Ally Lodge reflects on the National Theatre of Scotland’s recent attempt to inspire more theatrical debate

 

Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), wants to get people talking. Debating, even. A bit of debating, a bit of controversy: it’s a full-proof way of garnering public attention.

A thick cloud of debate was the environment whence the NTS finally emerged in 2006. The subject of having a national theatre in Scotland had been floating around for a very long time: apparently there were five attempts to set one up in the twentieth century, all of which evidently failed. Eventually the NTS established itself and now, in its fifth year, it’s keen to engage in discussion with the Scottish people.

So: Friday 28th October, the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh. A panel was to debate the topic: ‘What makes a Scottish play?’ On one side was NTS dramaturg, the playwright behind Dunsinane, David Greig; on the other was NTS critic, historian and cultural commentator Paul Henderson Scott. Chairing the proceedings was Professor Ian Brown.

Paul Henderson Scott has been one of the NTS’s most prominent critics. Anyone wanting to engage him in a discussion about Scottish plays and the NTS’s repertoire need only mention the sixteenth-century Fife play Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis to him in order to receive an earful. He seems to like bringing it up as an example of the Scottish ‘classics’ which the NTS ignores. In fact, his reputation as an NTS critic, and the set-up of this event, led Andrew Eaton Lewis to suggest in The Scotsman that the whole event had been organised by the NTS ‘in an attempt to shut Scott up’.

Unfortunately, anyone hoping for a House of Commons style debate would have been severely disappointed. No one lost their temper, no one interrupted anyone else, no one was rude. It was all very civilised. In fact, if it hadn’t been for David Greig’s entertaining speeches, the event might have bordered on boring and dry.

The actual subject was how to define a play as Scottish, and to me, Greig played the more memorable role. His views were sharper than Scott’s. ‘The peculiarities of the Scottish audience,’ he said, ‘result in the peculiarities of Scottish plays.’ In using the Caledonian pine forest as a metaphor for Scottish drama, he likened Scottish audiences to a bog: essential to the forest.

Greig’s claim which most interested me was that, if anything, there was almost an anti-Scottishness in some plays, and he didn’t consider this a bad thing. We live in a globalised world, and Scottish audiences are aware of this; and in such a world, one which is not centred around Scotland, it is prudent to be aware of our marginality, and to be aware that although national identity is important, it is only part of a much wider picture. As Professor Ian Brown concluded: ‘we just need to chill’.

While that is probably not the attitude that the NTS were after for inspiring more debates, it serves as a good reminder to stay open-minded. The definition of a Scottish play is something that should be fluid, not fixed. This event might have been more discussion than debate, but it’s a start for trying to engage more of the public in the theatre world.

 

Ally Lodge

Image credit – Ally Lodge