Tag Archives: National Theatre of Scotland

Close to the very best of Scottish theatre

 

The 1970s-1980s heyday of the Havergal/MacDonald/Prowse triumvirate at the Glasgow Citizens will always for me be the pinnacle, but, otherwise, considering the number and variety of its productions, the geographical scale of its touring and its artistic and financial success, the National Theatre of Scotland must be regarded as one of the best Scottish theatre companies in my lifetime.

A previous post assessed the five years of Vicky Featherstone’s artistic directorship of the company; now another opportunity to take stock as her successor Laurie Sansom moves on after four years.

The most obvious change in the company’s organisation is that, after their much publicised Theatre Without Walls approach, they have now built a bespoke administrative and rehearsal centre at Spiers Wharf, in the north of Glasgow. However, each new show as it is announced still seems designed either for touring or for a specific location, so we the audiences can surely still expect future productions to be widely available throughout Scotland and beyond. One significant foundation of the success of the first decade has been co-production with other theatres and companies. That this fruitful practice is continuing is demonstrated by recent examples with the National Theatre, the somewhat smaller Told by an Idiot, and TEAM of New York.

The last NTS show which I saw was one of its most widely travelled, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This year saw its fourth tour since its premiere in February 2011; after visits to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland it finally last month played a town somewhere reasonably close to mine. David Greig’s modern ghost story in rhyming couplets, in homage to traditional ballads, was performed with great energy in a confined space by a multi-talented cast. Although I felt that the text was less well written in the second half and gave the actors too much work to do, its reception on the night and on its previous 80 or so venues around the globe demonstrates how wrong I am.

My other recent NTS experiences have probably been a fair cross-section of the company’s repertoire. A more formal modern musical in Glasgow Girls, a literary adaptation with both a heavy employment of video and an international emphasis in The Drivers’ Seat and a revival of a 90 year old Scottish play in In Time O’ Strife.

Earlier, I presumed that Alan Cumming’s performance in The Bacchae would be the first of many appearances by celebrity actors. I was wrong. Whether because such TV and film stars are simply not available or are deemed not suitable for the work being planned or because of a clear policy position of inclusion, the actors employed by the company have mostly been less famous or less established. (Perhaps one exception was the casting of Rab C. Nesbitt veteran Gregor Fisher in the similarly toned Yer Granny last year). However, I now realise that extensive casting of lesser known actors is especially important. There has been a tragic decline in small scale touring theatre in Scotland in the last 20 years, which has meant that several generations of home-trained performers have had much less opportunity to work regularly in live theatre. Anything the NTS can do to heal that weakness is invaluable.

Earlier, too, I expected that the NTS repertoire would include regular revivals of classic texts. I now agree that the its role should not principally be to perform Shakespeare, Lorca, Strindberg, Ibsen or Miller – even though it has tackled all these in the past. One group of plays from the past which surely does merit attention and revival are those written by Scots within the last 50 years and only ever given two or three productions, or even only one: for example, some plays by John (now Jo) Clifford, Bill Bryden, Donald Campbell, Liz Lochhead, Roddy McMillan, Hector McMillan, C.P. Taylor, Anne Marie Di Mambro, Sue Glover, George Rosie and Iain Heggie.

However, I sense that the NTS sees its house style as one of new plays or adaptations rather than revivals. The period of the independence referendum was marked not by new versions of forgotten theatre treasures of the past but more boldly by a new trilogy set in 15th century Scotland, The James Plays. The risk was great since Rona Munro’s status as a playwright might be seen as respected rather than famous, but the production was judged artistically and financially successful and has been touring further at home and abroad this year. The most recent contemporary prose writer to be dramatised, following Andrew O’Hagan, is Alan Warner. Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, a version of his novel The Sopranos, did strike me as somewhat similar to the aforementioned Glasgow Girls. Since its initial run proved popular enough to merit a further, longer, tour, to England, Ireland and the USA, the cavil seems redundant.

Although the announcement of Laurie Sansom’s departure has caused some anxiety, I find it hard to imagine that the legacy built up by him and his predecessor Featherstone of those dozens of varied, successful productions in thousands of venues in Scotland and around the world will be lost or squandered. The National Theatre of Scotland’s foundations seem firmly established.

