‘A writer of protean gifts’: Lucy Kirkwood on Caryl Churchill

This year’s recipient of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Contribution to Writing is the playwright Caryl Churchill – one of the leading figures in contemporary world theatre, and an NHB author for over thirty years – ‘in honour of her illustrious body of work and a career which has spanned over six decades’.

The presentation of the Award on Monday 15 January was preceded by a speech, reproduced here, by fellow playwright, WGGB Award-winner and NHB author Lucy Kirkwood, who paid tribute to Caryl’s unrelenting and hugely influential innovation, craft and creativity. 

My house is full of books and they are badly organised. So as I prepared to write this speech about the recipient of tonight’s special award, I set aside time just to find my collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays, thinking it might take a while.

It didn’t. There, right at the top of one pile, was Plays: Three. On top of another, Plays: Two. Plays: One and Plays: Four were also in easy reach, in dog-eared copies already on my desk. I’m not sure why I was surprised: like so many other playwrights, I keep her works as close as I keep the tea bags and the emergency cigarettes. They are necessary.

‘They are necessary’ – two collections of Caryl Churchill’s plays

To anyone working in the theatre today, the outstanding contribution of Caryl Churchill is beyond question, to the extent that the word ‘contribution’ doesn’t quite seem up to the job. Her invention is ceaseless. Her influence is profound. In the course of a writing life that spans sixty years, she’s changed the dramatic landscape of two centuries, and evolved more than any other British playwright our conceptions of what a play even is. She’s even changed the way we write them down.

In the words of [playwright and academic] Dan Rebellato, ‘she never repeats herself. She always seems to be asking the question what’s the world like and what form of play do I have to write to express it. She has invented forty or fifty different play forms that everyone else uses, and meanwhile, she’s moved on.’

Rebellato goes on to note that the overlapping dialogue she invented is now used by everyone except her. She’s used doublings, one actor playing many parts, or many actors playing the same part, to political and metaphysical effect over the years, but also just for the sheer theatrical fun of it. Her writing is omnivorous, and slips between naturalism, fantasy and verse with unwavering confidence.

Although Owners, produced in 1972, is usually recognised as her first play, in fact she’d written roughly twenty others before that.

But it was her collaborations with Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock, beginning in 1976, which were to be a turning point in her practice. She describes these experiences as having permanently changed her attitudes to herself, her work, and others. With Monstrous Regiment she made Vinegar Tom, a play about witches with no witches in it and with Joint Stock she made Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a play about a revolution that didn’t happen, and followed this with Cloud Nine, a deeply theatrical play about the relationship between sexual and colonial politics, with a structure that leaps from Victorian Africa to ’70s London. It is incisive and vicious, very funny and cautiously optimistic about our ability to free ourselves from the repressions visited upon us from above, and within. It ran for two years in New York, and was followed by Softcops, inspired by the work of Michel FoucaultIn the ’80s, with Top Girls and Serious Money, she took on the Siamese twins of Thatcherism and London’s financial industry, and in Fen she looked at potato pickers in the bleak flatlands of East Anglia. The Skriker collides the modern and the mythical to give form to the ungovernable forces in women’s lives. In A Number, a man is confronted by clones of his dead son, in a play not really about cloning, and Blue Heart consists of two plays, one of which has a virus.

The 2015 National Theatre revival of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Photo by Marc Brenner)

It should be clear by now we’re talking about a writer of protean gifts, completely lacking in complacency. Simply put, she is the only person writing today who says something new in both form and content every time she puts pen to paper.

Her work is profoundly political, but never didactic, charged with metaphorical power not journalistic editorial. Far Away which, in Dan Rebellato’s words again, ‘feels like it invented British 21st -century playwriting in some ways’, is my own favourite play and the first work I want to share with any young person interested in theatre. It is constructed of scenes depicting a series of universal domestic scenarios: a child waking in the night, afraid. A workplace romance. Taking a lover home to meet your family for the first time. And yet its twenty-six pages are pregnant with vast and troubling themes. It is a play that seems to be about something different every time I read it: the corrosive effects of a climate of fear, our ability to mute the sound of horror happening beyond our shores, the atrocity that occurs when we are convinced we are on the right side of history.

The structure is consummate, the images searing and the language like knives. As two characters, Harper and Todd, make increasingly extravagant hats – that, we slowly learn, are to be worn by prisoners on the way to execution – Harper observes: ‘It seems so sad to burn them with the bodies’, and later she offers as good and as provocative a reflection on a life in the theatre as I can imagine, noting: ‘You make beauty and it disappears, I love that’.

Her formal invention has been on display again more recently in Love and Information, constructed from fragments that express with audacity the rhythm of how we live now, and in Here We Go, a play about death that uses abbreviations and repetitions to stare down the barrel of our decay with all the verve the title implies.

Nikki Amuka-Bird and Joshua James in Love and Information at the Royal Court (Photo by Stephen Cummiskey)

But I often feel in our eagerness to admire her cathedrals we overlook the exquisite craft of the individual bricks. Not only the dazzling indelible images her plays throw up: a dinner party of women from throughout history, a woman who’s just been murdered appearing in a doorway, a shape-shifter presiding over a feast of glamour, two peasants seeing themselves in a mirror for the first time in their lives.

But also in her dialogue. She’s not a writer with a house-style. The roots of her language are in the demotic, lifted from the playground, the office, the bus, the nursing home, the butchers, and given precise, sculpted form. But her language is poetic in its refusal of artificial elegance, and shot through with flashes of violence, sorrow and comedy, at once dense and digestible, like a Christmas cake that has been fed brandy since January. Next time I get a tattoo, I would happily get them to ink one of her extraordinary lines on my arm, maybe:

If it’s a party, why was there so much blood?

Or perhaps most appropriately for this particular evening:

The only judges I recognise are ones I’ve appointed myself.

She’s written versions of Seneca and Strindberg, opera librettos, worked with choreographers and composers, written for the radio, television and stage and been performed across the world. Her plays are studied at schools and universities and in 2013, Royal Holloway University named its new theatre after her.

Increasingly her work is notable for its economy, not because she has less to say but because her craft is such she can pack more into a line of dialogue than most of us can express in a whole scene. I watched her most recent full-length play Escaped Alone with exhilaration, but also despair, as I realised the play I was myself writing took two hours to say what Caryl Churchill had expressed in a single speech about cats.

Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Escaped Alone at the Royal Court
(Photo by Alistair Muir)

Escaped Alone is a play about four women who have lived a long time, chatting in a garden, tempered with visions of apocalypse. It is a play that once again has a radical, questing form. It is surprising and alive and intelligent and very funny. It is a play that feels both absolutely clear and completely mysterious. And like so much of her work, it offers, unsentimentally, a suggestion that in an increasingly unstable world, humans retain a capacity for both joyful song, and terrible, terrible, terrible rage.

It is breathtaking to write a single play that has such qualities. It is, frankly, showing off to have written so many of them.

