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The Abbey Theatre: The First 100 Years (2004)
The Abbey Theatre turned 100 years old in 2004.
Three years in the making this major documentary (duration 101 minutes) marks the first hundred years of achievement at Ireland's National Theatre. A fascinating mix of contemporary interviews, archive, some never seen before, and live performances from the Abbey stage tells the story of a theatre which has sometimes been called "The Cradle of Genius".
Written, Directed and Produced by John Lynch, who has a long association with the Abbey as actor, playwright and director, narrated by Kathleen Barrington, an Abbey actress for forty years, it has an original musical score composed by Adam Orpen-Lynch.
The story of the coming together of William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, two writers in the Anglo Irish tradition with little money, to found the Abbey in 1904 is fascinating in terms of its vision and its achievement. One hundred years later the reputation of the Abbey is internationally known but the details of the struggle for the survival of the founders "High Ambition" is not so well known. The struggle continues today although the founders have long departed this life, yet they still seem to be members of the Board. The continuity of purpose, vision and achievement is remarkably evident today; it has not always been so, for the story is one of change upon change but somehow managing to remain the same.
It is the story of genius demanding genius, personal feuds, friendships, betrayals, and political interference as always happens when people with large egos try to work together, it is full of intrigue. On another level it is the story of the work, the ideas, the writing, the acting, the riots in Ireland and America, the fire which destroyed the theatre in 1951, the new theatre in 1966 and the emergence of a new school of writers which will lead the Abbey through the next 100 years.
Actor Stephen Rea is highly critical of the Abbey at the time when he started there in the 1960's under Ernest Blythe "There was nothing going on in peoples heads and a fear of something going on. It's not a building that makes theatre but the ideas in peoples heads. The actors were depressed because they knew there was something to be done and they weren't being asked to do it." He is still critical of the Abbey today and their failure to capitalise on the new international profile they achieved with Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa". Tomas MacAnna is more up beat and he talks about the very good relationship he had with the much-maligned Ernest Blythe who had an association with the Abbey for almost fifty years. Actor Colm Meaney talks hilariously about his time there in the 1970's when Lelia Doolan was in charge when he was involved in theatrical experiments in the Peacock Theatre which was so disliked by the Abbey company that they turned up in the audience and heckled the actors on the stage. Lelia Doolan tells about the precarious position of Artistic Directors who tended not to last very long in the job before being fired. "You sort of knew that if you threw a stone in Abbey Street you might hit one". Arthur Shields actor and brother of the great Barry Fitzgerald, tells of his early days at the Abbey in 1914/15 and of the thrilling impression the plays which spoke of Ireland as a nation had on the younger generation of the time. The theme of the Abbey Theatre reflecting the nation is followed through the documentary and particularly with the production of Frank McGuinness's "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme" at the time of the paramilitary ceasefires in the 1990's. Patrick Mason talks eloquently on what a national Theatre can do and says how correct Yeats was when he put a theatre at the centre of the new state " a state based on economics alone is a prison house. A new state must have room for the imagination and that is the Abbey Theatre.." Joe Dowling tells of his experience of working with Donal McCann on Friel's "Faith Healer": "every great play you work on enriches you as a person", and Maureen Toal and Joan O'Hara and Vincent Dowling tell about the eccentric and brilliant director Frank Dermody: "I think that poor man was deranged, it was all mental torture, the Marquis DeSade without the usual implements." Artistic Director Ben Barnes comments on the Abbey being criticised for playing too safe by saying that when he put on "Hinterland" by Sebastian Barry, a controversial play about the Haughy political administration he was again pilloried: "So you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."
On archive film Shelah Richards gives an eyewitness account of the "The Plough and the Stars" riots and in a rarely seen clip from the feature film "Young Cassidy" Sir Michael Redgrave plays Yeats on the Abbey stage delivering his famous repuke to the Irish public: "You have disgraced yourselves again." Sean O'Casey and Barry Fitzgerald discuss this too and admit they didn't understand some of the big words Yeats had used. Ronnie Masterson tells of the fire which destroyed the theatre in 1951 and T.P McKenna and Vincent Dowling tell of Dermody's great production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night" from the 1950's and 60's, a clip of the national tour revival with Philip O'Flynn, Angela Newman, Pat Laffan and Vincent Dowling is one of the precious pieces of archive we have found. As is a little piece of 8mm film shot by the late May Craig of the Abbey tours in America in the 1930's. This film was kindly given to us by Miss Craig's family, it was very damaged but we had it restored carefully and were able to include forty second of the famous Abbey company with the great F.J McCormick, Eileen Crowe, Maureen Delany, Denis O'Dea and May Craig. Many of the great Abbey actors are included in performance: Sarah Allgood, Barry Fitzgerald, F.J. McCormick, Cyril Cusack, Philip O'Flynn, Siobhan McKenna, Donal McCann, Des Cave, and Clive Geraghty among them as well as many recent clips from live performances on the Abbey stage.
Those appearing in the film apart from those in recent live performance excerpts are: