Ben Barnes, the director of the Theatre Royal, has brought out, through Carysfort Press, an impressive and significant version of his time as Artistic Director of the National Theatre, with a 450-page, Plays And Controversies, Abbey Theatre Diaries 2000 – 2005. In this, he gives his side of a complicated story of his stewardship of the Abbey during a badly financed period of celebration of abbeyonehundred – one turbulent century of the national theatre. The diaries start out with ambition, hope and high ideals from an earnest theatre practitioner with an international reputation, an intellectual disposition about the high ground of art-making and a passionate urge to take his place in formative theatre history. By the end he is a victim and the sad shambles of his attempts to meet the conflicting demands of his own board, shareholders, an intrusive press who are in the business of selling newspapers before expressing opinions. And the difficulties of dealing with a business-like Arts Council, with too many demands on inadequate funding. The Government also came out of this book as indecisive, lacking in knowledge of the arts and hiding behind reports as to the best location of an iconic building and a headline-seeking Taoiseach, who seemed to play local (northside) politics rather than practical analysis.
Technically, Barnes served his term but was made to feel unwelcome, yet the then Taoiseach saved him a much undeserved sacking. But it is obvious from this book that many of the points Barnes made were eventually seen to be relevant and the expensive rescue of that theatre could have happened earlier and at a lesser cost. His instincts were right but he was trapped in a much under-funded organisation trying to have a European and an international programme as well as doing the business of programming two venues with a positive emphasis on new writing. Centenary events are a nightmare and Barnes was lost in long days and long weeks of planning and directing with he, himself, taking on a decision-making process that should have been better defined and supported.
Why he took the primus inter pares (first among equals) position in his business dealings in a very collaborative arena is hard to understand, but it was not vain-glorious or self-seeking and why he was suckered into staff reductions with an internal report horribly called The Headcount Review, is shocking.
But he emerges from it all, battered and cautious, but a survivor. I do not know the man, and he has been at the Royal for about eighteen months now, but during the period of the diaries I did see nearly half of the plays he programmed for those five years and had many memorable nights at the venue, none more so than the opening of Jim Nolan’s fine Blackwater Angel. I have re-read the diaries over Christmas and have come to admire Barnes on the basis of this excellent, if subjective, book.
Jim Nolan features well in these pages and it was a revelation to me that he turned down not once, but twice, Barnes’ offer that he become the Abbey’s literary manager. Red Kettle and Ben Hennessy feature as does the Theatre Royal. Also mentioned are Maura O’Keeffe of Red Kettle’s board, Una Kealy who teaches at WIT and Waterford actor Keith Dunphy. WDS actor Hugo O’Donovan and actress/fashion designer Caroline Gray also feature.
I much admire Ben Barnes’ inclusion of his wife and two young daughters in the narrative, in what some may see as a Yummy Daddy, but you have to read the diaries to see that they are the bedrock of his life and existence, as much as making good theatre is.
There are wonderfully indiscreet references to some living people that will do Barnes little credit and I loved the final anecdote as he left the Abbey, the private line rang and it was Brian Friel calling for Barnes successor – ‘Oh Ben, hello. I thought you had gone’.