In the spirit of trying to sum up with her economy why this award is so deserved, I finally turn to the words of her friend and regular collaborator, [director] James Macdonald, who puts it simply like this: “She’s just doing the best writing, isn’t she? Why make it any more complicated?’

Caryl Churchill and Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards (photo by Matt Writtle)


This is an edited version of a speech written and given by Lucy Kirkwood at the 2018 Writers’ Guild Awards on Monday 15 January 2018.

We’re honoured to publish Caryl Churchill’s plays – visit our website to see the full selection.

Author photograph of Caryl Churchill by Stephen Cummiskey.

Advertisements

‘Let’s not forget how far we have come’: Mark Gatiss on remembering gay history in Queers

gatiss-mark.jpgJuly 2017 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. When the BBC approached writer, actor and director Mark Gatiss to curate Queers, a series of monologues to mark the anniversary, he got to work straight away. Here, he explains the inspirations behind the eight pieces, and reflects on where the LGBT+ community stands today.

When I was a child, Friday nights were sacrosanct because it was then – after the late sports report – that Tyne Tees Television showed horror films. I would sometimes watch them in company, but more often than not I was left by myself to sit up and watch. In the summer, the slot was occupied by more palatable fare but, used to my horrors, my family duly left me alone. One night – I think I was about twelve or thirteen – there was a film called if… I knew nothing about it except that the Northern Echo gave it five stars and a ‘don’t miss!’

An English public school. Boys returning from the holidays. And, within minutes, a beautiful blond boy is being castigated by a prefect with the words ‘And you, Phillips, stop tarting.’ I felt my heart thud in my chest, my mouth go dry. As the film unfolded, I found myself more tense and gripped than by any horror film I’d ever seen. I became more and more afraid that someone would come downstairs and catch me watching, spoil it all, spoil the illicit thrill…

I’d known I was gay since before I could really understand what such a thing meant. And, just as I had pored over the men’s underwear section of the Brian Mills catalogue in search of titillation (it was slim pickings in those days), I had scoured the TV schedules for anything that might have even a glimmer of homosexual content. From my first crushes (Craig in The Champions and the dark one off Follyfoot, in case you’re wondering) to the first stirrings of something nameless and exciting whilst watching a particular adventure of The Tomorrow People. Jason Kemp, the actor in that episode, later turned up in the ITV drama Kids, playing a brilliantly acerbic Scouse queen. I think I responded both to his physical beauty and his blazing queerness which, like all the best things, felt both exciting and a little bit scary.

These fragments, then, these little moments of visible gayness were like diamonds in the TV schedules. To be savoured, hoarded up and remembered forever.

These days, of course, we do not have to scour the schedules in the same way. There are visible gay characters in many mainstream dramas. Nevertheless, the commitment of the BBC to their ‘Gay Britannia’ season is still a massive cause for celebration. So when I was approached with the idea of curating a series of monologues for the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, I leapt at the chance.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.36.49.png

Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

But where to start? Well, with a qualification. Queers commemorates an Act of Parliament which partially decriminalised sex between men over twenty-one in the privacy of their own homes in England and Wales. It would not become law in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982. In curating this series I have not attempted to cover the entire history of LGBT+ representation in Britain over the past century. Rather, I wanted, predominantly, to examine the gay male experience, looking at the world leading up to the 1967 Act and the years which have followed, tracing the extraordinary progress that’s been made, but from a variety of unexpected angles.

Anti-gay legislation in the modern era really began with the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, the so-called ‘Labouchere Amendment’, prohibiting ‘gross indecency between males’. This became known almost at once as ‘the blackmailer’s charter’ and was the law that ensnared Oscar Wilde. Wilde seemed an obvious place to start the monologues, but as I wanted to encompass the century, perhaps it could be from the perspective of someone with a memory of Oscar Wilde? Perhaps someone on the railway platform that infamous day he was taken to Reading Gaol? From this sprang the idea of Perce, a stretcher-bearer in the trenches of World War One and a love that almost spoke its name…

Though the series, as I’ve said, was to reflect mostly the gay male experience, I did want to include some female perspectives. I discovered the extraordinary story of Lillias Irma Valerie Arkell-Smith – known as Colonel Barker – who had lived as a man, even going so far as to marry a woman. I thought this could be the basis of a fascinating story and from it, Jackie Clune wove The Perfect Gentleman and its unexpected take on the notion of masculinity.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.38.04

Kadiff Kirwan (Fredrick) on the set of Queers |© BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

What was it like to be a black gay man in the past? Although there was a thriving ‘queer’ demi-monde in America in the twenties and thirties, it only seems to have touched the fringes of the jazz scene in this country. It was astonishing, in fact, to discover how little is known about black gay sub-culture at that time. I re-read the biography of the artist Glyn Philpot and thought there might be something interesting in the notion of being an ‘exotic’ life model at that time. This, together with the story of Patrick Nelson – who was one of Duncan Grant’s lovers – provided Keith Jarrett with the inspiration for Safest Spot in Town.

In 1957 came the Wolfenden Report. This was the beginning of change, though it would take a further decade for the law to actually pass. But what aspect of this period to examine? Jon Bradfield pitched me Missing Alice – an idea with which I instantly fell in love. A woman happily married to a gay man who worries that increasing liberalisation might make him leave her. What a lovely, simple notion. A tiny Terence Rattigan play, as it were.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.38.19

Rebecca Front (Alice) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

When I first moved to London I remember being invited to what seemed to me quite a sophisticated gay party. What I’ll never forget is chatting to an elderly man, waspish, hilarious and who lapsed into Polari at the drop of a feather boa. ‘It was never the same, you know, dear, after it was legal,’ he said. ‘All the fun went out of it.’ I wanted to use this as a jumping-off point, to explore the notion that not everyone saw legalisation as a good thing. Matthew Baldwin, who had already co-written a fascinating play about ’67 called The Act, was the natural choice to write I Miss the War.

With the eighties, the shadow of AIDS, of course, looms, as monolithic as those tombstone TV ads we grew so used to. This was the time in which I grew up as a gay man. But how to approach this period and this subject which might feel like it’s prey to cliché? Happily, Brian Fillis came up with More Anger about a young gay actor who finds the health crisis affecting him in unexpected ways.

By 1994, change was in the air and the House of Commons voted to lower the homosexual age of consent. I was there that night as big crowds gathered to hear the – as it turned out, disappointing – result. Michael Dennis was also there – though we didn’t know each other at the time. His memories of that experience and of being a young man enjoying the big city for the first time became A Grand Day Out.

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 14.36.58

Russell Tovey (Phil) and Mark Gatiss on the set of Queers | © BBC, Photograph: Richard Ansett

Finally, Something Borrowed brings us – almost – to the present day and the preparations for a wedding. I wanted to celebrate this amazing state of affairs, unthinkable just a short time ago, but also to explore what might have got lost along the way. The notion of being different, an outsider, other; that illicit thrill I felt watching if… all those years ago. Gareth McLean’s monologue asks some tough questions without providing easy answers.

