Opinion: The National Theatre of Scotland is not hostile to oor mither tongue

The Scots language is braw, but the NTS speaks in the language of contemporary Scotland:

I’m with my compatriot and fellow critic Brian Logan on the richness and distinctiveness of the Scots language, and the value of preserving and celebrating it (Lots of bite in this auld dug, 5 June). Only the other day my children (aged 10 and 12) asked me what my favourite word is (it’s “stramash”, meaning a disorderly altercation), leading to us discussing the Scots language and enjoying (with some assistance from the glossary) Robert Burns’s poem To a Mouse.

However, I am alarmed to find that Brian’s spirited support of oor mither tongue extends to a sideswipe at the National Theatre of Scotland.

Brian writes of “the National Theatre of Scotland’s refusal to stage classic works of Scots-language drama – particularly, Sir David Lyndsay’s 1540 play, Ane [Pleasant] Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis”, and quotes the cringe-inducing self-hatred of a Scottish Tory who calls Scots “a collection of regional dialects of the English language”.

Brian does point out that the NTS developed his own Scots-language play, yet he risks leaving readers with the impression that the NTS has an aversion to the Scots language, or perhaps even to Scottish cultural traditions.

In truth, as I’m sure Brian knows, the reason Lyndsay’s play is so often cited in the debate about Scottish theatre history is that – for a complex series of historical, theological and political reasons – Scotland, unlike Ireland and England, does not boast a strong theatrical tradition.

In fact – and this should be a source of excitement rather than anxiety – insofar as Scotland has ever experienced a theatrical renaissance, it is experiencing it now. It is entirely right, therefore, that the NTS should put the work of living writers such as Gregory Burke, John Byrne, David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower, Liz Lochhead and Anthony Neilson at the centre of its work.

Brian has written before of his support for the NTS’s progressive approach. But it’s still worth pointing out that there is no agenda against the Scots language. It is simply that, in foregrounding contemporary Scottish theatre writing, the NTS speaks, primarily, in the language of contemporary Scotland; that is a hybrid language, with “standard” English at its core, which incorporates various other languages including, prominently, Scots and American English.

I taught recently at Lisbon University on the NTS’s most critically acclaimed production, Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, and although the students were very proficient in English, they had to watch the DVD with the English subtitles turned on, so distinct from “standard” English is the working-class, east Scottish vernacular of the play.

I know Brian to be a progressive chap, and I’m certain that he is as opposed to the dwindling phenomenon of Scottish Anglophobia as I am. He should be careful, therefore, of appearing to welcome the recent collieshangie (quarrel) over the NTS’s priorities. He wouldn’t want to give succour to the gowks (fools) among the theatre’s detractors who like to mutter darkly about artistic director Vicky Featherstone and associate director John Tiffany being English.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on June 9 2010

© Mark Brown


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