SCOTTISH NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
This historic referendum year is one of challenge and opportunity for the National Theatre of Scotland. How to broach, for broach it inevitably must, Scotland’s sense of national identity (or should that be identities?) without leaving itself open to charges of over-simplification or political bias?
Dear Scotland, a series of 20 letters to the nation, written by 20 of the country’s best known writers, inspired by 20 art works in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and performed in two 95-minute tours, is an ingenious answer to that question. From the towering figures of Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson, to modern icons such as novelist Dame Muriel Spark and trade union leader Jimmy Reid, these short addresses delight in their diversity.
Perhaps the finest of the monologues is Peter Arnott’s sharp and humorous letter from Sir Walter Scott. Played (in a smart piece of cross-casting and with great energy) by fine actress Lesley Hart, Scott rages against the dangers of independence and commends to Scotland once again his reinvention of the nation as a romantic place, constituted primarily of mountains, glens and shortbread. Arnott (a supporter of the pro-independence artists’ group National Collective) is, of course, writing in a satirical vein, and deliciously so.
As if its variety, both in character and in history, was not enough, Dear Scotland also offers us, in two cases, the recorded voices of living subjects. Particularly noteworthy is Rob Drummond’s The Oncologists, in which we don headphones and listen to the voices of eminent surgeons Professor RJ Steele and Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri (two of the figures from Ken Currie’s extraordinary painting Three Oncologists). Cuschieri’s sudden aside, amidst the medical discussion, that independence for Scotland would be “a pity, but not a disaster” is, simultaneously, startling, yet typical of this production’s balanced approach to the imminent referendum.
Inevitably a theatrical presentation as miscellaneous as this one has some vignetttes which are less engaging than others. The beauty of its chosen form, however, is that there will be another image, another author and another actor along in a moment.
As in any promenade work, the venue is key. The Portrait Gallery (a veritable palace of art and, surely, one of Scotland’s finest public buildings) is a remarkable player in itself. Where better to consider the nation’s past, present and future from an array of perspectives?
Until May 3. For more information, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 29, 2014
© Mark Brown