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IN the spring of 2006, Scotland's Grid Iron theatre company staged a site-specific show called Roam in Edinburgh International Airport. The audience arrived by bus, passports in hand, and were ushered towards the check-in desks. Instead of flight arrivals, they saw images of exotic destinations on the monitors. Instead of a tedious wait in departures, they watched a row of air hostesses, with matching blonde bobs and lurid turquoise outfits, performing a line-dance to a soundtrack of groovy 60s jazz.
At the same time, real passengers were arriving in the airport concourse, catching glimpses of make-believe pilots, refugees and holiday-making pensioners. Who knows what they made of it? For the rest of us, fact and fiction merged as Ben Harrison’s company performed a funny and poignant patchwork of scenes about a globalised world where terrorism and consumerism intersected.
Almost certainly the only piece of theatre ever to be staged in a working airport, Roam was a remarkable achievement, the more so given the security concerns of a post-9/11 travel industry not fond of allowing anyone -– theatregoers or not – beyond passport control without a seat reservation.
It was a show that tells you a lot about the contemporary theatre scene in Scotland. In a sense, all roads lead to Roam. That's because companies such as Grid Iron inspired the radical conception of the National Theatre of Scotland; and because, in turn, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) made it possible to stage shows such as Roam. It was no accident that we found ourselves watching businessmen, sun-worshipers and asylum seekers as we gathered around the baggage carousels and queued at passport control. That it happened at all is for two inter-linked reasons. The first is the vigour and imagination of Scottish theatre over the past three decades. The second is the arrival of the NTS at the start of 2006.
Just as Harrison and producer Judith Doherty could fulfil their long-held dream of a site-specific airport performance only with the diplomatic clout of the NTS, which co-produced the show, so the NTS could not have come into being without the triumphs of companies such as Grid Iron. Although Harrison had staged highly acclaimed promenade performances in haunted cellars, children’s playgrounds and department stores in the years since Grid Iron was founded in 1996, he needed not just the resources of the NTS, but its "national" imprimatur to persuade the airport authorities that Roam was a safe, credible and prestigious project.
Similarly, it was because of the achievements of theatre in Scotland at all levels – children's theatre, site-specific, new writing, community drama, city centre and rural -that the NTS was configured in a manner unlike any other national theatre in the world.
The debate about a national theatre for Scotland had rumbled on for decades – at least since 1819 when a newspaper critic, enthused by the first-night staging of Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy, asked: "Why should we not be proud of our national genius, humour, music, kindness and fidelity? Why not be national?" Various companies tried and failed to gain national status in the intervening years, but it was only in 1999 with the arrival of a Scottish parliament, with limited powers devolved from the UK government, that there was the political will and the levels of funding to make it happen.
Even then, there was an aesthetic hurdle to cross. Although there were a few prominent advocates for a traditional building-based national company, many practitioners worried such an organisation would do no justice to their own work and, worse, would deprive them of funding. What they wanted was not a grand city-centre stage putting on conventional well-made plays, but a body that recognised there was effectively a national theatre in Scotland already. It existed in the sum total of theatrical activity across the country.
They wanted a national theatre that could somehow include the likes of On the Line, a powerful community show at Dundee Rep about an industrial dispute at the local Timex factory; The Path, a midnight trek up Glen Lyon in the southern Highlands, staged by Glasgow's NVA; and The Bloody Chamber, performed by Grid Iron in a supposedly haunted underground street in Edinburgh. No building-based company could do this, yet these were some of the most exceptional pieces of theatre Scotland had produced.
There were other arguments against a national theatre. Although playwriting had been one of the country's strengths since the 1980s, the country did not have a Shakespeare, a Molière or a Synge whose genius you would want to enshrine in a national body such as the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Comédie Française in Paris or the Abbey in Dublin. Nor did it have a Laurence Olivier or some exceptional director who would be a natural to lead such a company. The debate raged about the definition of a nation, the definition of Scotland and the definition of theatre, and it would have raged forever if a professional association, the Federation of Scottish Theatre (FST), hadn't proposed a scheme that would satisfy everyone apart from the most die-hard of flag-waving nationalists.