As we see every day, hard-won victories can be undone with the stroke of a presidential pen. Homosexuality remains illegal in seventy-four countries. In thirteen of them, it is punishable by death. But let’s not forget how far we have come. And that we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Curating and directing Queers has been a wonderful journey, and I’d like to thank everyone involved – from the BBC to the writers, the actors, the crew and the publishers – for making it an unforgettable experience.


FormattedThis is taken from the introduction to Queers: Eight Monologues, published by Nick Hern Books in partnership with the BBC.

Curated by Mark Gatiss, and written by Mark and seven other authors – Jackie Clune, Keith Jarrett, Jon Bradfield, Matthew Baldwin, Brian Fillis, Michael Dennis and Gareth McLean – these eight monologues for male and female performers celebrate a century of evolving social attitudes and political milestones in British gay history, through deeply affecting and personal rites-of-passage stories.

The monologues will be performed at Old Vic Theatre, London, and broadcast on BBC Four

To get your copy at a special 25% discount – so just £7.49 – use code QUEERSBLOG when ordering here.

‘One of the great artistic privileges of my life’: Conor McPherson on writing and directing Girl from the North Country

Fresh from his acclaimed TV debut Paula on BBC Two, award-winning Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s latest project sees him weave the masterful songs of Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan into a poetic, haunting tale of love, loss and obligation set in Minnesota during the Great Depression. As Girl from the North Country premieres at the Old Vic Theatre, London, McPherson reflects on how he found the inspiration for the show, and his deep respect for Bob Dylan’s skills as a musician and writer…

Maybe five years ago I was asked if I might consider writing a play to feature Bob Dylan’s songs. I initially didn’t feel this was something I could do and I had cast it out of my mind when, one day, walking along, I saw a vision of a guesthouse in Minnesota in the 1930s.

I had been in Minnesota twice in the years leading up to this – both times in the dead of winter. The friendliness of the people, the dry frozen wind, the vast distance from home, these things had stayed with me. And I saw a way Mr Dylan’s songs might make sense in a play.

I was invited to write down the idea I had seen and send it to Bob Dylan. A few days later I heard back that Mr Dylan liked the idea and was happy for me to proceed. Just like that.

Ron Cook rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

And then I received forty albums in the post, covering Mr Dylan’s career. While I owned Dylan albums already, like Desire and Blood on the Tracks, and loved many of his songs (often without knowing he’d written them) performed by hundreds of artists from The Byrds to Fairport Convention, I had no idea of the real search he had been on his whole life.

It strikes me that many of Mr Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time. When you realise this you can no longer have any doubt you are in the presence of a truly great, unique artist.

Working on our production of Girl from the North Country, sometimes I would wake in the night with a Bob Dylan song going round in my head. The next day I would come into rehearsals and we’d learn the song and put it in the show. Did it fit? Did it matter? It always fit somehow.

Many books have been written in an attempt to explore this universal power. Even though Mr Dylan will say he’s often not sure what his songs mean, he always sings them like he means them. Because he does mean them. Whatever they mean.

Sheila Atim rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Every time I hear these songs I see a picture like I’m watching a movie. Sometimes it’s the same, sometimes it’s different, but you always see something.

Like Philip Larkin, like James Joyce, Mr Dylan has the rare power of literary compression. Images and conceits are held in unstable relations, forcing an atomic reaction of some kind, creating a new inner world.

But let’s talk about his musicality. Spending time with his music has taught me a few things: Firstly, writing something that sounds original is rare, but writing something that sounds original and simple at the same time is the mark of genius. Anyone can keep making things more complicated, but to keep a song simple, like it somehow always existed and would have surely been written by someone, someday… try writing that one.

Secondly, Mr Dylan always goes through the right musical door. Listening to a Bob Dylan song is like being in a room you’ve never been in before. It’s full of characters and images and tons of musical atmosphere. But then Bob changes the chords, moving through a bridge or a chorus, and a door opens up in that room, so you go through that door into another room – but it’s always the right door.

Thirdly, Mr Dylan sings about God a lot. Sometimes God appears as an impossible reflection of yourself. Sometimes as someone you could never know. But however God appears, however Mr Dylan begs for mercy, you understand that cry.

The company rehearsing Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Anyway, I write this on the eve of moving from the rehearsal room to the theatre. Whatever happens next I have no idea. All I can say with any certainty is that having had Mr Dylan’s trust to create a piece of work using his songs has been one of the great artistic privileges of my life.


This introduction is taken from the published script to Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson, which includes the full text of the play plus the lyrics to all of the Bob Dylan songs featured in the production.

Get your copy via our website at a 20% discount – no voucher code required – here.

Girl from the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 October 2017. Tickets available here.

Author photo by Mel Melcon.

‘There is so much left to discover’: Jason Warren on creating immersive theatre

As a director, Jason Warren has staged immersive theatre productions in a variety of styles and settings – from relocating Shakespeare to a seedy nightclub, to turning school buildings into a quarantine facility for survivors of a widespread plague. Here, he shares his own passion for the form, his hopes for his new book Creating Worlds, aimed at those looking to make this type of work, and reflects on what the term ‘immersive theatre’ actually means…

Immersive theatre has been my obsession for a long, long time. My belief in its potential comes from my background. I didn’t grow up reciting Shakespeare, I didn’t go to theatre school straight after completing A levels and I certainly never had teenage aspirations of directing at the National. As an artist, my influences have often come from outside the theatrical canon. I believe theatre can make us feel how I did when I first listened to my favourite album as a teenager. I believe it can draw us in like the most choice-laden role-playing video game. I’m convinced it can rouse passions and make the audience express them like the fiercest political argument after too many beers.

If you ask five artists what immersive theatre is, you might get five different answers, but something that most people would agree on is that it’s a form that gives the audience greater access to the performance. Whether through roaming freely around the space or talking directly with the characters, these productions invite the audience to take a greater role, to be more involved, to become part of the artistry rather than just spectators. Despite that common purpose, however, if you’ve been to a few immersive theatre shows you’ll know that they often have very few similarities to each other.

I’ve been to interactive stories where I was locked in a room with twenty-five other people forced to make a moral decision that would change the story; controlled a small island as I struggled to remain independent against the superpowers trying to coerce me into giving up my uranium; been chased by shadowy creatures in the dark underneath London; and watched my mythological parents descend into a murderous feud. All of them were heralded as immersive productions, and none of them bore any resemblance to each other. There was no one type of space unifying the productions. In some the audience were confined to one room, in some they were free to roam. Sometimes we could affect the story, at others we were purely spectators. All of them, however, are immersive.

MSND photo

Photograph from Jason Warren’s production of #MSND, adapted from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare – CLF Arts Cafe, London, 2013

There are common threads I see in all productions that we call immersive. All are (or try to be) innovative in two areas: the role of the audience and how they use the theatre space. Within these threads there’s endless variations in both intention and success, but we can make certain general assumptions. It’s unlikely that the audience will be sat down in rows facing a stage. We probably don’t expect the audience to stay silent throughout then applaud at the end. The actors are not, in all likelihood, separated from the audience by an invisible ‘fourth wall’ at the edge of the stage. The problem is that we can point at endless examples of productions that are not immersive, and sometimes it seems like the form is defined by negatives; that by identifying everything that isn’t immersive, we can use what’s left behind as our definition.

