OPINION PIECE IN ARTWORK 180, September/October, 2013
Earlier this year, Vicky Featherstone, founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, left for the south. However, under her successor, Laurie Sansom, NTS’ reputation hasn’t dimmed; during this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, no fewer than 6 of its productions were nominated for awards.
Although Sansom plans larger scale touring shows than before and promises main stage classical productions, he has kept at its heart NTS’s hallmark of championing experimental work and unconventional versions of the classics, played in unconventional venues.
NTS’s new artistic director recognizes the need to embrace the independence debate. So, early next year the company will tour “Rantin” with The Arches and Kieran Hurley. Up and down the country, the show will encourage discussion on the independence debate and prepare the public for a follow-up NTS production of sketches, songs and rants called “The Great Don’t Know Show”, navigated by two well-known Scottish theatre men, playwright David Greig and the veteran actor-musician, David MacLennan, who co-founded the 7:84 Company. Cast and audience will have a chance to consider national identity as well as the independence debate itself.
A National Theatre is the most suitable and able of arts institutions to stage a public debate on Scottish identity and independence. Perhaps another discussion should be encouraged on how much art (be it theatre, literature or the visual arts) should be identified with nationality.
Some time before Vicky Featherstone left to take up the reins at London’s Royal Court theatre, the old guard of the Scottish literary establishment criticized her “programme choice”, claiming she was neglecting the Scottish canon (which was hardly surprising when Scottish Calvinism forbade any theatre for over 300 years).
As the inhabitants of this country prepare to vote on whether to be or not to be part of the UK, it conjures up a sense of déjà vu. In the late 19th century, Norway was poised to become an independent country. However, its national playwright, Henrik Ibsen, (although influenced by nationalism in his early life), wrote his main body of work about domestic issues, age-old moral problems and timeless, universal concerns. Likewise, Ibsen’s compatriot, Edvard Munch, painted scenes of a profoundly personal and visceral nature. Did these geniuses whinge about the Danes or Swedes getting top jobs in the arts and dismiss them as “settlers” and “colonists”? Great theatre transcends party and national political issues and is too big to be purely interested in race or gender.
With the run-up to the independence referendum, some hateful sentiments are being expressed but as many of us are aware, anglophobia isn’t new. When Vicky Featherstone expressed the sad fact that she felt “paralysed” by the criticism leveled at her because of her Englishness or lack of Scottishness, it begs the question why she was subjected to such an “attack”. Was it an excuse for her critics’ artistic mediocrity? Would a truly successful, dedicated artist care about an artistic director’s nationality or bother if he was oppressed or discriminated against? Max Beerbohm, the early twentieth century English essayist, claimed that the true artist was always “in too much of a hurry” to worry about anything other than completing his art.
It is irrelevant if the artistic director of the NTS comes from south or north of the Scottish/English border. Outsiders to a community often enrich and throw valuable light on to it. Take the Taiwan-born Ang Lee whose direction of the 1995 film version of Janet Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” brought an unexpected breadth to the early 19th English author’s novel. There’s screen-writer and director, Richard Curtis, born in New Zealand of Australian parents, whose minute observation of a narrow sector of English society, is exquisitely depicted.
And it works both ways; when the occasion presents itself, Scots will do a bunk south or across the pond. As Scots playwright, J.M. Barrie, wrily expressed, “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.” So, if the last Westminster government consisted of a bevy of Scots on the front benches, why shouldn’t one or two of our arts institutions be run by the English?