Will the recently established National Theatre of Scotland give rise to a new golden age of Scottish contemporary drama?by Michael Coveney / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
One of the most important things to emerge from this year’s Edinburgh Festival is that the new National Theatre of Scotland—an informally arranged enabling agency with no permanent theatre, no building, no red carpets and a modest budget of £4m a year—might not be such a bad idea after all.
This revisionist thought is prompted by the resounding success of two NTS Edinburgh productions of new plays by Gregory Burke and Anthony Neilson. These suggested that a flexible policy of commissioning and co-operation bypass the problems of a bureaucratic institution locked into anxieties about its status or programming.
Burke’s Black Watch, an unofficial biography of the famous regiment and its last assignment in Iraq before amalgamation in the new Royal Regiment of Scotland, was the hit of the fringe festival. The play demonstrated what can happen when extra resources are hitched to extra ambition: John Tiffany’s production was part history lesson, part documentary, part social realism, part locker room comedy and part ritual of war.
Neilson’s filthy, funny Realism was a zanily designed dream play of a day in the life of a fat slob. It played out on a vast stage of sand with furniture and characters stuck into it at odd angles. In an epilogue, Stu, the fat slob, revealed what we might have seen without the re-imagined drama of his ordinary day: Stu wrapped in a dressing gown seated at a kitchen table in a poky “fringe theatre” setting.
Both writers are established playwrights in the Scottish theatre, along with their talented contemporaries David Greig, David Harrower, Zinnie Harris and older hands like John Byrne, Liz Lochhead and John Clifford. The point was that the involvement of the NTS had taken their work onto a new plane, and into a new dimension.
With Greig attached to the NTS as resident dramatist and many of the others working on new commissions, it is not hard to imagine a new golden age of Scottish drama. Greig, in fact, is probably the busiest, most talented yet most unsung playwright in Britain. His recent work at the Royal Shakespeare Company (The American Pilot), the Barbican (Herge’s Adventures of Tintin) and the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark (Pyrenees) has covered an extraordinary range of themes and topics with rare wit and intelligence.
The success at Edinburgh has given the NTS project a much needed focus. Despite a drum-beating launch in February with a series of events all called Home (“the most evocative word in our language”), the initial impression was one of box-ticking geographical informality and politically correct priorities. Home featured a puppet show in a disused shop in Stornoway, a high-energy performance in a former Nissen hut near Inverness, a reworking of the Hansel and Gretel story on the East Lothian coast, an occupation of derelict flats in Aberdeen, a karaoke Abba night in a grand ballroom in Dundee, and a group abseil down a tower block in Glasgow.
The Scottish parliament announced the creation of the NTS in September 2003, the only new major cultural institution since devolution. There had been a desire for a national theatre for well over a century. At the first night of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy in 1819, the Scotsman critic was stirred into fervour: “Why should we not be proud of our national genius, humour, music, kindness and fidelity? Why not be national?”
The last time the call for a Scottish National Theatre was raised was in the 1970s, when the spirit of the Scottish National Players of 1921 and James Bridie’s Glasgow Citizens of 1949 was resurrected in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the respective theatres of Bill Bryden at the Lyceum and Giles Havergal at the Citizens. While the Citizens explored the European repertoire with an originality unparalleled in any British theatre in the last century, Bryden cultivated a native folk drama with a company of well known and rising Scottish actors.
Even so, the modern Scottish theatre in the 1970s and 1980s seemed liveliest in touring companies like John McGrath’s 7:84 and its offshoots, or sporadically in theatres at Pitlochry and Dundee—and, consistently over the past 40 years, at the informal, internationally minded Traverse in Edinburgh, founded by an American, Jim Haynes.
Vicky Featherstone, the first NTS artistic director (and an Englishwoman), states in her manifesto that a “national theatre” should not be “a jingoistic, patriotic stab at defining a nation’s identity through theatre. In fact, it should not be an opportunity to try and define anything. Instead, it is the chance to throw open the doors of possibility, to encourage boldness… I hope we will make Scotland proud.” In that last sentiment, at least, she touches hands across two centuries with the Scotsman critic of Rob Roy.
The NTS autumn schedule continues with two large-scale productions: a new musical Tutti Frutti by John Byrne based on his 1987 television series, in collaboration with His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen; and a new version by David Harrower of Schiller’s Mary Stuart co-produced with the Citizens and the Lyceum—thus presumably pacifying both east and west rival theatre factions in one fell swoop. The NTS ensemble of seven actors, travelling like a commando group around different venues, is presenting a trio of plays by Greig, Douglas Maxwell and Zinnie Harris: Gobbo, a tale of a goblin who doesn’t like adventures; Mancub, about a boy who turns from his parents to animals; and Julie, a new version of Strindberg relocated to Scotland between the wars.
The new NTS manifesto alludes to a vaguely Marxist view of what theatre can achieve, expressed by John McGrath. “The theatre can never cause social change,” he said in 1974. “It can articulate pressure towards one, help people to celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence. It can be a public emblem of inner, and outer, events, and occasionally a reminder, an elbow-jogger, a perspective-bringer. Above all, it can be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination.”
Those worthy intentions, however, mean nothing without the quality and spirit of work to match them. It might just be that in redefining what a “national theatre” might mean in the modern world, the NTS will succeed in the even more interesting task of widening theatrical boundaries and galvanising its local talent in a new age of theatrical expression.