How Scottish Theatre Predicted The Referendum
Gratifyingly, it’s now commonplace to talk about how the arts enlivened the independence debate. In his book Disunited Kingdom the journalist Iain Macwhirter describes the huge success of the artists’ group, National Collective, as ‘a new form of political organisation primarily about mobilising peoples’ imaginations.’ They gave Yes a colour and creativity which Better Together sorely lacked. Even the writers who came out for No – such as J.K. Rowling, Carol Craig and Ewan Morrison – resorted to gloomy, Unionist-endorsed economics and predictions of catastrophe, expressing bafflement, even anger, about the Yes side’s passion and belief.
But to reduce the artists to mummers on the campaign stage is to miss what had been happening, under the surface, since long before the referendum: a deep engagement with the shifting beast of Scottish politics. None of us, to be sure, fully expected a referendum, or even an SNP majority, but for about a decade we’d felt the tremors of something massive approaching, without knowing its true shape, and the most attuned of the Scottish arts to this imminent change was theatre.
Scottish theatre has, of course, a proud tradition of radicalism, stretching all the way back to 1552 and Sir David Lyndsey’s A Satire of the Three Estates, which mocked the clerics, merchants and lords, through to miner-turned-playwright, Joe Corrie in the 1930s and Ena Lamont Stewart’s portrayal of Glasgow poverty, Men Should Weep (1947). In more recent times, John McGrath’s iconic ceilidh play, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1973) toured small Highland communities and helped form a left-wing sentiment in a new generation of audiences. Despite being a socialist, not a nationalist, play The Cheviot was recevied enthusiastically in SNP circles because of its emphasis on the ways in which the Highlands had been exploited by successive alien powers. McGrath’s own 7:84 company, as well as Wildcat, nurtured this newly-politicised audience through the Thatcher-era, with witty, entertaining, firebrand attacks on capitalism. The producer David MacLennan straddled both companies. The co-founder of Wildcat, with David Anderson, he’d been in the cast of The Cheviot with his sister, Elizabeth, who herself was married to McGrath.
Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped off (1987), and a brace of works from Wildcat – Border Warfare (1989) and John Brown’s Body (1990) – represent the apex of this era, before the onset of the Nineties and (save for a few lone voices like Duncan McLean and political plays such as David Greig’s Caledonia Dreaming) the scouring of the radicals. Like the left itself, ‘agit-prop’ became instantly old hat, written off as dry, didactic, a relic from an era of class struggle, militancy and industrial action. By the late Nineties, younger theatre-makers had started to explore ‘the self’, in often ingenious ways, but unconsciously echoing the Thatcherite cult of the individual. Politics, where they appeared at all, tended to be lower down in the mix, like an embarrassing old uncle who wouldn’t shut about ‘Maggie’, seated at the end of the dinner table.
The Scottish Arts Council cut their grant to Wildcat in 1997, neutering them, as a Blairite agenda crept into arts funding. The political energy had long since shifted to prose fiction, with the blooming of Kevin Williamson’s Rebel Inc magazine, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993) and James Kelman’s incendiary Booker Prize-winner, How late it was, how late (1994), but by the Noughties even that had been shunted to the margins, as genre novels, primarily crime, began to dominate Scottish publishing. In theatre, ‘contemporary performance’, an experimental mode which pushes boundaries of taste, became the new vogue. It represented the very opposite of 7:84 and Wildcat’s aesthetic: politics had to be implicit rather than explicit, form was abstract rather than based in tradition, the relationship between performer and audience was challenged rather than consolidated. David MacLennan – agit-prop icon – would later report that his phone didn’t ring for about six years.
The lack of a national theatre, meanwhile, had, for nationalist commentators such as Paul Henderson Scott, become a symbolic memory hole at the heart of Scotland itself. As he wrote in The Herald on 13th November 1999:
Virtually every other country in Europe has a National Theatre as one of its most prized institutions. They aim at establishing a repertoire of the best plays in the country to the best possible standard…and to contribute to self-awareness and self-understanding.