 

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Spark, Hitchcock  and Italian art-house   

Until two months ago, although I felt I had a reasonable layman’s knowledge of the writings of Muriel Spark, I had never heard of The Driver’s Seat. Then, at a talk about Spark given by journalist Alan Taylor at the Boswell Book Festival , he mentioned that the 1970 novella was her own favourite.  He also mentioned a forgotten film version starring Elizabeth Taylor, as well as an upcoming stage production by the National Theatre of Scotland .

When I read The Driver’s Seat, I was struck by its structural similarities to Spark’s famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – both works use a non-chronological narrative from multiple perspectives –  but also its similarity to films by Alfred Hitchcock. Like Psycho, which begins with a woman at her work and follows her on a dangerous adventure, or Marnie, which looks into her troubled past, or Spellbound, which features a romance with a man who has psychological problems.

The NTS production, directed by Laurie Sansom, plays further on the Hitchcock influences. The mysterious behaviour of Lise is depicted in a way which recalls many of those Hitchcock heroines such as played by Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedren or Ingrid Bergman; the heavy use of video brings many scenes stylistically closer to parts of a film; the grey checked patterns of the suits of all the male characters reminded me of the one worn by Cary Grant’s character in North by North-West.

Fortuitously, the film, directed in 1974 by one Guiseppe Patroni Griffi , is currently available on You Tube. Although at the time of original release it will probably have fitted the fashion of the many international co-productions of the era, its visual style now looks closer to arthouse films like Bertolucci’s The Conformist or Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bougeoisie or Costa-Gavras’ Z. The story is told mostly in slow-moving middle- and long-distance shots. People are eerily silhouetted by bright light in airport, hotel, department store, police station and gardens.  Franco Mannino’s piano music helps create a dissonant environment. The political turmoil which is mentioned only in passing by Spark is given a higher dramatic prominence.

As you watch the film now, you would surely spot its influence on the NTS production design even if it hadn’t been acknowledged in the programme or as an exhibition in the theatre. For example, the repeated scenes of police interviews are recalled by the use of video cameras by the actors and the large images thrown up at the rear of the stage. Like the film, the play has a mixed British and Italian cast.

Although the narrative deals with sexual desire, the 2015 play does not add any explicit depictions. It is also interesting to compare the two differing approaches, both 40 years old now, of book and film.

In a few places, Spark uses overtly the words “gay” and “queer” in ways which are different to current usage.  When a woman at the airport says that Lise in her vividly-coloured outfit looks “very gay”, she replies that she is hoping for “a gay time”. Later, the predatory health-food fanatic Bill says he is “queer for girls”.  In 1970, a woman in her 50s like Spark would remember the days when “gay” did more often mean cheerful or light-hearted. But to feature both words in the same short book at a time when homosexuality had just been legalised and was more openly practised and discussed?  It seems mischievous and perverse  – which, of course, Spark’s writing is often regarded as being.

The film finds additional ways to depict Lise’s sexually provocative behaviour . Tastes towards deviancy and bondage are hinted by the way the female airport security officer puts on her rubber gloves and unties the scarf around Lise’s neck to receive the retort, “I can’t stand being touched”. We see Lise tighten her safety belt on the plane with a sigh which suggests pleasure. When Bill says that his macrobiotic diet requires one orgasm a day, she replies defiantly, “When I diet, I diet, and when I orgasm, I orgasm”.

Although the film of The Driver’s Seat looks very different to Ronald Neame’s film of  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one snippet links the two strongly. In another demonstration of her disturbed behaviour, Lise shouts repeatedly at an airport security officer, “You’re all so suspicious! Suspicious! Suspicious”. It brings to mind Jean Brodie’s equally hysterical yelling of “assassin” at her treacherous pupil Sandy at the end of that film. Suddenly you spot the similarities between these two apparently very different Spark characters.

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Views of the Miners’ Strike

 

Three perspectives on the 30th anniversary of the 1984-1985 UK Miners’ Strike: one older film, Billy Elliot, one new film, Pride, and one new theatre production, the National Theatre of Scotland’s In Time O’Strife. Set in three different mining locations, the North-East of England, South Wales and the Fife area of Scotland.

I don’t know the precise reason why writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry set Billy Elliot during the Miners’ Strike, as its narrative of individual working-class struggle and triumph could have been located in many other periods of the 20th century. However, having chosen that period, they do  include some vivid images and details.

