JOYCE MCMILLAN on REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008 – THEATRE for Scotsman Review 26.12.08
IT’S BEEN A STRANGE, tense year in Scottish theatre. On one hand, it’s been packed with activity; over the year, I saw and reviewed 263 professional or near-professional shows, more than half of them them conceived and made in Scotland. Yet at the same time, the year has been shadowed both by the continuing uncertainty over the coming of the new arts agency, Creative Scotland, and – increasingly – by the threat of an economic collapse that could push many art organisations over the edge of oblivion. And it’s notable that the strongest survivors, this year, seem to come in two categories: those organisations so big and internationally-linked that the national climate has less impact on them, and those so small, lithe, and left-field that they can creep under the funding radar, and continue to create regardless of trying times.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that, with hindsight, Jonathan Mills’s great 2008 Edinburgh Festival – and an accompanying Fringe full of creative intensity, for all its administrative mightmares – seems to dominate the landscape of the year. Mills’s theme, Artists Without Borders, was perfectly chosen for the times; and with searching and often stunning contributions from Iran and Palestine, Bosnia and Flanders, Scotland and Poland, his programme provided a dazzling range of cutting-edge theatre, demanding, challenging, and sometimes mind-blowing.
The Fringe, too, did itself proud, with a slew of fine documentary dramas on themes of peace and war led by Sherman Cymru’s Deep Cut, one of the finest shows in a superb year for visiting work at the Traverse; and there were some fabulous experiments in stage poetry – visual and verbal – from companies as well-known as the Abbey Theatre of Ireland, or as new to the scene as Ontroerend Goed from Belgium. Two emerging Scottish-based companies also picked up prestigious awards this year. Edinburgh University Theatre Company are heading to New York with Ella Hickson’s Eight, winner of the Carol Tambor Award; and Dogstar’s Tailor Of Inverness visits the Adelaide Festival as winner of the new Holden Street Theatres award.
The other organisation big enough to ride the recession, of course, is the National Theatre of Scotland, which produced a year of work that was more interesting and meditative than spectacular, despite a rip-roaring revival of The Bacchae, starring Alan Cumming, that famously toured to Aberdeen, Inverness and New York. There was a searching, ambitious Festival show in David Harrower’s 365, about 16-year-old kids struggling to emerge from local authority care; there was more major investment in children’s theatre, featuring co-productions with leading kids’ companies Catherine Wheels and Wee Stories – this in a year when home-grown children’s theatre made a memorably strong contribution to the annual Imaginate festival in Edinburgh. And in the autumn, there was the NTS/Traverse Debuts season of four new plays by brand-new writers, which produced two serious hits, in John Tiffany’s belting production of Paul Higgins’s extreme family drama Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, and Vicky Featherstone’s immaculate, brilliantly-acted staging of Cockroach by Sam Holcroft, the most exciting new writing talent to emerge in Scotland this half-decade.
Elsewhere, though, it was a slightly muted year on Scotland’s main stages. These are not vintage times at the Royal Lyceum, where even the best shows have been slightly lacklustre; and the Citizens’ has struggled to maintain its main-house audience whenever it moves away from a curriculum-friendly repertoire, although this year did produce two fine Citizens’ productions of mid-20th century classics, in Guy Hollands’s beautiful Waiting For Godot, and Phillip Breen’s subtly brilliant take on The Caretaker. Even the famously inventive Andy Arnold, moving on from the Arches to the Tron this year, has struggled to bring his main stage to life; his finest show so far has been an exquisite, passionate small-scale studio production of three tiny Tennessee Williams shorts, for this year’s fascinating Williams-themed Glasgay! Festival.
The main exceptions to this mild blight of the main stage were at Pitlochry, where the Festival Theatre staged a memorably ambiitious 2008 programme, including fine productions of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Bennnet’s Habeas Corpus, and David Greig’s Outlying Islands; and in Aberdeen, where the new Aberdeen Performing Arts initiative was launched in fine style with a large-scale production of Sunset Song. Even the Dundee Rep ensemble failed to raise many sparks this year; until, come December, it suddenly produced an outstanding Christmas show, and an uplifting, foot-stamping revival of its Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.
So where has the theatrical energy gone? Into the small spaces and back rooms, is the answer; into the bars and music venues, and the debatable borderlands where art-forms meet and collide. It’s in depths of the Arches, where the wonderful Jackie Wylie took over from Andy Arnold as Artistic Director; it’s in the backrooms of the Tron, where a new strand of political cabaret and off-the-wall piano performance is fast developing. It’s at the Tramway, where Ed Robson of Cumbernauld Theatre co-produced a stunning November production of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis. It’s at Oran Mor, where more than 30 new lunchtime plays a year are churned out on a shoestring, and where old Wildcat stager David MacLennan now seems better placed to survive the recession than almost any other Scottish producer. And it’s in the off-the-wall Traverse Too strand at the Traverse, which produced the biggest surprise hit of the autumn, in David Greig’s lovely two-handed romantic comedy Midsummer, with music by Gordon McIntyre of Ballboy.
The coming year, in other words, could see some real devastation on the Scottish arts scene, with institutional pillars tottering, cash-strapped audiences staying at home, and talented people once again threatening to leave in droves. But to paraphrase Hugh MacDiarmid, I have faith in Scottish theatre, and its hidden powers. It’s down there in the cellars, blazing with heat and light; and it will not be quenched, even in the toughest times.
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