National Theatre of Scotland isn’t playing it safe with 2020 programme
By Mark Brown
The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) is, famously, a “theatre without walls”: in other words, a company which, although it operates out of administrative headquarters in Glasgow, has no theatre building of its own. As its 2020 programme attests, it is also keen to be a theatre without barriers.
This year’s programme ranges from revivals of famous, modern Scottish plays (such as John McGrath’s iconic 1973 piece The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil), to adventurous new takes on classic dramas (like Kieran Hurley’s The Enemy, based upon Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People) and bespoke new works for communities that are rarely touched by the world of theatre (exemplified by Ferry Tales, which will play on ferry routes to the Western Isles). Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that two new works by artists of African heritage explore Scotland’s role in the African slave trade.
Enough of Him (a co-production between the NTS and Pitlochry Festival Theatre) is a new play by Edinburgh-based dramatist May Sumbwanyambe which is based upon the true story of Joseph Knight. An African man brought to 18th-century Scotland as a slave by plantation owner John Wedderburn, Knight challenged his enslavement through the Scottish legal system.
Ghosts by Nigerian-born, Scotland-based actor-theatremaker Adura Onashile broaches the African slave trade from a very different artistic perspective. Not a play in the conventional sense, it will use multimedia technology to take its audience on an extraordinary, virtual reality guided tour. Using an app on their phones, audience members will encounter ghosts from Glasgow’s history of tobacco plantations and slavery.
When I meet Caroline Newall, the NTS’s acting artistic director (who is currently providing maternity leave cover for artistic director Jackie Wylie), at the company’s Glasgow offices, she explains how this morally and politically weighty issue from our national past has come to play such a key role in the company’s programme for the coming year.
Sumbwanyambe and Onashile were among those artists that the NTS approached seeking proposals for the 2020 programme. Newall, whose day job is normally as the NTS’s director of artistic development, was “surprised that both of them, completely independently of each other, came back with ideas that were so directly about slavery.”
There have been plays about Scotland and slavery in recent times. Iain Heggie’s darkly comic 2008 piece The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer satirises an 18th-century lawyer whose respectable, Christian morality shelters a genocidal racial politics.
Alan Bissett’s play It Wisnae Me crashes the history of colonial slavery into the comforting notion of Scotland as a progressive nation in which we’re all “Jock Tamson’s bairns”. Also last year, the NTS staged Hannah Lavery’s self-performed monologue The Drift, a beautiful, contemplative piece in which the mixed-race writer-performer delved into the contradictions and conflicting emotions of her Scottish and African heritage.
However, the new works by Sumbwanyambe and Onashile, coming as they do in the same NTS season, take the theatre about Scotland and slavery to another level. Newall credits Glasgow-based organisation the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER) with doing more than most to help advance the use of art and culture to educate people about this anguished topic.
For instance, she points out that CRER provided the research funding for historian and author Stephen Mullen’s powerful walking tours of Glasgow’s Merchant City area. The tours (which might be considered a forerunner of Onashile’s multimedia piece, which will take to the streets of Glasgow in November) underlined the shameful truth about the Victorian splendour of a building such as Glasgow City Chambers, which was paid for by the unconscionable suffering of African slaves.
Newall is particularly pleased that Enough of Him will feature in CRER’s Black History Month (BHM) programme in October of this year. Being part of BHM might, she says, allow Sumbwanyambe’s play to “find a new audience who, perhaps, wouldn’t naturally come to see a National Theatre of Scotland production.”
Before her ghosts appear in Glasgow, Onashile will take to the Edinburgh International Festival stage in August playing the eponymous lead in the NTS’s revival of Liz Lochhead’s acclaimed Scots-English adaptation of the Ancient Greek tragedy Medea. Lochhead’s memorably vibrant and brilliantly inventive version of Euripides’s opus was first staged, by Graham McLaren for the now defunct Scottish classical company Theatre Babel, in the year 2000.
Onashile, who will be directed in the new production by none other than Sir Michael Boyd, will be stepping into a role which the great Maureen Beattie made her own 20 years ago. “I think it’s been hard for anyone else to produce it, because it was such a seminal production”, Newall acknowledges.
“However, the fact that it’s now 20 years old means that there’s an entire generation who haven’t seen it. So, it’s about time that it goes back on, and having Sir Michael Boyd directing it will be fantastic.”
Newall, who saw McLaren’s production back at the start of the millennium, believes Onashile “will be such a different, and such a fierce, Medea.” Theatre lovers who are familiar with the acting of both Beattie (who is one of the outstanding Scottish actors of modern times) and Onashile (who gave an excellent, crystal sharp performance in Stridberg’s Creditors at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh in 2018) will, I suspect, agree with Newall’s assessment.
