Pearlfisher: Philip Howard’s Traverse Swansong

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JOYCE McMILLAN  on THE PEARLFISHER (PREVIEW) for Scotsman  Critique 20.10.07
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WHEN PHILIP HOWARD first arrived at the Traverse Theatre in 1993, as a young associate director, John Major was still in Downing Street.  The idea of a Scottish Parliament still seemed like a distant constitutional pipe-dream; and the vision of a National Theatre for Scotland seemed as far from becoming a reality as it had a century before, when enthusiasts first started to campaign for it.

Yet fourteen years on, as Howard prepares to hand over the artistic directorship to Dominic Hill of Dundee Rep, the cultural and political landscape in which the Traverse sits has been utterly transformed; and it’s widely acknowledged that Howard, in his quiet way, has been one of the key players in encouraging the massive surge of cultural confidence that helped to underpin that peaceful revolution.  As the leading supporter and producer of playwrights like David Greig, Rona Munro, David Harrower, Henry Adam and – with the help of his then associate director, John Tiffany – of Black Watch writer Gregory Burke, he has helped produce the modern Scottish repertoire that made the coming of a National Theatre seem possible, not as a nostalgia-trip or an exercise in cultural archaeology, but as an explosion of contemporary creativity.

And the structures he put in place at the Traverse – the workshops, the writers’ groups, the international touring, the partnership schemes that encouraged linked pairs of Scottish and international writers to work together on versions of their latest plays – has led to an astonishing surge in Scotland’s international reputation as a centre for new drama; so much so that audiences in Germany, Sweden or former Yugoslavia often seem more aware of the strength of our  contemporary theatre than the public here at home.

So it seems thoroughly appropriate that Philip Howard’s very last production as Artistic Director should be part of a project that has been close to his heart from the beginning, and one that has undeniably helped to bring the Traverse’s work to a wider Scottish audience.  The Pearlfisher, by young Lewis-born writer Iain F. MacLeod, is the show chosen for the Traverse’s 15th annual Highlands and Islands tour, which will visit venues from the Wauchope Hall in Yetholm to An Lanntair in Stornoway following its opening at the Traverse next week; and it’s a typically thoughtful and lyrical piece of work, set among traveller people in Easter Ross in the late 1940’s and the present day.  “Its themes are money, sex and kinship,” says MacLeod, “so I’m hoping most people will find something interesting there!

“As for Philip,” he adds, “believe it or not, I’ve been working with him for 18 years, since he came to give a schools workshop on Benbecula in 1989.  I was a 16-year-old schookid, he was on the Young Directors scheme at the Royal Court, I think; and ever since then his commitment to the Highlands and Islands dimension of his work has been unshakeable, particularly through the Traverse tours.  And I think people in the Highlands and Islands love the idea that the Traverse is coming, with all the associated workshops and so on.  It’s tremendously important in sowing the seeds of a real, creative theatre culture.”

Howard’s time at the Traverse hasn’t been entirely without controversy.  His strict insistence on working only with Scottish-based and international playwrights, which has helped the Traverse set such a distinctive agenda over the last 11 years, may be about to be challenged; and there has even been a mild public spat with his brilliant former associate, John Tiffany, over his famously suppportive and unshowy directing style.

As the leader of the generation of playwrights Howard has nurtured, though, top playwright David Greig is inclined to agree that Howard’s contribution to Scottish cultural life may take decades to be fully appreciated.  “There’s a real sense in which you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  Because Philip is not a one for spin, because his personal style is so quiet, I think people will only begin to grasp the full significance of the job he’s done here when they can see it whole.   He’s helped to create a whole new play culture, in ways that are now being picked up and emulated in countries across the world.  And for a director of the Traverse, that’s about as good as it gets.”

The Pearlfisher at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 October- 2 November, with previews 26-28 October.   Then on tour until 24 November.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

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