JOYCE MCMILLAN on UNION for the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 9.3.14. ________________________________________________________
ON 12 MAY 1999, when the first Scottish Parliament in 292 years gathered for its inaugural meeting at the Assembly Hall on The Mound, it happened that the oldest elected member – and therefore Mother of the House, entitled to take the chair for the opening session – was Winifred Ewing, the veteran Scottish nationalist MP and member of the European Parliament. After all the new MSP’s had been sworn in, Dr. Ewing therefore declared the Parliament open, in the most resounding terms. “The Scottish Parliament, which adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened,” she said; and the whole parliament, across all parties, broke into spontaneous applause.
Winifred Ewing is happily still with us, 15 years on; but I doubt whether even she would have guessed, on that day in 1999, that within little more than a decade, Scotland’s Parliament would be dominated by a Scottish National Party with an absolute majority, and would be facing a referendum on whether to end the 300-year-old Union with England and Wales that began in 1707, and become an independent country once more. The pace of political change since 1999 has been rapid, the reasons for it complex and contested; but it’s safe to say that all that has happened, during those years, has tended to vindicate Winifred Ewing’s view that, for all the huge strength and success of he Union over three centuries, Scotland is a country that has never lost sight of its own identity; and has maintained a robust sense of itself as a nation which could and would, if it chose, one day reconvene its Parliament, and restore it to the heart of Edinburgh.
Now, though, we face a much tougher choice than at the time of the devolution referendum in 1997; not only to reconvene our own Parliament, but to sever our formal links with Westminster, and to go it alone. It’s a time that calls for deep reflection about the history of the Union, and about whether it has a viable future, as well as a remarkable past; and if theatre is a vital forum for acting out our collective stories of the past, and our hopes and dreams for the future, then it’s particularly thrilling to see the main stage of the Royal Lyceum welcome this big new historical drama, by playwright, actor and film-maker Tim Barrow, about the moment in January 1707 when the Act of Union was passed by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh – against the will, contemporary observers estimated, of at least three-quarters of the Scottish people.
Barrow’s play is not designed to take sides in the Union debate. It gives a clear voice to Queen Anne and her court in London, as well as to both sides of the argument in Scotland, ranging over a familiar series of preoccupations with trade, currency, security, and the free passage of goods and people across the Border; and in the foreground of the story, it places two writers, the passionate young Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, and the English novelist and pamphleteer Danie Defoe, then working as an English spy and agent in Edinburgh.
Yet through the sheer vitality of its language, as it ranges from palace and parliament to Royal Mile tavern, Barrow’s Union is bound to give a voice to the ordinary people whose wishes and instincts were sidelined, as the great men of England and Scotland signed their treaty and finalised their deal, and huge cash payments were made by the English government to many of the unelected lords and landowners who then made up the Scottish Parliament. In the end, the Scottish Parliament passed the Act by a margin of 110 votes to 69; but the people rioted in the streets, the burghs and towns of Scotland petitioned in protest, and the bellringer at St. Giles famously played the old tune, “Why Should I Be So Sad On My Wedding Day?”
In this referendum year, Scottish theatre has been largely silent, so far, on the big question dominating the nation’s politics. It’s as if the Scottish Parliament election of 2011 – with its unexpected SNP majority, and inevitable referendum – had caught Scottish writers and theatre artists unawares; or as if, almost a generation on from their massive creative effort to reimagine a modern Scotland in the 1980’s and 1990’s, they feel that their part in the nation-building process is done, and that the practical outcome must be left to politicians and voters.
Tim Barrow, though, is only in his mid-30’s, and has spent much of the last decade away from Scotland; it’s therefore possible that he speaks for a new generation of Scottish artists, who see a high political drama being played out before them, and cannot resist delving into the dramatic, colourful and often little-known history that led us to this place. And if one of the key roles of theatre is to provide a safe space in which difficult issues can be played out without the fierce and bitter party sniping that often mars more conventional political debate, then Union could yet find itself triggering a whole series of new dramas about this unique marriage of nations, and the crisis it faces; before Referendum Day on 18 September, when – this time round – all the people of Scotland go to the polls, to decide for Union, or for independence, and to begin a whole new chapter in Scotland’s story.