Daily Archives: August 3, 2007




THE EDINBURGH FESTIVAL BEGINS, and for the National Theatre of Scotland the pressure is intense. Last year, the NTS production of Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, directed by John Tiffany, was hailed worldwide as one of the greatest shows of the decade, bringing a searing new theatrical perspective to the key global issue of the age, the war in Iraq; and Anthony Neilson’s brilliantly controversial Realism, playing in the official Festival, provoked the kind of debate that could only be good for the new company’s profile. This year, the company once again brings two shows to the Festival. At the Traverse, there’s Tam Dean Burn’s solo adaptation of Luke Sutherland’s beautiful 2004 novella Venus As A Boy, with live onstage music by Sutherland himself; and the official Festival drama programme opens next week with the NTS’s sensationally high-profile production of The Bacchae, starring Scottish film and stage star Alan Cumming in his first return to Scottish theatre for 16 years.

Despite the pressures, though, the NTS’s artistic director, Vicky Featherstone, is optimistic, partly because – for her and the company – the next three weeks in Edinburgh mark only the beginning of a packed autumn season, featuring no fewer than nine NTS productions, plus a brief but historic first appearance in the Edinburgh Film Festival, with a rehearsed reading of a David Greig script. In September, Venus As A Boy begins its onward journey to London, Liverpool and Glasgow, following the path of Sutherland’s story; and the huge success of Black Watch sweeps the NTS off on its first-ever overseas tour, to Los Angeles and New York. And next week at the Byre in St. Andrews, Featherstone stages a revival of the company’s smash-hit children’s show The Wolves In The Walls, which will also appear in New York in October.

Beyond those high-profile revivals, the NTS will open four brand-new productions during the autumn, ranging in scale from a new touring version of S.R. Harris’s much-loved children’s story A Sheep Called Skye – which will visit 22 village halls and small theatres across Scotland during a three-month autumn tour, alongside a revival of the Citizens’ beautiful studio production of Brian Friel’s Molly Sweeney – to a massive new staging of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, co-produced with Dundee Rep, and directed by the Rep’s Dominic Hill, who was recently named as the next director of the Traverse. In late September, there’s a first full co-production between the NTS and the Traverse, in the shape of Davey Anderson’s Rupture, a 21st century urban thriller written and directed by the man who created the musical score for Black Watch. And as soon as the Edinburgh Festival is over, the NTS launches its first-ever co-production with Angus Farquhar’s NVA company, best known for its vast, beautiful and haunting landscape theatre events, The Path and The Storr. This time, the location for the show is Kilmartin in Argyll, the ancient burial-place of the first kings and chieftains ever to reign in Scotland; and its title, Half Life, reflects the profound journey of meditation on death and remembrance which the show hopes to offer.

The range of the programme is impressive, in other word; but a closer look reveals just how carefully balanced the projects are, and how closely they reflect the original ground-breaking model for the NTS, which envisaged the company working mainly with and through existing Scottish theatre organisations and artists. Of this autumn’s nine shows, seven are full co-productions with existing companies, six of them in Scotland; and this autumn, the programme carefully includes several companies – such as Dundee Rep and NVA – who did not feature in the NTS’s 2006 launch programme.

“Well, I do hope people can see and understand how hard we work to achieve that balance,” says Featherstone, taking a brief break from rehearsals in St. Andrews, “because it really does take a lot of effort, and negotiation, and patient listening, and above all an ability to keep our nerve to the last possible moment, in putting the programme together. We also have all sorts of different audiences and congregations across Scotland that we really want to reach; and then – well as a national company, and one that’s now funded directly by the Scottish Executive, you do carry a great deal of public responsibility for the money you spend.

“So are these aspects of the job frustrating for me, as someone who still likes to think of herself as a hands-on director? Well, it has its moments. But basically, I think it’s right that the organisation should be artistically led, and right to try to find a director who – like me – is daft enough to try to do both. And of course, we are still a very young, green organisation, in terms of learning how to handle all the different challenges we face. The new Scottish government, for instance, seem much more interested in the arts and culture than the previous administration, and that makes the relationship feel less arms’-length than it used to. The invitation to perform Black Watch at the opening of the Parliament, for example – that came as a complete surprise, and we had to very quickly work out how we should respond. But I would think I should be drummed out of Scotland if I started complaining that the government is too interested in theatre. It’s great to have that kind of interest and support, and I think we’re getting better all the time at handling the demands we face.”

Featherstone concedes, though, that her colleagues in Edinburgh are facing a unique challenge over the next couple of weeks. “When it comes to The Bacchae, in particular, there is a lot of pressure,” she admits, “above all on John as director, and Alan as the star. Expectations are so high, but all I can say is that we’ve got a terrific team together for the production, like stepping stones we can depend on. And also that John Tiffany told me how much he wanted to direct this play in the very first conversation I ever had with him, way back when he was 21. So I just know that he’s bringing the most terrific passion and depth of thought to the project; and I think it’ll be remarkable.”

The Bacchae at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-18 August, and Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 28 August-1September. Venus As A Boy at the Traverse, Edinburgh, until 26 August. For full details of autumn programme, see http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com