What makes a play Scottish?

Oct 27 2011 | By More

Greig and Scott go head to head in Staging the Nation debate

By Thom Dibdin

What is a Scottish play? Not The Scottish Play – everyone knows of thespians’ superstitious euphemism for Macbeth when under a proscenium arch – but how do you define a truly Scottish play? Indeed, can it even be done?

It’s the question being asked by the National Theatre of Scotland on Friday28 Sept 2011, at the Royal Lyceum. The latest of its Staging the Nation debates, convened by Graham McLaren, brings together one of the company’s most vociferous critics in Paul Henderson Scott with one of its most trusted playwrights in David Greig.

David Greig. Photo: K Ribbe

David Greig. Photo: K Ribbe

Speaking exclusively to the Æ, Graham McLaren explained his idea behind the debate: “The point of the whole series is to try and encourage healthy conversation – and that is from all quarters. And if it s going to be a genuine conversation it has to have all points of view. Paul has been very vocal of course through the printed media, but that is no way to have a conversation.

“So when I spoke to him I said ‘Shall we talk about this or would you rather it was 200 words from you, 200 words from the NTS?’ He, of course, relishes the opportunity to say his piece.”

Scott is a historian and cultural commentator who was convenor of the Advisory Council for the Arts in Scotland in the 1980s. It  was unanimous in its support for the creation of a national theatre in Scotland. However he is hugely critical of the NTS which eventually came into being, as a “theatre without walls”. He believes that the NTS’s primary purpose should be the creation of a national repertoire of the best plays Scotland has produced.

David Greig is one of the most prolific playwrights working in Scotland at the moment. He’s had three plays produced at the EIF, there has been at least one of his plays produced at the Edinburgh fringe every year since the mid-nineties and from 2005 to 2007 he was the first dramaturge of The National Theatre of Scotland. He has been playwright in residence at both the RSC and the Traverse.

“Maybe there will be a good barny!”

So where does McLaren pitch his hat in the debate? The director and designer who graduated from the RSAMD,  co-founded Theatre Babel in 1999 and was co-creative director at Perth theatre from 2005, must have an opinion.

“What interests me is what we would consider a Scottish play and what we would consider a Scottish show or Scottish theatre. They are two different ideas.

“There have been ideas since the 1930s about what would be a Scottish play. Robert Mitchell from Glasgow Unity said that after they did their first big show – a version of The Lower Depths – was the first time people said ‘Could that be considered Scottish? Now we know it is Russian, but it seems to be in the Scottish style.’ That is the very first time that has been recorded as an idea, about what is the identity.

“Shortly after that he makes a comment about the need for a Scottish theatre voice, as a distinct cultural entity – distinct from English, Irish, American. This debate has been going on for nearly a hundred years so that is the question.

“Are we going to resolve it? Probably not. Are we going to say anything which hasn’t already been said in the last hundred years? Arguably not. Or maybe there will be a good barny!”

So is McLaren cast in the role of Harry Hill on TV Burp: “I love him and I love him – which is better? There can be only one way to find out: Fiiiiight!”?

McLaren is suitably dubious. “I suspect you are not going to get that – but I do think that they are both fascinating guys and they both have a real passion and a real understanding for it. And actually, given that I have been working on it with both of them, I am astonished at how much common ground there is.

“The issue is a fundamental one. For a long time there has been a lot of arguing, a lot of partisan behaviour. We all know it is not healthy. It might be entertaining, but it hasn’t helped. So maybe this series is about trying to move on from there.”

Staging the Nation: David Greig and Paul Henderson Scott: The Scottish Play takes place in the main auditorium of the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh on Friday, 28 September at 6pm – prior to that night’s performance of 27.

The event is free but ticketed. To book, call the Lyceum Theatre on 0131 248 4848. Tickets will also be available on the door.

Further debate, prior to the event, is taking place on the Staging the Nation Blog at stagingthenation.com


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