JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2013 for Scotsman Magazine, 21.12.13.
IN A TINY Victorian hall in the back streets of Kirkcaldy, a mixed group of local residents and Scottish theatrical dignitaries are gathering for the opening night of the National Theatre Of Scotland’s In Time O’ Strife, an intense, music-driven revival of Joe Corrie’s 1926 play about the great miner’s strike and lock-out of that year. The big industrial dispute at the nearby Grangemouth oil refinery is still a few weeks in the future; but there’s no denying the terrific vividnes and passion of Graham McLaren’s production, or the power of the setting, in a hall – beautifully lit by Lizzie Powell – that might itself have been used for union meetings or soup-kitchens, 90 years ago.
It’s been a strange year in Scottish theatre, as the public life of the nation waits with bated breath for next year’s referendum decision; but one of its most striking features has been the playing-out of the legacy of Vicky Featherstone, who moved on from her job as director of the National Theatre of Scotland a year ago. From that hall in Kirkcaldy, to another in South Uist, to the dark roads of Shetland above Sullom Voe, the NTS under its new boss Laurie Sansom has pursued her commitment to explore the idea of theatre across all of Scotland, and not only on the big stages of the central belt. In South Uist, the show was Eun Bhaig Chanaidh/A Little Bird Blown Off Course, a gorgeous reflection on the life and legacy of the folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw; in Shetland, it was the culmination of a six-month community project called Ignition, built around the relationship between Shetlanders and their motor vehicles.
And the National Theatre of Scotland wasn’t the only company literally exploring new territory this year. In the summer, Glas(s) Performance at the Tramway created a brilliant festival of work around the diverse life of the Tramway’s home street in Glasgow, Albert Drive. In the autumn, the children’s company Catherine Wheels staged an amazing and disturbing installation/ experience called Huff, based on the story of the Three Little Pigs, at the Gallery Of Modern Art in Edinburgh. And during the Edinburgh International Festival, at the Climbing Arena in Ratho, site-specific geniuses Grid Iron created their most ambitious show yet in Leaving Planet Earth, an imaginative epic about the attempt to colonise a new planet that still haunts the minds of those who care about the future of our planet, and the fierce choices our species may face, two generations from now.
If there was plenty of thrilling site-specific work this year, though, the other great wave of activity was on Scotland’s main stages, where a series of mighty co-productions often brought big casts and world-class quality to the stages of the Citizens’, the Lyceum, Dundee Rep and Perth Theatre, although it inevitably reduced the total number of productions created. Perhaps the finest single show of the year was Dominic Hill’s autumn production of the new Chris Hannan version of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, a superb, fluent and sometimes overwhelmingly beautiful piece of theatre co-produced by the Citizens’, the Royal Lyceum, and the Playhouse and Everyman Theatres in Liverpool. John Tiffany’s powerful swansong production for the National Theatre of Scotland – a stage version of the disturbing Swedish vampire movie Let The Right One In, now thrilling audiences in London – was created in June, on the beautiful open stage of Dundee Rep.
The Spring season brought big, full-cast co-productions of Time And The Conways (Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep), Takin’ Over The Asylum (Citizens’ and Royal Lyceum), and – at Perth Theatre – an award-winning production of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer by the theatre’s brilliant outgoing director Rachel O’Riordan, co-produced with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. And Untitled Projects and the National Theatre of Scotland came together to create one of the most powerful and quirky shows of the year in Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, a deeply self-reflexive response to the great James Hogg novel, masterminded by left-field theatrical genius Stewart Laing.
In the world of new writing, the astonishing Play, Pie And Pint phenomenon at Oran Mor powered on, staging more than 35 new plays in single year. The Traverse Theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary by taking on 50 new writers, in an explosion of rehearsed readings and tiny short plays; it also produced one terrific new full-length play in Rob Drummond’s Quiz Show, which boldly reflected on the revelations of sexual abuse by much-loved showbiz figures.
In August, the Traverse also staged a fine Fringe programme of visiting shows, led by David Greig’s The Events, about the aftermath of a horrific mass shooting; it was part of a 2013 Fringe which included many powerful responses to violence and human rights abuses across the world, including Assembly Poductions’ shattering and beautiful Nirbhaya, about the Delhi rape case of December 2012, and the National Theatre of Wales’s magnificent The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning. And the Edinburgh International Festival rounded off its programme with a fine tribute to the great master of 20th century theatre, Samuel Beckett, featuring unforgettable performances from Michael Gambon in Eh Joe, and the inimitable Barry McGovern in I’ll Go On.
2013 was a rich year but a memorably diffuse one, in other words, full of fine, glittering fragments; and it’s hard to predict whether next year’s big debate will produce a more focussed year of theatre in Scotland, or will simply drive artists towards ever more experimentation and fragmentation, in a search for alternatives to the impoverished language of most formal public debate.