I think this is unhelpful. To me, immersive theatre is about the certain spirit with which we make a performance. A production becomes immersive when it is made by a company who will experiment with the theatrical format in ways that are designed to drag the audience further in. So if you’re thinking about creating your own immersive work, let us agree to drop the debate about definitions and genres. Your production will be immersive, because you have decided it will be. All being well, it will be unlike any immersive theatre we’ve yet seen.

So yes: immersive theatre is a vast and diverse field, taking in work of many kinds. My new book Creating Worlds, however, is not a dry analysis of this form, nor a rundown of performances that have happened in the past. It’s written for theatre-makers, artists and students who want to create this kind of work. It’s also for those who are interested in the guts and ideas that fuel the performances they love. If it inspires you to create your own performances and is enjoyable to read, then I will have achieved my aim.

The joy of working in immersive theatre is that there is so much left to discover. Creating Worlds is the fruit of my experiments and projects over the last few years, but I’m also truly excited about the discoveries yet to be made. It’s a privilege to be working in a field that’s so uncharted, where every project is an opportunity to do something truly innovative. Through monumental mistakes and totally unexpected successes, I’ve ended up with a philosophy on what makes good immersive theatre. My aim with the book is to help you craft your own beliefs – and to create responsive and rich worlds of your own.

CreatingWorlds.jpgThis is an edited extract from Creating Worlds: How to Make Immersive Theatre by Jason Warren, out now.

To buy your own copy for just £10 (rrp £12.99), use code WORLDSBLOG when ordering at http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/creatingworlds (offer valid until 31 December 2017).

‘One of the greatest ever collaborators’: Enda Walsh on working with David Bowie

Enda Walsh Now playing in London following its premiere in New York last year, new musical Lazarus marks a unique collaboration between the playwright Enda Walsh and legendary singer and songwriter David Bowie – featuring many of the latter’s most famous songs. Though nobody realised at the time, the production turned out to be one of Bowie’s final projects, opening just weeks before his death in January 2016. Here, Walsh recalls what it was like to work with Bowie, and pays tribute to the unending genius of this singularly visionary artist…

David Bowie had passed me a four-page document to read so we could begin our discussions on writing a new story with his songs – and based upon the character of Thomas Newton from the Walter Tevis novel The Man Who Fell to Earth – which David had famously played in the Nicolas Roeg film. In the room was the theatre and film producer Robert Fox and David’s right hand, Coco Schwab. As I started to read those four pages, the room was very quiet.

Earlier, I had been feeling very calm and detached as I walked towards David’s building with Robert – as we stood in the elevator, as that ridiculously wide office door opened, and Mr David Bowie was standing there. He hugged me and the first thing he said to me was ‘You’ve been in my head for three weeks.’ We sat and we chatted about my work (he had read everything) and why I was writing the way I was – and what themes kept returning into my plays like a nasty itch. I spent that whole morning and now this first hour of our first meeting in a state of serene self-confidence.

David Bowie

‘David Fucking Bowie’
(Photo: Frank W Ockenfels 3)

It was only at the moment when he said, ‘This is where I’d like to start’, when he pushed those four pages towards me, that I was hit with the realisation that I was sitting opposite this cultural icon – this man who had created so much and influenced so many. This bloody genius. David Fucking Bowie. I felt like a child – and at that point of silently ‘reading’ – a child who had once the ability to read words but had forgotten how to read. I scanned the first page and all I heard was interference – my own insecurities screaming at me.

I stopped reading, took a deep breath and read from the first line again.

David had written three new characters around Thomas Newton (the stranded alien, seemingly immortal and definitely stuck). There was a Girl who may or may not be real; a ‘mass murderer’ called Valentine; and a character of a woman who thought she might be Emma Lazarus (the American poet whose poem ‘The New Colossus’ is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty) – a woman in this case who would help and fall in love with this most travelled of immigrants – Thomas Newton.

At the centre of these four pages was a simple, powerful image: Thomas Newton would build a rocket from debris. His mind, having further deteriorated, would torture and tease him with the dream of escape; and in his imprisonment – in his room in this big tower – Newton would try one last time to leave.

So this is where we started.

lazarus-michael-c-hall-newton-sophia-anne-caruso-girl-credit-johan-persson-07949

Michael C Hall (Newton), Sophia Anne Caruso (Girl) in Lazarus | Photo: Johan Persson

We talked around the characters and the themes of the book. On isolation and madness and drug abuse and alcoholism and the torment of immortality. And there was a lot of talk about the beauty of unconditional love and goodness. We talked about characters finding themselves out of control – about the story sliding into a murky sadness and quick violence – about characters having drab conversations about television snacks – the everyday bending quickly and becoming Greek tragedy. The celestial and the shitty pavement.

For the first few meetings Coco stayed silent and listened to us (until she couldn’t listen to us any more maybe!), and then she asked, ‘Yeah, but what happens?’ It was a fair question and one that we would return to – but we weren’t there yet. We needed to get a sense of the themes of it and its atmosphere and its world. The narrative trajectory of a man wanting to leave Earth and being helped by some and stopped by others – this was there in David’s four pages and would remain in our story, but the events of the story would emerge later.

And then there were the songs.

David handed me a folder of lyrics and CDs he had put together. ‘Some of these you’ll know.’ It was a bloody funny thing to say. We would hammer out the story together, but initially he wanted me to choose the songs we would use. I guess he had lived with some of them for years and there must have been unshakable associations – maybe it would be easier for me to listen to them coldly from a purely narrative perspective.

His lyrics often arrive cut-up and opaque – so it was rarely about listening to the words and sticking it into the story. It was about the emotion, rhythm and atmosphere of those songs – and having the characters riding that wave and accessing their souls, where they could lyrically go to those strange places.

Lazarus

Michael C Hall (Newton) in Lazarus | Photo: Jan Versweyveld

We talked about the form – the shape of the story arriving broken and a little shattered. We talked about a person dying and the moments before death and what might happen in their mind and how that would be constructed on stage. We started talking about escape, but we ended up talking about a person trying to find rest. About dying in an easier way.

Newton would spend his last moments trying to stop a bullying mind that kept him living. Physically it didn’t matter to us whether he was on Earth or in the stars at the very end. We wanted Newton – in his terms – to feel at rest.

No matter how plays come out, you always end up talking about yourself. David was certainly the most superb shapeshifter – one of the greatest ever collaborators too – someone who could walk his colleagues in directions they’d yet seen. But for me he remained personal in his work and spoke about where he was at that moment in really truthful terms.

Lazarus arrived at both of us with its own swagger and shape and emotion. It’s a strange, difficult and sometimes sad dream Newton must live through – but in its conclusion, he wins his peace.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-10-47-15This is taken from the Introduction to Lazarus: The Complete Book and Lyrics by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, out now.

