Laurie Sansom: An English guardian of Scottish cultural heritage
Kent-born Laurie Sansom is taking over as director of National Theatre of Scotland at a historic time, he tells Mark Brown.
Last time I was in the Glasgow office of the artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland I was talking to the company’s previous, and first, AD, Vicky Featherstone ahead of her move to the leadership of London’s Royal Court Theatre. This time, I’m here to meet her successor, Laurie Sansom, who seems very much at home in his new habitat; albeit that it is located in an unprepossessing converted print shop little more than a stone’s throw from Firhill Stadium, home of Partick Thistle Football Club.
Sansom – who is 41 years old, and hails originally from Kent – is delighted to be inheriting the formidable legacy Featherstone built between the company’s inception in 2006 and her recent departure. “So much of the hard work of imagining what the National Theatre of Scotland should be and how it should work has now been down”, he says. “The reputation of the company is extraordinary, both nationally and internationally. I’m in a really enviable position.”
Sansom comes to Scotland’s national drama company direct from a successful, seven-year stint as director of the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton, which was preceded by four years at Alan Ayckbourn’s Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where he was associate director. He hopes that his CV – which includes classic plays by such authors as Euripides and Lorca, but also new work created with acclaimed English theatre company Frantic Assembly – stands him in good stead for his new role at the head of a national company which is as diverse as it is ambitious in its programming.
“It’s the most exciting job in British theatre”, he says with genuine relish. ” You can make the small, the quirky, the bespoke; but you can also do the large, the poetic stagings, the classics. Also, there’s the fact that new work is right at the backbone of the company.”
Sansom embraces the much-lauded model of the NTS as a “theatre without walls”; that is, a company with its own administrative offices (and, as of late next year, when it moves into a new HQ in Glasgow’s Speirs Locks, also state-of-the-art rehearsal spaces), but no theatre building of its own. His tenure will, he says, be “about evolution” upon the achievements of the Featherstone era. “The new building will give us the opportunity to look at that. I think there are potential areas of growth in terms of large scale touring, the UK market and being more consistent on those big stages.”
This is, perhaps, an acknowledgement that, whilst the NTS has had tremendous success with new work and unconventional versions of classics (such as John Tiffany’s production of Gregory Burke’s Iraq War drama Black Watch and Alan Cumming’s solo Macbeth), there has been less to celebrate where main stage classical productions are concerned. “New and experimental work, and putting work in unconventional spaces, has been right at the company’s heart”, Sansom observes.
“Now that that’s embedded in the company’s DNA”, he continues, “we’re able to go back to more classic texts, the Scottish canon, and look at how we reinvent and reassess those. You’ll probably see more of that kind of work in the programme in the years ahead.”
“The Scottish canon”, as the director is astute enough to know, is a potentially explosive term. It is widely accepted by Scottish historians and theatre lovers alike that, thanks mainly to the prohibitions of Scotland’s Calvinist Reformation in the 16th-century, the nation has very little by way of a theatrical heritage. So, what does Sansom mean by “the Scottish canon”?
“This is a moot point”, he acknowledges. “I think the post-Second World War era is the most exciting.” However, whilst he accepts that Scotland lacks a strong theatrical tradition, the director doesn’t believe that the NTS is restricted to dealing with the country only in its modern and contemporary eras. “I think that [lack of a tradition] sets a challenge as to how you deal with the cultural inheritance of Scotland prior to the Second World War. The plays might not be there, but there is a huge literary tradition, an extraordinary historical legacy. You can approach these aspects of Scottish culture in so many different ways.”
One of Sansom’s first tasks as NTS director will be to chart the company’s course through an historic year leading up to the independence referendum of September 2014. “Next year is going to be a pretty unique year for Scottish culture generally, and for NTS”, he says. “Next year’s programme will all focus on Scotland’s cultural heritage in one way or another. Whether that’s exploring an iconic figure from popular culture, or a historical moment, or taking an international perspective on a Scottish issue.”
A key production in the 2014 programme will be a piece currently working under the title of The Great Don’t Know Show. Prolific Scottish playwright David Greig (author of the book for the musical adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, currently playing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) and producer and dramatist extraordinaire David MacLennan (a veteran of the late John McGrath’s famous 7:84 Theatre Company) will travel Scotland with an ever-changing, moveable feast. The show will be, says Sansom, “unashamedly a forum in which writers, artists and members of the audience can make their points about issues around independence and the referendum debate…. It will be a different show every night.”
If Sansom is excited both by the NTS’s brief, but successful, history and the possibilities for its future, he is also very optimistic about the political climate for the arts in Scotland. He is not being party political, he explains, in welcoming the speech made in May by the Scottish National Party administration’s Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop. “She has nailed the Scottish Government’s colours to the mast in a way that is so refreshing”, he comments.
“Having worked in England for 20 years, and having read [UK Government Culture Minister] Maria Miller’s speech [in April], with weariness, I think [Hyslop’s statement] is an extraordinary vote of confidence in Scottish artists to make work and be bold.” Hyslop is in tune with the self-confidence and ambition of Scotland’s artists, Sansom opines. “I think the situation is totally different in England right now. There’s a real bunker mentality. Grassroots and regional arts seem very vulnerable. It’s a very uncertain climate to work in.”
For that reason, among others, Sansom is pleased and proud that one of the NTS’s best loved exports, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (a piece founded on the twin pillars of the Scottish Border Ballad and the playing of Scottish traditional music in pubs and village halls), will soon be taking up residence in two London venues. “I saw it in Perth, Australia in February”, he says. “It’s a fantastic show…. It’s one of those shows which is so delightful, charming and moving that it has played fantastically well all over the world. I’m really delighted it’s going to sit down in London for a while.”
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the London Welsh Centre, July 12 to August 3, then transferring to the CLF Art Café, London, August 5-9. For further information, visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
This feature was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on July 11, 2013
© Mark Brown