Beyond Knoxian Theatre

Scotland does it all the time. We were taught it at school and in the street, by grannies and the meenister; more significantly (ominously?) by our Scottish? media the BBC, The Herald, The Scotsman (and for us in Fife) the Dundee Courier. ‘It’ is to honour the conservative way; to be cautious; to play nine-men behind the ball, especially when you are a new manager; a new boy or a new woman. The unheralded underground historical Glaswegian conservatism was a powerful (samizdat) ideological tradition not confined to Orange politics. Remarkably it even produced socially conservative radicalism, remember ‘nae bevvying’ during the Clyde work-in. Much of the support for the USSR on the Clyde was due to the very fact of soviet caution, its orthodoxy created entrenched institutional statist ‘socialism.’

This Scottish Knoxian tradition of contradictory conservative radicalism (Burns is a prime example) delivered by cautious leadership, surfaced recently in a very unexpected place-The Citizens Theatre.

The Citizens has a new director the well respected Dominic Hill late of the Traverse (simply the best of Scotland’s theatre companies). He has published his play-list for his first Citizen’s season. In one fell swoop he has brought to the Gorbals the three-in-one holy trinity of British theatre, William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett- the father, son and holy-ghost.

With such a team behind the ball, Hill is playing not to lose. The two mighty pillars of British theatre Shakespeare and Pinter with the author of the 20th century’s supreme theatre text, Waiting for Godot is a triumphant troika nay triumvirate of theatre icons-body, heart and soul.

There is more. Within the Shakespeare canon the finest shot is (in mho) unquestionably King Lear. A truly magnificent dramatic text full of contemporary nuances and reflections that strips away the pomp of power and gives us intensely moving theatre.

Pinter’s Betrayal, again a wonderful choice, winner of the Laurence Olivier award for best new play in 79 has tabloid- tinged sexual philandering, based very much on Pinter’s own self-confessed adultery while he was married to Vivian Merchant (I remember vividly her erotic performance in her husband’s Lovers.) It is assured popular success with its innovative reverse story telling giving it added allure. Then there is the pair of Becketts that would lift any season of plays into a compelling repertoire

Dominic Hill has selected an odds on triple and we wish him well in the realisation of the selected texts.

BUT.

Hill’s selection has British greatness in its DNA and would live so well in Bath, Bristol, Bournemouth, Battersea, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford but Glasgow demands and deserves more as an active centre of dramatic affirmation, as well as a 2012 stage in our journey of liberation .

We have moved on too far from a sense of a progressive one –nation continuum to the modernity of a sovereign rupture. We can see if we look hard enough, a denied past, a dislocation since Burns. This has produced (as seen in the 2011 May elections) the reasonable ambition of an new- day future.

Post-devolution Scotland has acquired an altered political DNA with fresh ideological energy that has transposed the nature of cultural discourse. One outcome of this ‘new-nation’ energy is the questioning of the assumed traditional hegemony and inviolability of English masterpieces, particularly in the theatre.

We saw this quite clearly in Ireland, with the deliberate development of the Abbey with Yeats and Synge and Lady Gregory and O’Casey. Did Hill have any thought that he might have made the Citizens our Abbey? If not; why not?

I want to be quite straight forward. Any theatre company in Scotland (particularly any company receiving public funds) not should, but must, include a Scottish text within the mix. It is imperative that either a new Scottish text is staged or we see a revival of one of Scotland’s ‘great’ dramas. ( isn’t it time to revive a 7:84 classic?)

Quite frankly in Scotland in 2012 we should not be petitioning for a token presence in a major theatre season on our own doorstep. If theatre is to reflect or alter through its art, the form and nature of our society then surely a new director would understand the cultural significance of these times. We see, hear and feel the development of a self-conscious and confident culture that deserves expression-where is that with Shakespeare, Pinter and Becket? Sure, we need the significant texts from the metropolitan centre. But where is our centre?

The tradition of English theatre dominance in Scotland is not a calculated imperial plot. It is a historical outcome of a process of national neglect and repression combined with a validating relationship defined by subordination and sheer quantity.

Yet Scotland does have an authentic theatre hinterland from mediaeval mummers type performances through the repression of the reformation all well documented in a flurry of books on the history of Scottish Theatre.

Scotland has a rich field of talent from which to offer us a Scottish play. I would not insult Hill by suggesting titles or listing the host of contemporary authors that are desperately looking for a stage-many he helped produce.