The book contains the full script, including the lyrics to the seventeen songs featured in the musical – among them iconic Bowie numbers such as ‘Changes’, ‘Life on Mars?’ and ‘Heroes’, plus three new original compositions.

To get your copy for just £7.99, click here.

Lazarus is playing at Kings Cross Theatre, London, until 22 January. See more about the show here.

Edinburgh Fringe Report 2016 Part 1: Final preparations

Getting ready for The Fringe? Our Edinburgh Fringe Report is back (you can still read last year’s Report here) with six more amateur theatre companies – all of them performing plays licensed by Nick Hern Books – revealing the state of their play as they get ready to launch themselves on The Fringe…

Holes by Tom Basden
Lyons Productions
C South Main Theatre, 14–20 August

Holes is an absurd, hilarious and fast-paced comedy by Tom Basden, the writer of some of Britain’s most acclaimed TV comedies (Fresh Meat, Plebs). Flight BA043 has crashed on an island. Stranded, four survivors wait. Surely somebody will find them. Planes don’t just disappear, do they? And, if no one’s coming… what do they do now?

We are Lyons Productions, a theatre company made up of University of Exeter students and graduates. Last year we performed our highly successful debut show, Party by Tom Basden, across Devon and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where we achieved a five-star sell-out run. Our choice to return to the Fringe with another Basden play was a very simple one – we feel that Basden’s writing is perfect for Fringe audiences, delivering big laughs whilst being subtly balanced with politics and poignancy, often making his work scarily relevant to our world today.

Rehearsals have been in full swing this week (in between the odd graduation and fundraising event!) which has propelled the company to the next level of the rehearsal process. The blocking is becoming more fluid and layered as the actors develop their confidence and understanding of the script. We have also thrown every prop imaginable at them in order to create the chaos of the plane crash on an island. Although the scale of the show is challenging, the group is in high spirits and we are eager to get Holes to Edinburgh!

– Talia Winn, Producer

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions

In rehearsal for Holes by Tom Basden, Lyons Productions


BullBull by Mike Bartlett
The Rude Mechanicals Amateur Dramatics
SpaceTriplex, 23–27 August

‘Don’t hunch. Stand up to him, stand up straight, smile a bit, you never know, you might win.
I mean you won’t.
But you might.’

Bull by Mike Bartlett is a dark comedy about the brutality of workplace politics and the pleasures of being mean. As Isobel, Tony and Thomas compete to keep their jobs, nothing is off limits. Mind games and dirty tricks abound as each character negotiates the brutal, Darwinist world they are trapped in.

So we’re half way through rehearsals for Bull, and it’s still making us laugh. We chose the play because it’s an impactful, dialogue-driven comedy with a healthy streak of menace. Having been up to the Fringe with plays in the past, Bull seemed perfect for what we wanted to do this year – its minimal set allows for an unwavering focus on the complex characters Bartlett has created.

The good thing about doing a play with meaty characters is that it always feels like everyone’s fully engaged in each rehearsal. Nick and I (co-directing the play) have chosen to take a more collaborative approach to the project, so before each rehearsal we all sit down to discuss and debate the scene before us. This has really helped our actors to identify with the characters they are playing, and their interactions on stage already feel very natural.

We still have lots of work ahead of us; a play such as Bull, driven as it is by sharp and precise dialogue, needs careful choreographing and creative direction to constantly challenge ourselves and our actors to look at the play from different angles. With just a few weeks left now before we head up to Edinburgh, we’re all very excited to put the finishing touches on our production of an amazing play!

– Priya Manwaring, Co-Director


BURYING_YOUR_BROTHER_EHSBurying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne
Eagle House School
SpaceTriplex, 8–13 August

Wow – this is a great play! We’re performing Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, a play written specifically for young people to perform, by the playwright behind Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

We have all learnt lots as a company and rehearsals have been quite an adventure as we tell the story of Tom, who decides he wants to bury his brother, Luke, in the pavement, on the exact spot where he died rather horrifically.  Tom, unable to cope at home, camps out on the pavement where his brother died and begins to meet all sorts of people who inhabit the Tunstall Estate.

It is both funny, sad and gripping as we watch a boy deal with his grief in the most unexpected way. For young people this has all the ingredients for a great show: music, drama, emotion, joy and our audiences are in for a real treat. A vibrant soundtrack, including some pieces we have written for the show, pulses through the narrative. The young cast, aged 12–15, are current and former pupils of Eagle House and are thrilled to be showcasing both the play and their talents in Edinburgh.

Jack Thorne, one of the UK’s brightest playwrights, has written a mesmerising piece of youth theatre and we are delighted to be performing it at this year’s Fringe.  Come and see us!

– Matthew Edwards, Head of Drama, Eagle House School

BuryingYourBrother3

In rehearsal for Burying Your Brother in the Pavement by Jack Thorne, Eagle House School


HANG A5 Flyerhang by debbie tucker green
Yellow Jacket Productions
C Venues, C Nova, 3–27 August

‘When they’ve seen their dad damaged, their mother motionless, our marriage disfigured our family f***ed…You tell me what to do then.’

Today is the day that Three (the character I’m playing in hang by debbie tucker green) must finally decide how her attacker is to be executed for his crimes against her and her family.  This is a new Britain, a Britain where the death penalty exists. And state officials One (Kim Christie) and Two (Jessica Flood) must see that she comes to a decision.  hang has the capacity to send a thrilling chill down the spine, for it takes place in a world that could exist, is not far from existing and, in some parts of the world, actually does exist.

Having been lucky enough to watch Marianne Jean Baptiste’s powerful performance in hang at the Royal Court Theatre in 2015, I was left clutching the script and feeling inspired. I was keen to tackle the text with an all-female cast, so I recruited Kim and Jessica, fellow graduates from The Poor School, and together we formed an exciting new company, Yellow Jacket Productions.

Tiannah

Tiannah Viechweg in rehearsal for hang by debbie tucker green, Yellow Jacket Productions

We started rehearsals in June and it didn’t take long before we realized that the text we were working with had a powerful simplicity paired with a structural complexity that was going to be an exciting challenge. The writing is truly superb and we discover new things and levels of meaning in each rehearsal.  This is an extremely clever text.

Our director Kevin Russell, founder of New Dreams Theatre, brings a playful energy to each rehearsal.  Kevin has a unique ability to find the humour in the darkest of moments, the perfect balance for a dark comedy like hang.  There are moments in the play when even we, the actors, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s genius.

Amusingly, there have been moments when we’ve seen ourselves in the characters – their habits, phrases, gestures. Some uncanny resemblances have left us often wondering if the play was actually written with us three in mind.

Now in the final few weeks of rehearsals, it’s all coming together. We’ve had the privilege to work with some extremely talented creatives along the way. Complete with an original score, purpose-designed costumes and a vivacious cast, we are proud to bring a fresh new version of a great play to the audiences of the Edinburgh Fringe.