In the FST scheme there would be no building, no monolith, no cash-guzzling mausoleum and no shrine to an earlier generation's definition of theatre. Instead, there would be a small administration with an artistic director fulfilling a role similar to the director of a festival. The whole of Scottish theatre would be the director's resource. One week children's company Wee Stories would be the national theatre, the next it might be Edinburgh's traditional Royal Lyceum. This national theatre would not compete with the industry, draining it of money and resources, but would enhance, celebrate and be properly of it.
This was the model the Scottish Executive bought into, investing £7.5m over the first three years – money that was additional to all existing theatre funding. Vicky Featherstone, formerly of England's Paines Plough, was appointed as artistic director in 2004. She modified the original plan to allow the NTS to mount its own touring productions and community shows as well as collaborations with existing companies. Otherwise she was true to the spirit of this untested open-plan scheme.
Her first production summed up the NTS philosophy. It was a project called Home that took place in ten locations over a single weekend. The performances included a doll's house puppet show in a disused shop in Stornoway; a high-energy physical performance in a former Nissen hut near Inverness; a spiritual odyssey in a glass factory in Caithness; a reminiscence drama in a drill hall in Dumfries; and a 1970s reworking of Hansel and Gretel at a mystery location on the East Lothian coast. Inevitably some worked better than others, but together they laid the foundations of a national theatre that was truly national and one that questioned the very nature of theatre itself.
Of course, it hasn't all been performances in ferry boats, airports and Forestry Commission woodland (although I write as someone who has seen all three). At the traditional end of the canon there have been productions of Schiller's Mary Stuart, starring Siobhan Redmond in a translation by David Harrower; Euripides' The Bacchae, starring Alan Cumming in a translation by David Greig; and Ibsen's Peer Gynt, in a thrillingly vulgar Dundee Rep production by Dominic Hill who went on to take over from Philip Howard as director of Edinburgh's famous new writing theatre, the Traverse, at the start of 2008.
After 18 months of operation, the NTS story is still unfolding, but the success of the venture is assured if only for one production. Black Watch opened on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the world's biggest arts jamboree – in August 2006 and took off like no Scottish production since John McGrath's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil in 1973. Like that show, Black Watch combined elements of direct audience address, emotive song and dramatic re-enactment, giving voice to a previously silenced working-class experience. Where McGrath, a political radical, encapsulated the history of ruling-class exploitation of the Scottish people, Gregory Burke, who spent some of his childhood among military ex-pats in Gibraltar, gave a sympathetic ear to the soldiers of Scotland's oldest military regiment, particularly as they described their experiences in Iraq.
Staged across the length of an old army drill hall, the audience sitting on two sides of a wide playing area, John Tiffany's production nodded to Canada's Robert Lepage in its most poetic moments of transformation, but in its direct address, gallows humour and unflinching portrayal of raw experience, it had its roots in a distinctively Scottish theatrical tradition. In particular, it recalled two epic plays staged by Bill Bryden in the early 1990s at the Harland and Wolff engine shed in Glasgow: The Ship, a tribute to the shipbuilders of the Clyde, and The Big Picnic, a salute to the soldiers of the First World War.
Coincidentally, Burke used a technique favoured by another early-90s Scottish theatre practitioner, Jeremy Weller, whose productions would feature real-life homeless people (Glad), juvenile delinquents (Bad) and the mentally ill (Mad). Invariably, these plays would feature a naïve outsider – representing the director himself – who would stumble into the world of the dispossessed and act as an entry point for the audience and a catalyst for the action.
Likewise in Black Watch, Burke characterised himself as a nervous playwright with a habit of asking provocative questions of the hard-drinking boys of the Black Watch regiment. Here the writer was always positioned meters away from his interviewees, the physical distance between them emphasising both his status as an interloper and the soldiers' tightly-knit loyalty. Such bold use of space was typical of Tiffany's production, which went on to receive rapturous acclaim in Los Angeles and New York on a tour of duty that will take in Australia, New Zealand and a further North American run in 2008.
