary and at times malicious side to many people working in the arts in Ireland. To read some of the responses online you would have thought the critic had strapped himself naked to a wrecking ball and smashed into the theatre just so as to upset those basking in the reported success of the Theatre of Memory Symposium.

What started out as a straightforward news report on a document- commissioned by the Abbey and the Arts Council and accessed by O Toole under the Freedom of Information Act, has resulted in a character assassination on one of Europe’s most respected journalists. The men who sat on the panel- with the expectation of anonymity, were dismissed for their age, sex and class. And the failure of the Arts Council to properly redact both their names-and those of the performers, has been manipulated to distract from the consensus of these experts. That the Abbey has failed to make ‘world-class’ theatre.

There are valid questions to be asked about why elements of a report, not yet finished, needed to be published. The failure of the Art’s Council to properly redact the names of the artists and the assessors should also be probed. While the means in which productions were judged and the scope of the investigation has also drawn withering comment from all quarters.

What I find shocking is the attacks on O’Toole himself. He has been accused of embarrassing the artists and the institution. Of cruelty and rabble rousing. Yet it was the Abbey and/or the Arts Council who set the parameters of the study and paid for it with tax payers money. Surely any anger should have been targeted at them, not only for exposing their artists to embarrassment, but also for wasting money on such a clearly flawed process?

Senator Fiach MacConghail failed his artists by putting them through the process without being sure that the views of the panel would remain private.

He failed them again by refusing to give the context he said was missing from the initial article when contacted by the Irish Times. Offered the chance to comment on the report before it was published, as well as a free-reign right of reply later in the week, he refused, not wanting the information disseminated at all. His silence was incredibly short sighted. The information was going to be put out. And minus his input it allowed the sting of the report to smart, causing further harm to the artists he had programmed.

MacConghail failed the artists a third time when speaking on Arena, by not taking responsibility for his part in the public embarrassment of artists. This could have have allowed him a clearer point from which to address his concerns with the manor of the reporting and would have prevented this debate turning into a pissing contest.

Instead he said he stood shoulder to shoulder with them. And together they shouted at the embarrassing revelations.

Let’s get some things straight.

This was a news piece with no comment attached. A report on a publicly funded organisation. A report the organisation itself asked for because they didn’t feel the Arts Council could be objective. This makes it of public interest and O Toole had a responsibility to reveal it. Were it a report on the HSE, The Garda Ombudsman or the Catholic Church, the Times would be expected to report its findings.

The debate O’Toole has started has revealed a vulgar ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Beneath all the virtual high-fiving and ‘look at me’ tweets, I wonder why none of the artists asked MacConghail why The Abbey had stalled on meeting their assessors?

This continual harping on about redactions is allowing the real news story to go unheard.That, when asked if the Abbey turned out ‘world-class theatre’, three experts- by MacConghail’s own estimation, implied we did not. And, while it’s fair to say that the panel were a bit Goldilocks-one being too harsh and another to ebullient, there was a consensus. That the Abbey take an ambitious approach to many of their plays but fail to follow through on it. That they often miscast or under utilise the performers, who aren’t always directed to find depth or subtlety. That productions entertain but don’t affect. And that the standard of new writing is not nearly up to scratch.

I feel for those mentioned. But I also appreciated hearing an honest opinion. An opinion delivered from people working outside of this country. Who cared enough to give up their time for free and travel long distances. They cannot, hence, be disparaged (as critics so often are) for hating actors/young people/theatre.

The Irish Times probably released the reports for total transparency, to show how the sausage was made, rather than have people choke them on how shoddy the process was, if they were leaked later. The fact that we are still harping on about redacting four days later says a lot about our industry’s ability to take criticism.

Social media has allowed companies to build a false narrative about the success of a show and the standing faux-vation has become stitched into the fabric of attending the theatre, like intermissions and scene changes, rather than the rare accolade it once was. There’s a real danger of artists coming up on their own twitter love buzz.

Such platitudes are mostly a false high and these reports, reflecting an unbridled opinion on the work, uncensored and undiluted so as to be palatable, may be acting like a come down. They hint at a consensus that may exist if people shied away from sycophancy. And the pain is so raw because as critics, theatre goers and actors we never really go into to much detail about the failings or triumphs of the actors themselves.

Let it not be forgotten that these performers are paid with taxpayer’s money. And if there is something rotten in that system it needs to be highlighted publicly if there is any hope for it to be dealt with. Miscasting is a fundamental flaw that is rarely spoken about in print.

In refusing to take responsibility for his role in the current debacle and instead circumventing the report by exploiting the feelings of artists he himself hurt , MacConghail- as one of our biggest figureheads, is making the whole arts community look bad. He makes it look as if artists want to gorge on the fat of the taxpayer without having their cholesterol checked. And he couldn’t be doing it at a worse time.

PS: Did anyone else find it highly suspicious that the much maligned Shush was absent from the review? In a world where we grade a National Theatre’s ability to be world-class on scorecards out of five, I wonder what that would have done to the overall average?


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