At the same time, the touring trail and audiences which Wildcat had built up among working-class communities and the Highlands had dissipated through neglect.
The mood changed with the formation of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006, under the auspices of Vicky Featherstone, a self-confessed 7:84 disciple. She wanted to return theatre to these very communities. Her first major success, Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, responded to the then-recent invasion of Iraq.
The politics of Black Watch are almost impossible to pin down, which was to prove its strength. It is simultaneously left-wing, seething about Blair and Bush’s Iraq misadventure and giving voice to a disenfranchised class of young men, and militarist, valourising the Royal Highland Regiment. It is as much Unionist, unapologetic about Britain’s imperialist history, as it is Nationalist, with its stirring bagpipe parades and broad Scottish accents. It was, however, most certainly political theatre – unashamedly emotional, crowd-pleasing, 7:84-style theatre – and its impact was seismic.
At the same time, in Glasgow’s new Oran Mor venue, David MacLennan was back to work, producing a popular revolution of his own with his A Play, a Pie and a Pint series. It saw a new play performed each week and audiences of hundreds filling the room every lunchtime. It quickly became the engine-room at the heart of Scottish theatre, and MacLennan saw it as his responsibilty to identify and coax a wave of young, politicised writers passing through it: myself, Kieran Hurley, Gary McNair, Julia Taudevin, Catrin Evans and Davey Anderson (son of Wildcat’s co-founder David Anderson), all of whom had shown signs of re-engaging with the 7:84 tradition.
Then, on Thursday 5th May 2011, the tinder that would light our theatrical uprising caught fire.
Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre commissioned a piece called Welcome to the Hotel Caledonia, to be staged on the day of the Holyrood elections. It was co-scripted by various playwrights, including David Greig, Rona Munro, Peter Arnott, Morna Pearson and David Ireland, and was an attempt to understand what post-devolution Scottish politics was about, if anything. The scene which seemed to best understand, and which humoured and shocked the audience in equal measures, was by David Ireland, and featured David Cameron ordering up a black man for his hotel room. The escort agency can’t find a black man and so send a Scottish one instead, complete with kilt and tammy, whom Cameron proceeds to bugger senseless.
The next day the SNP’s massive majority in the Scottish parliament was announced.
Over at Glasgow’s Tron theatre, that very weekend, the change this signified was palpable in the air. MacLennan was running a rival show to the Traverse’s, entitled It’s a Dead Liberty, which reunited the Wildcat alumni for a revue of their greatest hits. I was one of the guest performers. David gathered us in the dressing-room that night and told us that he’d decided to address the election result in his customary speech at the top of the show. MacLennan himself was a Unionist, who believed nationalism drove a wedge between the working-classes, but he was also aware that most of his cast were pro-independence. His antennae, furthermore, had been attuned after decades of activism and he knew what the result meant: a referendum, and all bets off.
The mood in the theatre that night was strange, a curious mixture of elation, tension and energy. As our political cabaret unfolded, we could feel a new Scotland being born in the room. The previous night’s show felt flat and meaningless in comparison. Laughs were bigger, villains were jeered with more gusto and when the comedian Sandy Nelson threw in an aside in support of independence an audience member shouted, ‘Bloody Nats!’ which led to a heated exchange.
Things seemed to be moving quickly.
In December 2011, in response to the SNP’s game-changer, MacLennan brought his Young Team together, under the the NTS’s Staging the Nation banner, in the Scottish Parliament itself, for a discussion forum called ‘Thorn in their Side’. This was effectively the moment at which the baton of socialist theatre, which MacLennan had been carrying since 1973, was passed on to us. In the wake of the financial crash and the dawn of austerity, not least the imminent referendum, we called for an urgent, left-wing, populist theatre in the Scottish idiom.
Under MacLennan’s guidance we co-wrote three pieces of socialist propaganda, The Jean-Jaques Rousseau Show (2012), Demons (2012) and The Deficit Show (2013), which exposed the Torygeddon of obscene banker-bonuses, privatisation and the demonising of the poor. Fuck ambiguity. We were going to tell the truth and make it funny. Audiences loved it.
