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.