JOYCE MCMILLAN on REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2015, for Scotsman Magazine, 19.12.15
ANY YEAR IN Scottish theatre tends to offer a strong sense of contradiction, and of suddenly shifting moods; perhaps it’s the old Caledonian antisyzygy in action, playing itself out across our stages. Yet I doubt if there has ever been a theatre year so beset as this one by contrasts between rich achievement and celebration on one hand, and – on the other – a mounting feeling of apprehension and loss, as Scotland’s theatres look to a future which seems set to be dominated by ever deeper cuts in public funding.
In Scotland, at national level, those cuts have hardly happened yet, as culture minister Fiona Hyslop continues the fight to avoid the reductions in arts spending that have already swept England. Yet the pressure on local authority spending is already visible everywhere, not least in a capital city besieged by developers, and struggling to maintain its global festival city status. And the mood of gloom found its most visible outward expression in the sudden closure in May, after the highly debatable withdrawal of its late-night club licence, of the Arches theatre, gallery, music and club venue in Glasgow, for 25 years an outstanding symbol of Glasgow’s cultural gains from its year as European City of Culture in 1990, a pioneer of a new model of arts funding, and a city-centre hotbed of rehearsal, development and performance for generations of young Glasgow artists.
If the Arches closure embodied the dark side of 2015, though, then the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was the place that most brilliantly reflected the year’s stark contrasts, with one of the most brilliant programmes of work in the history of the Lyceum Company – founded under Tom Fleming’s direction 50 years ago this autumn – shadowed by the announcement that from April 2015, Creative Scotland would be slashing the theatre’s annual grant by a stinging 17%.
On stage, though, the litany of achievement was magnificent, as the year opened with a heart-stopping John Dove production of Faith Healer by Brian Friel (the mighty Irish playwright who died this year, aged 86), continued through a breathtakingly timely and brilliant staging of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by artistic directort Mark Thomson, and culminated in a 50th anniversary autumn season that featured Thomson’s world-class production of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, with great Scottish stage and screen stars Brian Cox and Bill Paterson.
Following the negative funding news, Mark Thomson announced in the spring that he would leave the Lyceum next summer, after 13 years in the job; and in September, in a strikingly bold move greeted with huge excitement, the Board announced that the next artistic director would be Scotland’s leading playwright David Greig, the first playwright to take on the solo role of running one of Scotland’s major building-based companies since James Bridie at the Citizens’ 70 years ago.
The Citizens’ itself celebrated its 70th anniversary in the Gorbals with a remarkable year of west-of-Scotland-based work, ranging from a revival of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys in February, to new musical The Choir in October and November. The highlight of the Citizens’ year, though, was David Greig and Graham Eatough’s mighty stage version of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, co-produced by the Citizens’ and the Edinburgh International Festival, and designed to introduce a new generation to one of Scotland’s defining novels of the last 35 years. And there were other anniversaries this year, too. The Citizens’ celebrated the 50th birthday of its famous, shortlived studio theatre, The Close – destroyed by fire in 1973 – with a memorable autumn season of studio productions; and Lung Ha’s, the ground-breaking Edinburgh-based company working with adults with learning difficulties, marked its 30th anniversary with fine productions of Morna Pearson’s take on Jekyll & Hyde, and Linda McLean’s new play about ageing and dementia, Thingummy Bob.
At the National Theatre of Scotland, this seemed a relatively muted year, as the company planned its 2016 move to a new production centre at Rockvilla in Glasgow’s Port Dundas basin, and learned that two of its leading figures, Executive Producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren, would move on in 2016 to become joint directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. And the same was true at the Traverse, also facing a serious Creative Scotland funding cut, although the company continued to develop its strong working relationship with the lunchtime new-short-play powerhouse of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor, and scored a significant Festival hit with artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s impeccable production of Stef Smith’s Swallow, a powerful piece about women in the 21st century city by one of Scotland’s most gifted young playwrights.
The Traverse and the NTS came together, though, in one of the most explosively successful first nights of the year, when the Traverse hosted the Edinburgh Fringe opening of Vicky Featherstone’s brilliant NTS touring production of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, an adaptation by Lee Hall of Alan Warner’s fine 1998 novel The Sopranos. In a year when Scottish theatre often seemed to be drawing new inspiration from the nation’s recent theatrical and literary history – and mourned the death of 7:84 co-founder Elizabeth MacLennan – Dundee Rep scored a massive hit with Joe Douglas’s revival of John McGrath’s mighty 1972 agitprop classic The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, a production greeted with acclaim by most of those who saw it, and by complaint from those who didn’t, and who felt it should be touring the Highlands & Islands, as the original 7:84 production did 43 years ago. In fact, many shows toured extensively in 2015, from Rapture Theatre’s Arthur Miller season of All My Sons and The Last Yankee, to Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour itself; but the impression persisted that Scottish touring theatre now lacks the impact and coherence that it had, in the days when there was more ideological heft and radical theory behind the whole concept.
And here in the capital – well, despite funding threats, the grasroots theatre scene continued to thrive on the slimmest of shoestrings, from the Village Pub Theatre in Fort Street to Discover 21 at Jock’s Lodge. In the summer, Leith-based Vision Mechanics staged an exquisite seaside installation-with-soundtrack called Drift, on glorious beaches from Fife to Shetland; throughout the year, the King’s and Festival Theatres continued to offer a memorably rich diet of visiting theatre, from Regent Park’s wonderful To Kill A Mockingbird back in February, to Kneehigh of Cornwall’s fabulously inventive version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, in the autumn.
And the Edinburgh International Festival, the first under the direction of Fergus Linehan, began a dynamic new phase by not only realigning its dates with the Edinburgh Fringe, but also opening up a brand new relationship with Scottish theatre, offering an international platform both to large-scale new work like Lanark, and to existing Scottish shows that deserve a wider audience. 2015 was not a smooth or easy year for Scottish theatre, in other words, and it had its deep shadows. But there was a creative annus mirabilis at the Lyceum, a promising new era at the Edinburgh Festival, a determined effort by other theatres – notably the Tron – to pick up the suddenly-severed loose ends of the Arches’ creative effort; and a pattern of sudden, unpredictable bursts of briliance everywhere, in a year that drew strength and inspiration from the past, but also offered a glimpse of a troubled, energetic, and hugely productive future.