– Tiannah Viechweg, cast member


HowieHowie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe
Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society
Paradise in the Vault, 15–28 August

We are a group of four students from the University of Cambridge working with the Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society in order to bring a stellar performance to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

The play we’ve selected for this year’s Fringe is Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie. O’Rowe’s 1999 verse play is a drama of two halves, featuring The Howie Lee and The Rookie Lee, two men with nothing in common except a last name and one ill-fated day.

Set in the suburbs of Dublin, Howie the Rookie takes a nightmarish dive into the darkest turns of human behaviour, littering the descent with moments of comedy and intensely lyrical verse. The play consists of two monologues, delivered by each of the two characters consecutively, giving their story of the day’s twists and turns. The actors speak directly to the audience, and the play becomes a fascinating exhibition of the importance of point of view, and how it shapes the experience of the audience. Furthermore, it becomes a masterful example of the importance of story-telling in theatre, which we have spent a lot of time focusing on in rehearsals.

We’ve spent a lot of rehearsal time on researching the environment in which Howie and Rookie live, which has been truly enlightening for bringing the performance to life. We’ve mapped out our precise vision of Tallaght, the suburb of Dublin in which the play takes place; we’ve drawn up the pubs and bars where fights take place, the houses our characters and our characters’ friends live in; we’ve even been learning how to box so we can really visualise the fights themselves. This is more important than just a backstory, though; it’s a way to really do justice to the nature of the play. Each monologue is essentially its own story, and with no set, no other actors and no props, our job is to take the audience through the town of Tallaght and the, at times, terrifying detail of the action: purely with the words of O’Rowe.

When we ourselves know how everything looks, sounds, smells and feels in our heads, only then can we hope to create this environment, flavoured by the characters’ emotions, in the audience’s heads too.

We think this is going to be a truly exciting show, and we cannot wait to get it to Edinburgh!

– Rebecca Vaa, Producer

Howie the Rookie by Mark O'Rowe

Howie the Rookie by Mark O’Rowe, Revived Emmanuel Dramatics Society: director Eleanor Warr with actors Thomas Taplin (left) and Ed Limb (right)


Immaculate_poster_FinalImmaculate by Oliver Lansley
Harpoon
C Venues, C Nova, 3–9 August

Finding a way to balance rehearsals for Immaculate with revising for A-Levels was much easier said than done. Despite this, the comical nature of the play has certainly helped inspire the cast to get the balance just right.

After performing Immaculate in front of a school audience for three days, and receiving a very positive response, we were spurred on to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. I think it’s fair to say that as a cast of young, keen actors, we underestimated just how tough this would be. However, the drive of our two directors/producers turned ideas into reality and have opened the door for an incredible opportunity.

The play itself is fast moving and funny, and the situation that the characters find themselves in is very relatable to a contemporary audience. Oliver Lansley manages to make the Second Coming a modern-day comedy drama as opposed to a biblical prophecy. Mia is the mother of either Christ reborn or the spawn of the devil. This problem is further complicated by the arrival of her needy ex-boyfriend and a friend from school with whom, it turns out, she’d had a one-night stand.

The nature of the plot and the way in which we, as a cast, have decided to dramatise the script has created a very amusing production which was well received by members of staff, parents and students alike when performed at school, and so we hope that it will be enjoyed by everyone, whatever their age, when we bring it to the Fringe!

– William Ellis Hancock, cast member

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley

Immaculate by Oliver Lansley, Harpoon (pre-Edinburgh production)


1143114837LOGO_ORANGE[1]Look out for Part II of our Edinburgh Fringe Report next month, when we find out how our companies fared on the Fringe.

And don’t forget to check out the exciting new plays we’re publishing alongside their Edinburgh premieres this year. Click here for all the details, plus a special discount code you can use to buy any of the playtexts.

FringeCollage

See you in Edinburgh!

‘A Field of Dreams’: Joyce McMillan on Theatre in Scotland

Joyce McMillan, lead drama critic at The Scotsman, is an unrivalled authority on modern Scottish theatre and a leading thinker and writer about Scotland. Her new book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, is a collection of more than three decades of her writings about theatre, selected by theatre director Philip Howard. Here, in his introduction to the book, Howard explores the connections between McMillan’s career and the recent cultural and political renaissance in Scotland, as well as her unfailing ability to detect a great new play. And, below, we present some choice excerpts from her writings, ranging from her review of the 1987 Edinburgh Fringe, to the launch show of the National Theatre of Scotland…

Philip Howard: Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams traces Joyce McMillan’s journey from self-taught, passionate contributing writer to the short-lived Sunday Standard (1981-1983), to her current life as the chief theatre critic of The Scotsman. No other critic in Scotland covers as much ground as she does in her working week, or has done for so many years. And so the premise of the book is simple: gather all of the most insightful material from over the past three decades, add new essays by McMillan herself to underscore the narrative – and what you have is a history of modern Scottish theatre, reported from the frontline. The volume is not a hit parade. While the vast majority of landmark theatre productions in Scotland have been covered, it was important also to acknowledge McMillan’s footfall across the whole country and celebrate the truly national portrait that emerges.

McMillan’s first reviewing jobs were for BBC Radio Scotland in the 1970s, talking about Edinburgh Festival shows for Festival View, presented by Neville Garden – and she credits the inspiration of this annual cultural spectacle as a determining factor in her ambition to write about theatre. In 1978 the great Allen Wright at The Scotsman commissioned her to cover a production of The Good Person of Szechwan for him in St Andrews, and she soon became his second-string reviewer. When the Sunday Standard was founded in 1981, McMillan set her sights on becoming their principal theatre critic, and, despite the newspaper lasting only two years, it is here that she begins to find her voice, or, as she puts it, ‘This is where the dialogue with myself really starts.’ There followed ten distinguished years as the Guardian’s Scotland theatre critic (1984-1994) and three at Scotland on Sunday (1994-1997), where for the first time she was writing a longer weekly column, essay-style, covering all the week’s theatre openings, and exploiting her skill in detecting wider cultural resonances and thematic links between the work. After a lightning-quick spell as an arts writer for The Herald in 1997, she started in 1998 at The Scotsman, and it is in this current incarnation as a critic and political commentator that she has become defined as a leading thinker and writer about Scotland.

She wasn’t born to it. There were visits to the theatre as a child – her first memory is of a Kenneth McKellar Christmas show at the Alhambra, Glasgow – but she was never an enthusiastic amateur audience member, or certainly not for very long. A half-completed PhD at the University of Edinburgh on the tragedies of Ben Jonson crystallised for her the indivisibility of theatre and politics, and she talks interestingly about her new passion for theatre at that time stemming from her disenchantment with the direction of British politics, i.e. towards the right, and a conviction that theatre is one place where you might find ‘an alternative truth about what it means to be human’. And perhaps it is this wide-angle lens on theatre and parallel enquiry as a political writer which explain her tenacity and longevity. Of course, she’s not the only theatre writer to apply herself to political writing – think of Fintan O’Toole, for many years political columnist and chief theatre critic of The Irish Times – but McMillan’s career is coinciding with the very period where Scotland is remaking itself more energetically than ever before. The ground is fertile.