Billy’s widowed father is a striking miner and, early in the film, we see a classic image of industrial militancy with him on a picket line pushing against rows of policemen as he yells in protest at a bus of working miners. However, the intimidating image of the miners’ enemy, the armoured police, is also shown as less frightening by the indifference of Billy and his ballet friend Nicola as they stroll past a tall row of waiting policemen and her scraping stick bounces unnoticed from brick wall to riot shield.  It is Nicola’s more middle-class father, whisky glass in hand but speaking in the same heavy north-east accent as everyone else, who quotes the wider popular argument for the closure of uneconomic pits.

Billy’s older brother Tony, also on strike, is involved in more violent protest activity. As he goes out in the middle of the night with a hammer, his father tries to stop him, leading to physical violence between them. Massed ranks of police, truncheons banging on riot shields, chase Tony and others in and out of houses.  Tony, bloodied, is put into a police van. The police aggression is only slightly softened by the comic moment of the non-miner disturbed during his car washing.

The strike stretches to Christmas. We see a few seconds of a defiantly celebratory Christmas party but this is quickly undermined by the melancholy of Billy’s dad, chopping a piano for firewood and bursting into tears over their shabby Christmas dinner. In desperation, he is willing to join the working miners  in order to pay for Billy’s travel costs for the London audition, but Tony intervenes to prevent him.  The announcement of the end of the strike, because “the union caved in”,  contrasts with the Elliot family’s exultation over Billy’s acceptance letter.

Pride, written by Stephen Beresford and directed by Matthew Warchus,  deals with the campaigning efforts of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners. I must confess that, although the Miners’ Strike was a news event which I paid a great deal of attention to at the time, I had never heard of this campaigning support group or of its high-profile benefit concert at the Electric Circus venue in London.

Although the narrative of Pride is more directly imbedded in the events of 1984-1985 than is Billy Elliot, it does equally concentrate on individual stories which are tangentially connected. Much of the film deals with the self-discovery or development either of the LGSM characters Joe, Mark, Gethin, Steph and Jonathan, or of the Welsh characters Sian, Maureen, Cliff and Hefina. However, a main theme is certainly the bonding of two communities who are superficially entirely different but who feel similarly embattled and therefore become comrades in arms. The film closes with the London Gay Pride march in 1985 being led by a NUM  delegation, an event which seems like the unlikeliest possible Hollywood concoction but which did apparently actually happen.

Pride does show brief scenes of picket lines and of the miners marching back to work at the end of the strike in March 1985, but mostly centres around fund-raising and organisation and support.  As in Billy Elliot, Christmas is portrayed as a time of gloom and setback, but at least in Pride the miners’ visitors are available to provide significant additional cash, moral support and fresh campaigning impetus.

In Time O’ Strife was written in the 1920s by miner Joe Corrie, and the play which Graham McLaren puts on stage is still that of the General Strike, although some of his directorial touches refer to the 1980s.

Corrie’s play is a naturalistic one, an authentic representation of working-class life, although his characters are also written as mouthpieces for different arguments about the strike. Most harbour doubts at some point in the play, feeling acutely the division, sacrifice, hunger and illness which it is causing. McLaren has added to the text some of Corrie’s poems  which,  addressed directly to the audience, add extra Brechtian ferocity and empowerment.

The look of McLaren’s production follows the 1920s naturalism of the play in many ways. For example, the set is a huge convincing room of the period complete with patterned wallpaper, lights, doors, exposed pipes and furniture. Costumes include waistcoats, pit boots and loose calf-length dresses.  However, the  “pit clothes” also include 1980s NCB jackets, a TV screen on the wall shows 1980s footage and the radio broadcasts interviews and news reports from that more recent strike. Before the play starts, we are in a community hall where all the characters play and share music:  the arrangements are mostly appropriately traditional, although the songs  originate from various protest periods .

Once the play starts, music and dance seems to show an emphasis towards the 1980s: hints of the Pogues, Talking Heads, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and perhaps even the choreography of music video . Dance movements are often added to conventional characterisation nowadays and in certain sections here the ensemble uses twisting movements of body and anguished facial expressions  to suggest, as far as I can see, the struggle of the mining community under their impossible yoke. A similarly eye-catching scene in Billy Elliot is Billy’s enraged outdoor kicking dance in defiance of his family to the tune of the Jam’s A Town Like Malice. Of course, both Billy Elliot and Pride, like any films set in the recent past, draw readily from the pop and rock of their period, although Pride’s strongest musical moment is the Welsh women’s rendition of the earlier 20th century “Bread and Roses”.

