Preview: Scottish theatre, 2016

Home of the bravo

In 2016 Scottish theatre celebrates a major anniversary and offers exciting productions of new plays and great classics, writes Mark Brown

Lanark by David Greig

2016 may well prove to be an auspicious year for Scottish theatre. In the coming 12 months the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) will celebrate its 10th anniversary and acclaimed dramatist David Greig will take the reins at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Further to that, Scotland’s women’s theatre company Stellar Quines will appoint a new artistic director, as its award-winning and longstanding director Muriel Romanes steps down.

In the Hebrides, the much respected director and actor Alasdair McCrone will return to the helm of Mull Theatre. McCrone, who was unceremoniously removed by the discredited, and now departed, board of Mull arts organisation Comar, has been reinstated thanks to an excellent grassroots community campaign.

The theatregoer looking for further reasons to be cheerful might add the promise of the programme at the Citizens Theatre, under the continued directorship of the excellent Dominic Hill, and the second programme of Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan.

Every silver lining has a cloud, of course, and both the NTS, which is funded directly by the Scottish Government, and many theatre companies that are funded by arts quango Creative Scotland will be hit by finance minister John Swinney’s almost £20 million cut to the 2016-17 arts budget. The impact of funding cuts will be compounded for many theatre companies by the uncertainty that is engendered by the opaque and inflexible decision making processes of Creative Scotland, which often lead to perverse and perplexing outcomes.

Whatever the difficulties faced by our theatre makers, however, few would deny that Scotland is blessed with a diverse and accomplished theatre culture. Over the last decade, the NTS, with its distinctive (and influential) model as a self-proclaimed “theatre without walls” (working, from administrative headquarters in Glasgow, without a theatre building of its own), has come to exemplify much of that culture.

The company’s first artistic director Vicky Featherstone deserves considerable praise for her profound understanding of the ecology of Scottish theatre. Her successor Laurie Sansom has continued with programming that combines the touring of bespoke productions to the community venues of the Highlands and Islands with larger scale works for the city stages.

The quality of the work has, inevitably, varied, but the success of the NTS as a new model national theatre is beyond doubt. Indeed, one cannot imagine the National Theatre of Wales (established in 2010) without the example of the NTS.

In this anniversary year, it is correct that the NTS should revive past successes; even if I am one of those who consider Rona Munro’s opinion-splitting James Plays (which tour the UK, Australia and New Zealand, February to July) to be a cause for mourning, rather than celebration. The revival of David Greig’s beautiful The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart (a clever and emotive tribute to the border ballad, which tours the US and Scotland, February to June) is less divisive.

Much of the NTS’s best work has been made in co-production with others. It is appropriate, therefore, that the intriguing programme of new plays in 2016 includes the collaborative I Am Thomas, a self-defined “wildly comic and provocative piece of music theatre” about Thomas Aikenhead, the last person to be executed for blasphemy in Britain (in 1696).

The work of celebrated poet Simon Armitage, acclaimed English theatre company Told by an Idiot, the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh and the NTS, it tours England and Scotland February to April.

The Lyceum, under outgoing artistic director Mark Thomson, has enjoyed an incredibly fertile period over the last 18 months or so. Exceptional productions of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle and Faith Healer, by the late, great Irish playwright Brian Friel, typify a rich vein of form.

Thomson seems determined to go out on a high. Between now and June we are promised such riches as Lyceum associate artist John Dove’s staging of Arthur Miller’s great political allegory The Crucible (February 18 to March 19), Chris Hannan’s adaptation of The Iliad (directed by Thomson, April 20 to May 14) and Makar Liz Lochhead’s new bio-play Thon Man Molière (May 20 to June 11).

If David Greig seems set to inherit a Lyceum that is in rude health, acclaimed Citizens Theatre director Dominic Hill is unlikely to be outdone. An exciting new season at the Glasgow theatre includes productions of Beckett’s Endgame (directed by Hill, February 4-20) and This Restless House, outstanding playwright Zinnie Harris’s new trilogy based upon The Oresteia by Aeschylus (also directed by Hill, and co-produced with the NTS,  April 15 to May 15).

As if that wasn’t enough, the Edinburgh International Festival (which has yet to announce its 2016 theatre programme) has moved into a new era under new director Fergus Linehan. The Irishman’s inaugural offering, in August of last year, included Simon McBurney’s unforgettable devised theatre work The Encounter and Robert Lepage’s lovely 887.

As important as his international programming, however, was the director’s removing of the shackles from Scottish theatre. No longer will Caledonian drama be represented exclusively by a world premiere at the EIF (thus putting it at a distinct disadvantage in relation to the tried and tested international work).

In 2015, a revival of Untitled Projects’ excellent Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner was showcased alongside the premiere of David Greig’s fine adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark. If this year’s Festival is as successful, in both Scottish and international theatrical terms, theatre lovers will have good reason to celebrate.

A slightly truncated version of this preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 3, 2016

© Mark Brown

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