It is surely the goal of any critic, certainly in terms of legacy, to contribute in some way to the evolution of the art form itself, Kenneth Tynan in England and America in the 1950s and ’60s being the iconic example of this. McMillan has far too long a working life left for it to be possible to make this kind of retrospective analysis, but certain themes do emerge from her critical writing which arguably have tuned with the times, if not influenced them: for example, an obstinate insistence that the director of a classic revival must know very precisely why they are reviving an old play rather than making a new one – her sympathy for directors who also have to run monolithic theatre buildings does not extend to them programming plays just because they feature in compendia of ‘the 100 greatest plays’. Predictably, as a leading political commentator, she will despise an unthinkingly or lazily apolitical interpretation of a play, reserving her greatest spleen for the ‘Loamshire’ play (as Tynan did before her), or self-absorbed new writing that makes no attempt to connect with the public sphere. But then – in a wonderfully contradictory way – she will often surprise us by enthusing about something shamelessly sentimental, entertaining or romantic, as long as it’s beautifully executed. Most importantly of all, she has, to my knowledge, an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play; and, rare among critics, she has the ability to watch an unsuccessful new play and detect whether it’s the playwright or director at fault. This can make for uncomfortable reading. (‘Philip Howard’s Traverse production seems to fall stillborn on to the stage’ on Grace in America by Antoine Ó Flatharta, Scotland on Sunday, 1 May 1994 – sticks in the mind.)

She isn’t shy of skewering some sacred cows: the empty heart of the RSC’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1990); the reactionary flippancy (Travesties, 1987) and bourgeois self-satisfaction (Rough Crossing, 1996) of Tom Stoppard. And occasionally she deploys a devastating ability to take hold of a superficially successful production – think Bill Bryden’s The Big Picnic (1994) or the Brian Cox The Master Builder (1993) – and then, like a drone or laser, zero in on its fatal flaw. But McMillan is also bold in finding something to commend even in work of mixed success, and stick her neck out to champion unfashionable work which she suspects her colleagues might dismiss. Perhaps this is because she knows it’s easier to write a bad review than a good one, intellectually easier to puncture than to validate. And so there are plenty of roses among the barbed wire – and an unswerving commitment to shout praise from the rooftops where it is due, and celebrate the art form in all its mad messy glory (Macbeth on the Isle of Inchcolm, 1989).

The book works chronologically rather than thematically, and yet is divided, unevenly, into three parts telling three essential stories of how Scottish theatre has grown in confidence over the decades: the road to 1990, the year of Glasgow’s reign as European Capital of Culture, which marked a generational change in how that great city viewed itself and was viewed by the world; the 1990s and early years of the new millennium, which witnessed an extraordinary explosion in self-confidence among both new and older Scottish playwrights, leading to, finally: the birth and hegemony of the National Theatre of Scotland, bringing the role of our theatre culture as close as it has ever got to the heart of the nation. The vast majority of entries in the book are reviews; the rest are feature articles or programme notes. New linking pieces by McMillan range throughout the volume, providing additional context.

Students of theatre criticism may enjoy the underlying portrait of a critic teaching herself to be the best, from the passionate newcomer at the Sunday Standard in the early 1980s, trying to find her style but never missing a political beat, through mounting confidence, occasional fierceness of judgement and an increasingly fine writing style, to the older, authoritative and interestingly more mellow critic that we have today. She testifies to the collegiate atmosphere of theatre criticism in Scotland, where being part of that ‘public conversation’ helps ensure that the genre faces outward – and guards against the lonesomeness of the profession.

Students of theatre literature may read the book as a collection of essays on English language playwriting, from the twentieth-century greats (Coward, Osborne, Pinter, etc.) to all the leading Scottish playwrights, from John Byrne and Liz Lochhead to David Greig and David Harrower. And ultimately, it is as a writer about Scotland and about what the art form of theatre can tell us about Scotland that distinguishes McMillan’s work: her piece ‘Theatre and Nationhood’ (1991), written for Tramway’s Theatres and Nations season which heralded the permanent opening of Glasgow’s key Capital of Culture venue from 1990, is a defining essay on Scottishness, written against the backdrop of the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. Sometimes it’s in the critique of a theatre production which would not be taken as seriously by the rest of the Scottish theatre community (even if they had seen it), that she writes most flawlessly about the culture of the nation – for example, Accounts in Town Yetholm (1991) or Bright Water on Easdale Island (2007). The combination of this panoramic view, political acuity, and the ability to marry the head and the heart, has sealed her reputation far beyond Scotland’s borders.

Joyce McMillan: By chance – or perhaps for reasons I barely understood at the time – it was at an important moment of transition in Scottish politics and cultural identity, at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, that I felt myself drawn, perhaps almost driven, to become a theatre critic in Scotland. I was already almost thirty, I had no history of interest in theatre beyond an academic one, and like many people who grew up in the 1960s, I saw theatre as an old-fashioned art form, already half-dead on its feet.

Yet in the late 1970s, I was suddenly gripped by the power of the shared experience of theatre, by the idea of it as a place where ideas could be made flesh, and could be tested against the real reactions of the audience. Perhaps it was a reaction to the repetitiveness, and frequent intellectual rigidity, of the left-wing and feminist politics in which I was vaguely involved. Perhaps it was an unconscious response to the coming of Thatcherism: an insistence that somewhere, even if only in a series of small darkened rooms, a serious collective life would continue through this age of individualism. Or perhaps it was something in Scottish theatre itself, evolving fast and freely after a long age of quiescence and marginalisation. If Scotland’s professional theatre tradition had been limited and interrupted by centuries of official Presbyterianism, that very history – or rather the lack of it – meant that it entered the late twentieth century with relatively little baggage, and an exhilarating freedom to reinvent itself, in forms that were both popular and experimental.

So, at the beginning of 1982, I began to set out my stall as the Sunday Standard’s main theatre critic. In the big world beyond theatre, there were three huge arguments in progress. There was one about the future of the British left, after Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979; in theatre, that was often articulated through my arguments with, and about, John McGrath’s 7:84 Company, and its sister company Wildcat Stage Productions. There was an argument about feminism, a fraught coming-to-terms with the huge revolution in consciousness that had taken place during the 1970s. And, of course, there was the argument about Scotland: rousing itself after the failed home-rule referendum of 1979, and once again setting out to redefine and reshape itself. At the time, the Scottish Arts Council was funding around fifteen major professional companies in Scotland, including the building-based ones in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Perth and Pitlochry; and, in 1981, it had also decided to fund an initiative by the actor Ewan Hooper to launch a new Scottish Theatre Company, dedicated to creating Scottish-made shows for mainstage theatres, and – in some respects at least – to pursuing a more traditional Scottish repertoire than could be found at the Traverse or the Citizens’. It was through the work of the STC, and my often sceptical reactions to it, that I began to evolve my own ideas about what the word ‘Scottish’ could and should mean, in the late twentieth century; and about our evolving relationship with the standard repertoire of English-language theatre.


