Scottish theatres lukewarm over referendum
- 17 August 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
A month from now, Scotland will decide if it is to be an independent country. Neither the Yes nor the No campaign has been overburdened with dramatic incident - but what of those whose business is drama?
Have playwrights in Scotland risen to the challenge of investigating the possibility of fundamental change?
Orla O'Loughlin took over running the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh at the start of 2012. The Traverse sees itself as Scotland's home of new writing.
"It was always likely that in my time here Scotland would face this choice," says O'Loughlin, who is from London.
"As artistic director, I waited to see what would come in. I can't say I was besieged with scripts about the referendum or independence. Many people have said it's surprising how few such plays have been produced or even offered."
The Traverse has staged two plays relating to the independence debate. Last year, there was I'm With The Band, by Tim Price, and currently Spoiling by John McCann is playing as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
O'Loughlin points out that Price is Welsh and McCann from Northern Ireland.
"I think the Yes campaign here in Scotland has been very closely aligned with the artistic community - particularly the theatre community. Without doubt there is a strong Yes element.
"The two scripts we've done aren't either Yes plays or No Plays. They are pieces which stimulate debate and have a debate within themselves. I don't see where the drama is in work that doesn't begin and indeed end with a question. Otherwise where is the narrative? Where's the tension? Where's the journey?"
O'Loughlin acknowledges that for an institution like the Traverse, in receipt of public subsidy, it could be awkward to present a play unequivocally for or against independence. "But I could live with it. I just genuinely believe that our job is to ask questions."
John McCann's new play is set in a Scotland which has just voted for independence. "I invented a future Foreign Minister-designate who is unhappy with the financial settlement following the vote," he says.
"But the fact that I imagine a Yes vote doesn't make the play propaganda. I'm a writer trying to make a gripping and amusing drama.
"I'm interested in putting myself in the shoes of someone who will vote the way I know I won't vote."
There has been very little on stage avowedly in favour of retaining the union. There's been sadness in Scottish theatre at the death in June of David MacLennan - the respected director and writer was expected to become a leading theatrical voice against independence.
Overall, few would query O'Loughlin's assertion that most writers and performers are for a Yes vote.
Yet with major institutions wary of overt statements either way, full-length pro-independence plays are not thick on the ground.
At 66, David Hayman is one of Scotland's best-known screen actors. On the Edinburgh Fringe, he is appearing in a one-man play by Chris Dolan which puts its pro-independence cards on the table.
The Pitiless Storm shows a middle-aged Labour politician coming to support the notion of Scottish independence. Lively Q&A sessions after the performance allow Hayman to expand on his theme with a vigour many politicians would envy.
"I would say 90% of the creative community in Scotland is pro-independence," he says. "I'm not claiming there's outright censorship but I think funding bodies and local councils have cold feet about political theatre - there was even some reluctance when we were setting up the tour of The Pitiless Storm.
"Scotland only has a few theatrical centres so touring companies are more important here than in England.
"But the people with the purse strings have become very nervous about funding anything even slightly political - including plays about the independence debate. It might be as true for a pro-union play as for someone like me who wants to see a Yes vote.
"I think there is a big debate out there but increasingly it's in social media. I don't knock that. There's an immediacy to that kind of debate which I know people relish. But theatre doesn't have to be contained in 140 characters."
When Rona Munro began to write The James Plays, her ambitious historical trilogy now playing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, she didn't perceive them as about the independence debate. They're set in the 1400s and tell of three Scottish monarchs - James I, James II and James III.
"But I'm very happy for them to be seen in the context of what's happening politically," she says. "I realise it's partly why the National Theatre of Scotland has programmed them all in one year - which is not what originally I expected."
The three plays will transfer to the National Theatre in London from 10 September and they are already a hot ticket.
Laurie Sansom, the English artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, says it was a considered decision to produce the three plays in repertory.
"It's a big commitment. But when I took over the National Theatre of Scotland last year, I spent some time listening to what people in Scotland wanted to write about. Basically, the energy was around the question of national identity. And I loved Rona's scripts because they investigate that but work as human drama too."
What would Sansom have done had he been offered a superb new script which was openly for or against independence?
"It's very important to me that we're a forum in which artists can express very passionate political beliefs. So though as a company the National Theatre of Scotland has absolutely no political beliefs, we've already produced works in which writers have exploited the freedom to speak out.
"Last year we did Dear Scotland at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. It gave a voice to 20 writers to express a range of views about Scotland and independence. Picking away at the questions is what really interests me."
Munro says the sub-title of the final play of her trilogy - The True Mirror - is an acknowledgement that critics and audiences will inevitably see a reflection of the referendum. "Some people have described the plays as about the founding of the Scottish nation. Actually they're set too late for that - and it might seem a wee bit presumptuous anyway.
"I've written about Scotland trying to decide what kind of nation it is and should be. But there's no character on stage who represents Alex Salmond or Alistair Darling - that wouldn't interest me.
"I don't think I make an argument for either side. But I hope the plays reflect an understanding of our past that might inform our decisions about the future."
Cast members Blythe Duff and Andrew Rothney say they are looking forward to audience responses changing as the referendum draws near.
"At first, I thought that when we get to the National in London the audiences might not feel as engrossed," Duff says. "But our early rehearsals were in London too and I was aware of people there starting to get more taken by the idea.
"There are three plays and a lot in them. But without giving too much away, the final one especially has parallels with Scotland today. It's cleverly woven."
Andrew Rothney, who plays James II, says he has asked himself how different audience reactions in the Olivier auditorium in London might be before and after the referendum.
"It could be an extraordinary thing to step out on stage on 19 September, with the result in. But I've now decided it'll be extraordinary, whichever way Scotland votes.
"Though I think a lot of the cast who live in Scotland will feel odd not being there on voting day. And we've all been so busy getting three big plays together some of us haven't fixed our postal votes yet. But we will."