The Thistle Has Landed

Dec 16 2011 | By More

NTS Staging the Nation political theatre event at Holyrood

Kieran Hurley takes on Gil Scott-Heron

By Thom Dibdin

Staging the Nation, the National Theatre of Scotland’s road show talking shop, arrived back in Edinburgh this week with all guns blazing, to prove that political theatre is alive and well and quite capable of pricking against the kicks in Scotland.

Staged in the somewhat ironic setting of the MSP’s restaurant in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, “Thorn in Their Side: Nurturing the Thistle of Scottish Political Theatre” was curated and presented by renowned political theatre maker David MacLennan.

This was one hot ticket. With MacLennan calling into mind his own history of political theatre making, from 7:84, through Mayfest and Wildcat to his current venture, Play Pie and a Pint, to give the whole a framework, he was able to draw on a series of fascinating contributors to flesh it out.

Kieran Hurley vs Gil Scott-Heron

Linda Mackenny, remembered her work for 7:84’s Clyde-built season, rediscovering Scottish plays written in the twenties, thirties and forties by popular dramatists. If John McGrath featured highly in her talk, it was even more so for Nicola McCartney, to whom the playwright was mentor, after seeing her first production, Easy. Her recollections of touring Easy, when engagement with the audience was rather greater than you might usually expect, was a brilliant example of the power of political theatre to engage with its audience.

It was no doubt a complete coincidence, but the event occurred just one day after the current political administration added cultural engagement as an indicator to their National Performance Framework. And Nicola’s tales of engagement with her audience during the tour of Easy – the piece about date rape incensed many – showed just how empowering, well-created theatrical cultural engagement can be.

Sadly, although several MSPs engaged culturally with their national theatre, not as many turned up as there were empty seats for them. Perhaps the politicians think political theatre isn’t really for them. They were clearly wrong, as the theory was followed by practice from a dozen or so practitioners in thistle nurturing.

Political songs from Arthur Johnstone, recently seen on stage in Men Should Weep and a really cutting edge new song by Cora Bissett, sung with Lorna Brooks, which might, or might not, end up in her new musical the Glasgow Girls were just the tip of if all.

Keiran Hurley took on the rhythms and angles of Gill Scott-Heron, Mike Gonzalez read of political intervention-style theatrical happenings on public transport by Venezuelan playwright Marianella Yanes, Amanda Monfrooe squeezed the strawberries of Scottish expectations until their pips squeaked, and Alan Bissett got the audience questioning their attitudes to charity.

Which is not to mention Morag Fullerton talking about working with Dario Fo for her production of Mistero Buffo with Robbie Coltrane, Peter Arnott translating Brecht, Liz MacLennan recalling John McGrath’s internationalism and political awareness, creating political theatre that was also a good night out and Catrin Evans questioning the motivation for political theatre itself.

It was a great night out, full of fun, and motivation, but also adding something to its audience’s ideas of what political theatre can and should be.

Crucially, this is not the last of the Staging the Nation events, which Vicky Featherstone promised will continue on into the forceable future.

The full event was filmed and is due to appear on the National Theatre of Scotland website at


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  1. Gilly says:

    So glad you enjoyed the night as much as we did, Thom!

    The next Staging the Nation event is in fact this Tuesday, December 20th, at 7:30pm at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow. Graham McLaren will direct a rehearsed reading of George Munro’s family epic, Gay Landscape.

    Graham says this of the play “In my opinion George Munro’s Gay Landscape is a real Scottish classic play, full of the robust, witty language, visceral characters and social commentary that we’ve come to expect from writers who developed their skills with Glasgow Unity Theatre Company. Ena Lamont Sewart being another.”

    You can book tickets online or by calling the Citizens Theatre Box Office on 0141 429 0022. Hope to see you there for the last Staging the Nation event of 2011!