Beattie played Medea with an eastern European accent, thus emphasising her position as a despised outsider (the character hails from the Caucasus, specifically Colchis in modern day Georgia, and was, therefore, considered a barbarian by the Ancient Greeks). As a black actor of African descent, Onashile will, one suspects, look elsewhere for her character’s heritage. It promises to be a powerful staging of a world class adaptation.
As if to prove that contemporary Scottish theatre still has things to say to the classical repertoire, the outstanding director and designer Stewart Laing will be re-imagining Shakespeare’s great play Hamlet for a new production to be premiered at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in September. A co-production between the NTS, the Tron and Laing’s own company Untitled Projects, the very fact that the show has been commissioned is a positive sign of the health of the Scottish theatre sector.
In another time, or another country, such a work would have been impossible. Left to the tender mercies of Creative Scotland (CS), our national funding body for the arts, Laing (who enjoys international acclaim as a deviser, director and designer of stage productions) may well have gone abroad. In 2014, CS, in its dubious wisdom, decided not to award Untitled Projects regular funding, forcing the company into mothballs.
In many countries such a devastating decision would have led to an artist such as Laing quitting the national scene. It is to the credit of the Scottish theatre sector that influential figures within it realised that ways had to be found to counteract CS’s short-sightedness and give Laing reasons to continue working here.
Within months of the CS funding decision, Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) director Fergus Linehan announced that Laing’s superb piece Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (liberally inspired by James Hogg’s great novel) would be presented in the Festival’s theatre programme in 2015. Subsequent to that, Laing returned to the EIF in 2018 with The End of Eddy (in which he directed a stage adaptation, by regular collaborator Pamela Carter, of the autobiographical novel by French author Edouard Louis).
There has also been a production for the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Strindberg’s Creditors in 2018) and, in 2019, Them!, a fascinating exploration of issues of identity (another collaboration with the impressive Carter, and Laing’s first work for the NTS since Jackie Wylie appointed him to his new role as associate director of our national drama company). All-in-all, since CS’s light-minded and bureaucratic decision not to give Laing’s company the funding it required, it is, surely, true to say that the director has felt the love of a Scottish theatre sector that has recognised his talents and rallied round to keep him in the country.
For her part, Newall is pleased that the NTS has been able to bring Laing into its creative team and to co-produce with Untitled Projects on the forthcoming Hamlet. “The NTS should be supporting our leading artists to be able to sustain careers here and to support companies to be able to continue to exist”, she says.
“Stewart has something completely unique to offer to Scotland. The work that he makes really does inform the next generation of artists.”
As one would expect of an organisation led by people such as Newall and Wylie, for whom new work is the lifeblood of a theatre culture, there are numerous opportunities in the NTS’s 2020 programme for artists in the generation that has followed Laing. For instance, Nic Green (creator of the acclaimed, feminist performance work Trilogy in 2009) will present Absolutely, Awesome, Affirmative (which the NTS describes as “an intriguing meditation on truth that is part TED talk, part shopping channel special, and part showbiz hypnotism) during the Take Me Somewhere performance festival in Glasgow in May.
In August, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Rob Drummond (whose work includes the self-performed Mr Write in 2010) presents Who Killed Katie?, a one-man show which explores society’s endless fascination with true crime stories. Add to that the Coming Back Out Ball, a fabulous, celebratory evening for LGBTI+ elders and their friends, which will be held in Glasgow in June, with host Karen Dunbar and performances from Horse Mcdonald, Jo Clifford and Dean Atta, and there is no questioning the diversity and inclusivity of the NTS programme for the year ahead.
Which is not to say that the NTS has no detractors. There are those who compare the national company’s audience per pound spent to that of major, building-based Scottish theatres, such as the Lyceum in Edinburgh or the Citizens in Glasgow, and suggest that the NTS is not giving value for money. Newall responds to this criticism, quite reasonably, by pointing out that creating work for new audiences, and taking theatre to communities that would otherwise be starved of live drama, costs money.
“We want large numbers of people to see our work, of course”, she comments. “That said, we’re also committed to putting new voices and more diverse artists on stage…
“In years where we have smaller audience numbers, that’s a conscious choice… We’re trying to get to people who don’t normally have access to theatre. You can’t fit as many people in a village hall as you can in a big city theatre.”
For full details of the NTS 2020 programme, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
This feature was originally published in the Sunday National on January 19, 2020
© Mark Brown