Dublin's Abbey Theatre is facing the most critical decision in its history - whether to expand on its existing site or decamp south across the River Liffey to the Grand Canal Docks area.
Just before Christmas, the board of the Abbey had presentations from architects on two rival schemes for the theatre's future - one for a site in the Grand Canal Docks and the other on how the existing theatre could be redeveloped. A new complex costing an estimated £100 million would be situated on a waterfront site, part of the former gasworks, earmarked for a landmark cultural building. This would provide sufficient space to stage three different plays in a single week, just like other national theatres - notably the South Bank complex in London. The alternative of stacking the Peacock on the roof of the existing building would require both the Abbey and National theatres to close for up to two years - something of a financial nightmare for those who run it. The theatre itself is on the crest of a wave. Its acclaimed production of Medea, with Fiona Shaw in the title role, opened this week in London and it featured in this year's Irish Times/ ESB Irish Theatre Awards, as well as picking up two Olivier Awards nominations. Yet its current premises in Lower Abbey Street are widely regarded as inadequate, little more than a tight box encased in grey concrete brick. The original theatre founded by WB Yeats and JM Synge was destroyed by fire in 1951, forcing it into a temporary home at the old Queen's in Pearse Street. The current building, designed in 1966, was developed on a site too small to provide proper rehearsal space and other essential facilities. Fears about fire safety lay behind the ludicrous physical separation of entrances to the Abbey and the Peacock. Acoustics and air-conditioning in both theatres leave a lot to be desired, while the Peacock's straight-jacket layout constrains the presentation of more cutting-edge drama. The Abbey will celebrate its centenary in December 2004.
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