Laurie Sansom: the Englishman who replaces an Englishwoman as head of National Theatre of Scotland

An open letter to Laurie Sansom, the artistic director designate of the National Theatre of Scotland

You have taken up the challenge in difficult days I assure you. The ground is moving up here and many with years of native wisdom are struggling to grasp the thistle of the present time. As to the future… coming from Northampton will not make your vision any more assured.  (Northampton shire County Council, with a massive Tory majority (54 Tory, 10 Lib Dem, 6 Lab, 1 UKIP, 2 Ind), is so fundamentally the antithesis of the Scottish political reality. (Your Kentish origins I somewhat share as part of my theatre education took place at Rose Bruford in Sidcup.)

This may appear a personal attack; I assure you it is far from that. The challenge of playing the role of the beleaguered expatriate cultural authority is familiar to me. The binary cultural reality (Brit et Scot) within the subordinate and sadly peripheral Scottish arts community will force you to make difficult choices. Here are some questions that might help you. The argument/discourse has been made without personal rancour or any resentment save that of the usual political polemics.

Do you agree with the following sentiments?

1.     There is a contemporary cultural current in Scotland that requires your support (or your resignation) viz the  dynamic diversion of a cultural vision away from the historical hegemony of British cultural policy in and for Scotland and towards what has been described as  native reflection.

2.     How and why you make your theatre signs, statements and symbols will demand scrutiny from many of the disappointed at the appointment of what can be seen as the imposition of another British arts leader in Scotland – a living Prospero.

3.     You will find the healthy artistic opacity* of many of our arts community an inordinate discomfort perhaps but which you will engage with or dismiss at your peril.

( *The term comes from the French negritude movement in which creole/kweyol was used to offer a legitimate non-colonial form of expression, yet more than a vocal vernacular. Best described as native forms of artistic expression often difficult for the non-native to penetrate like Aboriginal art or Noh Plays or even James Kellman’s novels or Joe Corrie’s Fife miners’ dramas but especially the various cultural forms found in A’ Ghàidhealtachd.  I see this opacity movement as (Mc) Caliban-theatre in place of a Prospero- infused theatre.

4.     You will acknowledge that Prospero gave Caliban a language (in return for labour): yet here we are striving to find an indigenous theatre language, a vernacular Scottish theatre vocabulary (visual, emotive and semiotic) that may be repressed/hindered by your very talent.

5.     Having been brought up on Alan Ayckbourn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough you may need to spend 6 months in the Mitchell Library where there exists a quite remarkable national theatre of texts and playscripts.   Your ears should become a vital overworked set of instruments.

6.     You bring with you quite a cultural authority accumulated in England. By the very context of that accumulated theatre experience you will decrease the (already marginalized) authority of a local discourse battling to create a nascent theatrical space of and for legitimate NATIVE expression. (I make no apologies for the use of the native).

7.     You will understand that the sheer accumulated power of British drama has created a cultural hegemony that often delegitimises our attempts at creating an *autochthonous experience.  We in Scotland are a part of a peripheral cultural system that  Britishness has marginalized into a gutter of neglect or exodus. (* Again the term is from the colonial experience see Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o s Kenyan Theatre where the struggle for an indigenous artistic interpretation of the African popular experience was often seen as radical, nationalist and dangerous.)

8.     There must be a distinct theatre culture of and by Scottish people that attempts to express a peculiar historical consciousness built around /created under forms of what can best be described as British cultural imperialism (see Ireland and India and Jamaica). (Many of the imposers were themselves Scots). So we share with many of our Commonwealth cousins that sense of fighting for a legitimizing popular community creative space.  We are further hindered by being a stateless subordinate peripheral nation.

9.     We have lost so much native potential already with the demise of  the Gael;  characterised (so often by Scots) as being too mired in romantic myth and nature and the theatre of the land that like historical nature it had to be suppressed /conquered (read Kenneth White or Alastair McIntosh.)

10.    Scottish theatre has been and might remain a minority discourse through  the process (and injustice ) of a suppressed culture, deemed inferior which I’m afraid your presence might only exacerbate. Make no mistake it is a radical inequality that persistently seeks to make illegitimate and or ignores indigenous cultural authority. (Thus the NTSThe Edinburgh Festival, Creative Scotland are all managed by non-Scots). This persistent imposition of British bureaucrats is a political attempt at displacing, making impotent Scottish cultural authority. Indeed the on-going failure to build native capacity within cultural authorities/institutions is incredibly debilitating.

11.   If Scotland is to become a nation or even half a nation it must develop an indigenous leadership of core arts/cultural systems and institutions.    We must be allowed to accumulate authority and legitimacy in order to negate this pernicious cultural periphery paradigm.

It was  the very dynamics  of imposing a British presence in/on our  cultural institutions)  produced  by Prospero’s books and magic wandism  (talent and technology)  alongside  others sources of power dynamics,  that has forced us to  inherit a deformed/uncertain  cultural practice . We have left ignored so many; talent waste in Scotland is an ecological disaster. (See Kenneth Roy in Scottish Review : ‘Why Shakespeare  should be sacrificed for ‘dire’ Scots.’

12.    We must strive to create a theatre language and form that creates a sense of our own popular indigenous capacity and indeed our own opacity /myths and magic that we can proudly share with the world.  For the making of a Scottish theatre is either an inescapable act or it is a mere illusory affectation-a devolved drama with a Saltire mask to cover its blushes.

Specific Questions

1.     Surely Scottish reflections can be made creative, wonderful and legitimate through the use of our rich theatre heritage and/or through a dynamic transformative Scottish inspirations and adaptations? Or will we see ‘illegitimate formations’ appearing as legitimate national cultural creations? (See Caledonia)

2.     If culture is the conscious expression of a distinct historical existence and experience will the NTS be a leader in the production and enabling of the discovery of  theatrical sovereign symbols through native intellectual engagement?

So you have choices. You can decide to reinforce the historical dominant British cultural system (or dance with it) or you can permit us to create our own theatre forms and language while engaging with the world. The making and delivery… the being of a Scottish theatre is either radically of and for these times in Scotland or it will be a mere mask pretending to be legitimate while being reduced to an impotent drama on behalf of a damned periphery.

Thom Cross

Writer and Dramatist