The Vicious Circle

March 29, 2010 | By More

First published in The Stage, March 18 2010

Now entering its fifth year, the  National Theatre of Scotland has suffered considerable criticism in recent times through the press, with accusations that it is failing to fulfil its duty as a promote of Scottish theatrical tradition. Such vilification is misguided, argues Thom Dibdin, and in fact the NTS is abiding by the very principles it was founded upon.

There is a delicious irony about a theatre company founded on the principle of “theatre without walls”, marking its fourth anniversary with a piece called Wall of Death: Way of Life. It should have been the perfect peg around which to celebrate the National Theatre of Scotland’s many successes, and ponder on where it might be going next.

Wall of Death: Way of Life. Pic: Peter Dibdin

Yet, just as the National Theatre of Scotland has done that thing, a pernicious and niggling little attack on it and its management team has reared its ugly head in the Scottish press under the pretence of a debate over very nature of the company. It is an attack which has turned that irony sour.

Had the NTS under its dynamic artistic director and Chief Executive Vicky Featherstone become lost – heaven forfend – in some moribund mess, then such a question might well need to be addressed. It quite clearly has not.

The company has staged some 77 different Scottish productions over the last 48 months in 128 different locations, and attracted approaching half a million audience members in the process. It has toured the world and it has toured Scotland.

It has had phenomenal successes and brave attempts that have not achieved their own aims. It has created its own new productions and worked with established Scottish companies – and even the odd international one, too. It has created works for regular theatre goers, works that have spoken to audiences far beyond the usual theatregoing demographic, and works that have spoken to both.

It has revived classic Scottish plays and commissioned new ones for the future. It has brought great European works to Scotland in new productions that have reinterpreted the originals for contemporary times. There have been works for Scotland’s main stages, there have been works for the smallest village halls and there have been site-specific promenade productions. There have been works in Scots, English and a whole host  of different Scottish accents.

In short, the National Theatre of Scotland has done what is says in its name.

However, it has not – yet – revived An Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, the satyrical morality play first produced in 1540 which is seen by one Paul Henderson Scott as the lodestar of the Scottish theatrical world. Unfortunately, his beef with the NTS over this play – which incidentally has had three successful revivals at the Edinburgh International Festival – has been picked up by both The Scotsman in Edinburgh and The Herald in Glasgow.

So that while the company is challenging the very limits of what its without walls policy can be, those who call themselves cultural commentators have called it back with cries of foul play – and accusations that the company has no interest in the roots of Scottish theatre.

Which is strange, as the company’s biggest hit, the one which has travelled the world and transcended the usual limitations of a theatre going audience, Black Watch, is based on the very best of Scottish theatrical tradition. That such a tradition is populist, comic and cries out in an uncouth Fife accent might not sit quite so well with the culture vultures, but it certainly harks back to the best Scottish theatrical traditions.

That Paul Henderson Scott is simply wrong in his analysis has never been challenged by the journalists involved. As a historian and cultural commentator he has worked hard in his time to help get the NTS created He was convenor of the Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland which, in the 1980s, he says was unanimous in its support for the creation of the national theatre in Scotland. But having won the war on whether there should be an NTS or not, it seems that he has forgotten that he lost one of his own, key, personal battles.

Scott’s vision of what the NTS should be differs quite radically with the vision which Vicky Featherstone has been asked to turn into a reality. Scott believes that its primary purpose is the creation of a national repertoire of the best plays Scotland has produced. He points to a list of 100 Scottish plays, drawn up to counter arguments that Scotland had never produced any decent drama, as if their revival was the be-all and end-all of the NTS.

Featherstone and her team have actually been employed to ensure that the NTS is relevant, that it is a truly national company, creating theatre for everyone. Which is what they are doing. They are, incidentally, examining that list for plays which might be appropriate. They have also asked two different directors to look at the Thrie Estaitis with a view to a new production.

All of which might be of little importance if Scott and his supporters did not go off into the tenuous and troubled area of whether Featherstone, who is English, is capable of understanding Scottish culture. Even if her track record did not clearly shows that she does, such arguments are well on the way to creating a climate of the classic kind of institutionalised racism, in which the victim has no framework within which to defend themselves.

The NTS is not perfect – but it has only just begun. It is time for the Scottish theatre and cultural communities to start talking positively about how it can best build on its considerable achievements rather than wittering on about some long dead argument.

ENDS

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