But we need more. The Citizens or some other major company needs to examine the idea of an authentic ‘native’ theatre. (The ‘native’ title is borrowed from the Clyde Unity Theatre of the 40s who in their magazine Scots Theatre called for ‘A Policy of Native Theatre.’ At least one company in Scotland should be dedicated to a (what I called for elsewhere) an autochthonous theatre.

The Abbey is the model. The Citizens have lost a major opportunity to feel the times and give Scotland a liberal sovereign theatre experience.

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  1. I couldn’t disagree more. In the 70s Giles Havergal and his team made the Citizens into the most internationally respected–and yet also the most locally popular–regional theatre in Britain through a highly ambitious programme of the classics of World Theatre. In those days there wasn’t a National Theatre of Scotland as counterweight. Now there is, giving a huge boost to Scottish writing, past and present. I would counter your argument by saying that Scotland needs one theatre that focuses on the world stage, and the fact that it is based in the Gorbals could be as exciting now as it was in Giles’s day. Dominic makes the reference back to that heyday explicit by offering seats as cheap as 50p. And I suspect the supporters of the Abbey Theatre would be dismayed to see ‘Arnold’ (sic) Beckett described as a pillar of the ‘British Theatre’.

  2. Stuart Farquharson says:

    I have to agree totally with Tom Cross, what is the point in having theatres in Scotland where almost 100% of productions never put on anything remotely Scottish. The Irish had the right idea we should emulate them

  3. thom cross says:

    But that was then. I agreed with Giles H. But I am talking about 2012 time and context change things.
    PS Samuel not Arnold Beckett Sorry

    TC

  4. George Gunn says:

    Thom Cross has revealed a truth – modern Scotland is being betrayed by its theatre. This is, as Thom, indicates, due to historical processess and inferiorism within the Scottish theatre community. I have travelled throughout northern Europe and in Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden the theatres are run by Icelanders, Danes, Norwegians and Swedes. The emerging polity of this small nation will be damaged if our theatre does not reflect these changes and give expression to these tensions. Those who defend the current state of Scottish theatre are giving succour to the reactionary agents of contaiment who have their hands on programming and budgets. Make no mistake, the level of awareness of Scottish culture which exists within the ranks of those who manage Scottish theatre is dismal. Scotland may well become independent but her theatre, unless there is a revolution within it, will always look to London.

  5. Graham says:

    Why is there such a large disconnect between theatre and Scottish people? It is nowhere near as bad with film, television or books. I don’t understand why theatre in Scotland is not in the main reflective of Scottish culture.

    I know nothing about theatre but I can see how developing it in schools in Caithness and the Highlands could be broadened out and used as a means of strengthening links with the rest of Scotland and other countries.

  6. I must be going to the wrong theatres. Can somebody point me to the theatre where ‘almost 100% of productions never put on anything remotely Scottish’? Three of the Lyceum’s last five productions were by Scottish writers. The Traverse have a new play by David Greig. All the productions commissioned by the Scottish Theatre Consortium have been by Scottish writers. Even the Pitlochry 2012 summer season includes a JM Barrie classic. Here in the Highlands the NxNE programme has commissioned 8 new productions, 7 by Scottish writers/creators (and the 8th is ‘The Scottish Play’). And we get to see regular tours by such exciting companies as Vox Motus and Vanishing Point

  7. George Gunn says:

    As ever Robert steps straight out of the pages of Candide as the Professor Pangloss of Scottish theatre where everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Engage with the issues, Robert, and stop defending your organisation.

    1. Actually, George, my favourite Candide quote is about cultivating our garden. And I’m puzzled as to how speaking up for Central Belt theatres is ‘defending my organisation’. I just dislike arguments that are based on kneejerk statements like ‘never put on anything remotely Scottish’, when the evidence is otherwise. There is a serious issue at stake here, but crude simplications don’t help.

  8. George Gunn says:

    There’s nothing “kneejerk” about highlighting the significant decline in Scottish theatres direct engagement with the Scottish people. I am minded on to recall Seumas Heaney quoting grafitti on an Ballymurphy wall, “Is there life before death?” & “Whatever you say, say nothing”. The establishment are keen for theatre to say nothing and to insist that failure is success. Perhaps Bella should give Robert Livingston space to articulate how cultivating the garden in his native patch is going since Tosg, Theatre Hebrides and Grey Coast have gone?

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