Extracts from reviews collected in Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Little Lyceum, Edinburgh
The Guardian, 13 August 1987

Like the official Festival, this year’s Fringe seems to be all about Scots and Russians, with a generous sprinkling of Americans and other, more exotic visitors; the English Fringe – as represented by shows like Hull Truck’s Teechers, playing at the George Square Theatre to large crowds of off-duty educational face-workers, or by the charming It’s a Girl from the Duke’s Playhouse, Lancaster, or even by an oddly laid-back and giggly Jenny Lecoat at the Assembly Rooms – seems in strangely subdued mood. Perhaps, like the Labour Party, English alternative theatre has reached a point where it must rethink its entire politics; at any rate, these soft-centred, well-staged, witty, humanistic and utterly predictable shows look like the last gasp of a Fringe culture that’s reached the end of its line.

MQS2.inddIn Scotland, though, things seem slightly different – rougher, harsher, more colourful and cosmopolitan, shot through with a kind of brash, nothing-to-lose energy. In the official Festival, the energy blisters through the strange, heightened, ritualistically foul-mouthed new-speak of Iain Heggie’s A Wholly Healthy Glasgow, and shouts from the canvases at the Vigorous Imagination exhibition of new Scottish painting at the Modern Art Gallery. And it’s reflected with terrific, show-stopping force in Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue – that’s been one of the brilliant high points of this first Fringe week. Specially commissioned by the young Edinburgh-based touring company Communicado, performed at the Lyceum Studio in the very shadow of Mary’s castle, it simply blasts to smithereens the heavy, obscuring deposit of romantic claptrap that has gathered around the story down the centuries, and instead draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche now.

The Guid Sisters
Tron, Glasgow
The Guardian, 3 May 1989

It’s one of the myths of our civilisation that, whereas middle-class culture is international and universal, working-class culture is somehow local and parochial, a matter of ‘Cockney slang’ or ‘Glasgow humour’. It’s a comforting idea, in that it reduces the common experience of the millions of human beings who were drawn into the cities in the industrial age – their courage, their humour, their resilience in the face of unrelenting poverty and drastic overcrowding – to a matter of ‘local character’; it makes a private civic joke of an experience that was, in fact, central to the development of industrial capitalism everywhere from Chicago to Kraków.

guidsisters&othersOne of Mayfest’s most striking achievements, as a festival dedicated to presenting the best of Scottish ‘popular’ theatre alongside similar work from Europe and overseas, has been the consistency with which it has blasted that myth that the Glasgow experience is somehow unique, idiosyncratic. And now, in that tradition, the Tron Theatre’s Mayfest production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-sœurs – a play born in the turbulent Québec of the 1960s, and now translated into a pithy, fierce, foul-mouthed urban Scots by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman – offers us a portrait of a bunch of worn-out housewives in a Montréal tenement that matches the experience of generations of Glasgow women in almost uncanny detail.

Macbeth
Inchcolm Island, Firth of Forth
The Guardian, 15 August 1989

The rain drove, the wind blustered, the witches heaved up from the bowels of the ship as if they had risen from the water itself, to screech and whirl across the decks with their knowledge of evil and doom in the offing; never in my life will I forget the sound of the words ‘Though his bark shall not be lost | Yet it shall be tempest-toss’d!’ snatched from the mouth of the chief witch by the wind and echoing away across the steel-grey waves. […] See Macbeth on Inchcolm – the wind whipping, the gulls screeching, the old capital across the stormy firth climbing grey and smoky towards its skyline – and you’ll never want to see it anywhere else.

Theatre and Nationhood
for Tramway, Glasgow
25 August 1991

It seems strange to be writing about theatre and nationhood on a weekend when one of the two greatest nations on earth is disappearing before our eyes. Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist so long as we believe in them. For reasons too complex to explore here, people have been withdrawing their belief from the idea of the Soviet Union for decades now; and this weekend, that unbelief reached a critical mass. In that sense, nations are fictions, man-made communities conjured up and defined, on the shifting human surface of the earth, within the minds of men and women. If we feel Scottish, then Scotland is, despite 284 years of union; if people no longer feel like Soviet citizens, then the combined power of the party, the KGB and the army command cannot keep the USSR together. And it’s because nationhood is this kind of thing – an intangible sense of community, subject to change and flux – that theatre often plays such a vital part in expressing and defining it. Theatre is, at its best, a forum where people come together to discover, through their live response to the same event, the feelings and experiences they share with other people; and a sense of national identity is a shared feeling, or it is nothing.

Rough Crossing
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Scotland on Sunday, 16 June 1996

Kenny Ireland’s Royal Lyceum production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing is the kind of show that makes me feel vaguely ashamed of having any connection with theatre at all. Freely adapted from a Hungarian comedy by Ferenc Molnár, Rough Crossing is a coy little spoof on the genre of 1930s musical comedy, set on an ocean liner crossing from London to New York, and featuring all the usual clichés, from a slightly ageing diva of a leading lady to a scene-stealing drunken steward. Since the plot concerns the tribulations of a pair of musical-comedy writers trying to finish off their latest Broadway opus, the text is also stuffed with self-referring witticisms about the playwright’s art, obviously fascinating to Stoppard, less so to the rest of us.

[…] The trouble is that Stoppard, like many who have embraced Britishness as an adopted nationality, knows only one element of British culture, namely the manners, language, and style of the English upper-middle class; and in this play, he does not even attempt to achieve the moral seriousness and philosophical depth that make that narrow social focus relatively unimportant in most of his work. The result is a sad little joke of a show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.

Home
National Theatre of Scotland
The Scotsman, 27 February 2006

It’s half-past six on a chill February evening in Aberdeen, and a new era in Scottish theatre begins, not with a bang, but with the familiar rattle of a small hopper bus, carrying an audience of excited theatregoers out to the edge of the city. Waiting for us in the Middlefield estate are twenty actors, young and old, professional and community; and six unoccupied flats on the same low-rise staircase, each with a nameplate on the door featuring the word ‘Home’.

For ‘home’ was the theme chosen by the National Theatre of Scotland for its unique launch event, featuring ten site-specific shows in ten locations all over Scotland. […] The new company has achieved a dazzling geographical reach, and a real sense of connection with local communities that has both enabled those communities to re-examine their own story, and given them a new voice on the national stage. It’s been a start, in other words; and, taken as a whole, a brave and imaginative one, designed to smash and rearrange many hostile Scottish preconceptions about theatre. But there are still many miles to travel before Scotland can begin to take this long-neglected art form back into its heart, and into its sense of what home is, and what it might become.


FormattedThe above extracts are taken from Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan, edited by Philip Howard.

The book is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £11.99 (RRP £14.99) click here.

Join the author and a distinguished panel of critics and theatre makers at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to discuss the remarkable journey of modern Scottish theatre, and to explore the directions it might take in the years to come. Theatre in Scotland: Reflecting the Nation is at the Traverse, 29 June, 7.30pm. Tickets available here.

Photo of Joyce McMillan by Chris Hill.