Sunday, 3 March 2013

Meditating on Traverses

Is it possible to read the programme for the Traverse season and, like a mystic casting blind eyes over ancient runes, discern the deeper patterns of the Scottish theatre world? Since the Traverse is celebrating fifty years of producing new work - and, in the process, has elevated fifty emerging writers to a year long attachment - and has recently welcomed a new artistic director Orla O'Loughlin, perhaps it is the best place to start.

Perhaps. Alongside the Tron, the Traverse has a programme that is made up of both guest companies and in-house productions. Unlike the Tron, or the Citizens, it has had a specific vision built into its programming from the beginning: it is concerned with "New Writing." Under Dominic Hill, now artistic director at The Citizens, the definition of new writing was expanded - a dance season was added, but the Traverse Fifty programme has reasserted the script as the heart of the theatre's process. Add in the various engagement programmes, which often focus on getting young people writing, and the Traverse is actively engaged in maintaining the importance of the word made drama.

The venue's choice of collaborators is telling: on the one extreme, pitching in with A Play, A Pie and A Pint for a series of midday specials to the other, hosting Platform 18's double bill, from The Arches. PPP  is radical in format - short new plays given week long runs over lunch - but conservative in style - the script is still the thing, mostly. Platform 18, on the other hand, is always experimental. Past winners include Nic Green, who used it to develop part of her Trilogy, while this year has Amanda Monfrooe, a master of matching eclectic influences to her darkly post-modern take on reality and Peter McMaster, who is interpreting Wuthering Heights through a feminist perspective and all-male cast.

From these collaborations, the position of the Traverse as a broad, inclusive venue is clear, and it does sketch out something of Scottish Theatre's breadth. Although the choices in the PPP runs are often energetic and youthful - rising star Sabrina Mahfouz is no polite chronicler of drawing room society, and Douglas Maxwell has plenty of fun taking a respectable widow to vulgarity - their audience is traditionally older (the edition at Oran Mor is often packed with peckish pensioners). The Arches, meanwhile, has a younger audience, coming from the diverse artistic communities of Glasgow and well versed in the outrage and idioms of Live Art.

Spreading out to their various visiting companies reveals an even bigger perspective on Scottish Theatre - which expands to include Firebrand (from the Borders), Lyceum Youth Theatre (from the next door theatre), Clerkinworks (straight out of London), Gare St Lazare and Blue Raincoat (Irish) and Pepperdine University (visiting from Malibu). The work flowing through Scotland is international in character - perhaps inevitably from English speaking nations, although manipulate upped the European quotient back in February.

There's more than a touch of politics in this season - Clerkinwork's The Bear gets stuck into the criminal justice system, White Rose uses the Soviet defense of Stalingrad to examine gender politics, Mahfouz has three female criminals getting up to tricks, and Why Do You Stand In The Rain? returns to the aftermath of WWI for a story of state savagery. Yet there is a far more potent theme that carries beyond this: the personal politics of First Love (an adaptation of a Beckett novella), Jenna Watt's meditation on Flaneurs who fail to intervene, and in the double bill of Chapel Street and Bitch Boxer, a lively look at the impact of Cameron's Broken Britain on individual lives.

Perhaps this collision of public and private is best demonstrated by the Traverse's big production this Spring Quiz Show by Rob Drummond. Drummond is undeniably becoming of the most important authors of his generation - recent success has seen his Bullet Catch head to the USA - and Quiz Show demonstrates his ability to use a popular subject to delve deeply into philosophical ideas.

Apart from a rude health, this spring at the Traverse suggests that Scottish theatre is not only enthused by an interest in international theatre - with England providing only one of the possible areas of influence - but that it integrates the politics of the personal into wider contexts. It's easy to say that theatre has become suddenly political, or that it is obsessed with national identity, but the emphasis on particulars, on the specifics of life rather than the grand narratives of dogma, make this political theatre distinctive from its earlier incarnations, such as in the 1970s, when it was driven by Marxist ideology.

 - Quiz Sho

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