Art and culture are seen as luxuries which must be sacrificed in the desperate scraping to keep living. Billy’s deceased mother’s jewellery is converted to cash in Billy Elliot and her piano destroyed, just as a favourite violin is pawned in In Time O’ Strife.

Although scenes of hardship in Billy Elliot and Pride are vividly depicted and easily remembered by those of us of that generation, you are made aware how life was tougher still in the earlier era of In Time O’ Strife. Both practical help and emotional support were less available, sacrifice was more intense and harsh. Jenny’s fervent desire to have a better life in Canada is pushed aside when the money to achieve it can only be earned by strike-breaking. Her brother Bob, like Tony in Billy Elliot, is arrested, but here he is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his unspecified offence of desperate protest.

 

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Reflecting on the National Theatre of Scotland as the baton is passed

 

Seven years after its first productions, just as Laurie Sansom takes over from Vicky Featherstone as artistic director, seems like a good time to assess the position of the National Theatre of Scotland.

This 21st century attempt to establish a Scottish national theatre has been hugely more successful than the last – although those few years’ existence of the Ewan Hooper/Tom Fleming Scottish Theatre Company during the 1980s, which appear to have been airbrushed out of history, perhaps deserve reassessment.

So how has the NTS’ success been achieved? Firstly, certainly, by applying, to quote its own phrase, the Theatre Without Walls approach – although in these cash-strapped times, it is unlikely anyone in the planning would have positively argued for a new theatre building.

Second, and perhaps we might have expected this, by putting on a large number of theatre shows, of all kinds, all over Scotland, to build audience interest and loyalty quickly. But Vicky Featherstone and her team showed particular skill in producing  shows in association with other organisations which were also successful outside the country. Black Watch has been the overwhelming global success, but, by my calculations, another eight have toured outside the UK, and a further  17 performed outside Scotland.

I’ve seen nine NTS plays, which is a tiny percentage of the 120 or so they have produced or co-produced in those seven years.  That output has shown huge energy and ambition : new plays and  established works; adaptations from other texts; performances based on dance, stand-up comedy or story-telling;  a range of venues which included conventional theatres, village halls, schools, churches, night-clubs, sports arenas, parks, shopping centres  and swimming baths.

My own favourites?  Black Watch was brilliant and its global success well deserved ; also The Bacchae; and Men Should Weep, which had the challenge of running alongside an arguably better-cast London production.

At first,  I was very pleased that they had been able to recruit local boy made very good Alan Cumming into an unusual (and ultimately successful) project, The Bacchae  but the fact that he returned to a less unusual play, Macbeth,  which the NTS had already done twice before, suggested that a celebrity guest can be a double-edged sword. Having said that, I hope that enquiries are going on behind the scenes in order to coax other  TV and cinema names who have proven theatre track records, people like Ewan McGregor, James McAvoy, David Tennant, Bill Paterson, Phyllis Logan…

I’m just a bit alarmed that one of the 2013 projects, Let the Right One In, is adapted from a recent movie which, artistically, hardly needs a new theatre version. Also I wonder if one or two writers are being over-used : it was reasonable that Andrew O’Hagan’s journalism expertise should be employed on their newspaper piece Enquirer but for two of his six books to have been adapted into NTS productions was perhaps one more than immediately necessary.

One of the weaknesses of some of the Scottish Theatre Company  productions which I saw in the 1980s was the sometimes clumsy transfer of English dialogue into Scots language. It’s great that Scots-dialected English is now seen as perfectly appropriate, although it worked rather better in Black Watch than in The House of Bernarda Alba.

Many commentators like Michael Billington feel confident that Laurie Sansom will lead the company into further artistic and commercial  success, and I’m sure that confidence is well-founded.

May I offer a couple of ideas for future productions as we move towards referendum time?  First,  Armstrong’s Last Goodnight by John Arden, a meaty medieval story by one of those great post- war playwrights who are in danger of being forgotten, and, second,  Jock Tamson’s Bairns by Liz Lochhead and Communicado, which was a great success of Glasgow 1990 and deals with Scottish history, culture and identity in a unconventional theatrical and musical way.

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