That the NTS was behind this stunning production was not a guarantee of its success – Tiffany talks of his great uncertainty in the days before the opening night – but its involvement was crucial in three ways. First, Featherstone had the intuition to ask Burke to keep an eye on the Black Watch as it went through the painful process of amalgamation into a bigger regiment. Second, the NTS had the resources to bring together a talented cast and crew and could afford the time to develop the script and teach the actors their drill routines. Third, once the production became a hit (not even Prince Charles could get a ticket), it had the flexibility to keep it in the repertoire and tour the world. In other words, it was a production properly invested in and properly exploited.
All this at the same time as staging anarchic children's shows (David Greig's joyous Gobbo), popular music-theatre (John Byrne's raucous Tutti Frutti) and international co-productions (the harrowing Aalst, directed by Pol Heyvaert's Belgian company Victoria with Scottish actors Kate Dickie and David McKay). The impact the NTS has had on Scottish theatre is as important as the impact Scottish theatre has had on the NTS.
After the NTS, the second chief source of energy in Scottish theatre arises from a very old idea. In 1999, Dundee Rep's artistic director Hamish Glen, who would later be instrumental in devising the FST's scheme for a national theatre, managed to raise the funds to establish a permanent ensemble of 14 actors. Although such an idea is commonplace in Eastern Europe and even Shakespeare's King's Men would have found it unremarkable, it is now unique in the UK.
It is true there are certain disadvantages (casting decisions can look eccentric and there are many plays they can't even consider), but the system encourages the development of the actors' skills, develops a close relationship with the audience and establishes a true company spirit. Crucially, the wage bill does not go up when there is a long rehearsal period, something that has allowed joint-directors Dominic Hill and James Brining, who took over in 2003, to devote proper amounts of time to demanding productions such as Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution, Ibsen's Peer Gynt (a ten-week rehearsal) and Stephen Greenhorn's award-winning musical Sunshine on Leith based on the songs of the Proclaimers. The extra attention has paid off in some of the best Scottish productions of recent years.
It was Hill's production of Jarry's Ubu the King, relocated to an old folk's home and given a scabrous translation by David Greig, that was seen at the the Festival Internacional Cervantino in Mexico in October, 2006. Playing Ubu was guest actor Gerry Mulgrew whose Communicado company, in its heyday in the late-80s and early-90s, laid the foundations for a visually ravishing, actor-centred style of performance that lives on today, not least in the work of the Dundee ensemble.
And so to the third and final source of energy: the playwrights. In any survey of Scottish theatre over the past decade the name of David Greig will crop up repeatedly. As a co-founder of Suspect Culture theatre company, known for its bold theatrical experiments and cool post-modern analysis of the 21st century condition, and an inspiring dramatist in his own right, Greig is the most intelligent and prolific of a generation that has helped Scotland distinguish itself as a crucible of new writing.
Unlike David Harrower, whose Knives in Hens and Blackbird have proved enduring international hits, and Gregory Burke, whose Gagarin Way made him a major player even before Black Watch came along, Greig is not known for any one runaway success. Rather, he has made his name through an accumulated body of work, whether it be the Barker-like ambition of The Speculator, the Rattigan-esque drama of Outlying Islands or the Brechtian dislocation of The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.
His output would merit a survey on its own, his work dealing in fascinating questions of identity in times of Scottish devolution, European disintegration, Middle Eastern conflict and North American homogenisation in an ever-shifting style that is always quizzical, restless and funny. But that shouldn't be to diminish the enormous contribution of Liz Lochhead, Iain Heggie, Chris Hannan, John Clifford, Tom McGrath, Nicola McCartney, Anthony Neilson, Rona Munro, as well as Byrne, Greenhorn, Harrower, Burke and others who have kept alive a vigorous, accessible and stimulating writing scene. Their successes suggest the Scottish playwrights of tomorrow, unlike their predecessors, might actually have a substantial tradition to build on.