The reasons that Scottish theatre-makers had moved back towards agit-prop, we realised, were the same reasons why voters had moved towards the SNP: utter disillusionment with a Westminster elite which rewarded the rich and punished the poor. While New Labour had been in charge we’d been all been able to get by on a general drift of vague disappointment and easily-available credit, but as the triple shocks of the Iraq War, the banking crisis and the return of the Tories accumulated nervous energy, Scotland woke from its slumber.
Theatre is the most immediate way to see social changes reflected in art. A thesis can’t be made in a painting. A novel takes years to write. Film requires huge funds. A song is over in three minutes. A play can not only be written and rehearsed in a matter of weeks, and can develop a narrative over at least an hour, but takes place live, creating a circuit between actors and audience which intensifies emotions, heightens political consciousness and, most importantly, stresses the communal experience.
Game on. Everyone drew up their battle plans for the summer of 2014, with the intention of creating such a carnival of noise, colour, ideas and stories around the Edinburgh Fringe that we’d make independence seem like the Greatest Show on Earth. Minds, we were determined, would be changed. Lives would changed.
Unfortunately, one life would end. That June, David MacLennan succumbed to the Motor Neurone Disease that had been troubling him for many months. We stopped to mourn his passing, then used that his example to power what we had to do. That he’d been a Unionist and that his protégés opposed Unionism mattered not a jot; he had impressed upon us the urgency of activism and the centralilty of theatre in rousing and inspiring people to rise up against their masters. His struggle was our struggle.
Scottish theatre exploded. In one summer alone: the NTS’s Yes, No, Don’t Know Show, which had been David’s idea and involved hundreds of ordinary Scots; Scottish Youth Theatre’s Now’s the Hour, in which dozens of young people debated their future and which was described by Alex Salmond as ‘moving and very powerful’; the Tron’s Mayfesto season on colonialism; Rona Munro’s colossal James plays and Rob Drummond’s Wallace, which found echoes of the present in Scotland’s past; David Greig’s Twitter-based Yes/No Plays; Davey Anderson and Gary McNair’s How to Choose; the playwrights Peter Arnott and Liz Lochhead becoming two of Yes’s most articulate and passionate voices; Chris Dolan and David Hayman’s The Pitiless Storm, about a Labour stalwart who turns to Yes, and my own satirical play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, which starred Elaine C. Smith.
This show was proof to me, were any further needed, just how much had changed both in Scotland and in Scottish theatre. We’d learned from the experience of Wildcat, who’d been killed as soon as their state grant was removed. Being such a partisan show, we wouldn’t have received one anyway. An Indigogo appeal to fund the play brought in over £18,000 from fellow Yes supporters, ordinary people, probably struggling to make ends meet, donating a tenner here or a twenty there in order to make political theatre happen. Over the course of its three-week run, 8000 people came to see The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, many of them No voters. I know this, because the audience were asked to vote at the end of each show. Only a few years previously, the idea that an unashamedly left-wing, nationalist play could command such numbers in Scotland had been unthinkable.
Then there was David Greig’s daily discussion forum at the Fringe, All Back to Bowie’s, and National Collective’s mighty Yestival tour, which crowdfunded £31,000 and took dozens of performers around 25 Scottish venues – from Shetland to Melrose – with the questing, community-focused spirit of The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. And far from being the ‘Yes echo-chamber’ which cynics like to portray these ventures as, both Bowie’s and Yestival found room on the bill for Unionists such as Alex Massie, David Torrance and even (shudder) John McTernan.
Theatre funded by the people for the people about the people. This had been David MacLennan’s dream all along. He may have been a Unionist – and for the right reasons, I might add – but MacLennan’s ingenuity, commitment and generosity of spirit were gifts that went beyond Scottish theatre and into the Yes movement, changing the nation for the better and irrevocably.
Alan Bissett’s Collected Plays 2009-2014 – which features an Introduction by the late David MacLennan and the script for The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant – is out now with Freight. On 18th April he will be performing selections from his plays at the Aye Write! festival in Glasgow. Tickets here.