Saturday, 18 January 2014

Scottish Theatre (thinking out loud)


No doubt the world is waiting for the Vile opinion on Scottish Independence. Sadly, I am a Wessex Regionalist, and my opinion is firmly in the awkward shuffle category. I'm not sure whether my opinion matters, or has any force. I just like watching theatre and catching people, like the ancient mariner, and talking about myself until they wander off.

That said, I read a book. Scottish Theatre Since the Seventies, although published before devolution, deals with the nature of national identity in the medium I can understand. There are chapters on the Citizens' Theatre (in the days of Giles Havergal), explaining how the venue spent the 1970s swinging the lead with 'divinely decadent stage compositions' (Michael Coveney called them that in his history), 7:84's glorious history (this is pre-2000) and an interview with John McGrath. I'd taken to complaining that McGrath had been written out of Scottish theatre history of late, but Kieran Hurley explicitly references 7:84 when he talks about his latest, Rantin, and the description McGrath gives to Olga Taxidou of a putative National Theatre of Scotland makes him sound like a prophet. He practically calls it a 'theatre without wall.'

While I know that the line is blurred, I am more intrigued by cultural nationalism than political nationalism (and make a particular point of castigating racial nationalism). In his survey of the Citz, David Hutchinson mentions that Glasow still has 'gaps in its provision' for theatre: not enough musicals, Scottish dramatists and scripts from the English mainstream. Elsewhere, the Mighty Mark Fisher discusses the rise of Tramway, and the overwhelming impression is that Scotland, in the late 1990s, was getting plenty of international action, and was rich with what I'd now call 'visual theatre.' Havergal's style is described as being all about the image over text, and while I am not sure contemporary Scottish playwrights would have the same complaint today, the emphasis seemed to be on programming work that came from Europe and was less tied into the idea of the 'script.'

The book abounds in the myths of Scottish Theatre: that there wasn't much going on before the wars (a myth later contested through a look at the music hall); that 'tough guys' have a place in the heart of the theatre-maker (The Hard Man et al), that socialism is the common political belief of the nation. These are myths not in the sense of being untrue - although I would question the last one, since there are plenty of Labour councillors who don't appear to believe in socialism - but being stories with meaning.

Rather nicely, Femi Folorunso points out 'as Raymond Williams once pointed out, the difficulties of criticism is that while there is a general acceptance that some relation must exist between social and material environments on the one hand, and on the other the nature of artistic creativity and the changes taking place within it, this is always very difficult to demonstrate.' In other words, who knows whether theatre represents an idea that is common in society, or can reflect any particular Scottish identity. In fact, RD Laing goes further, suggesting that no-one knows anything of anyone else's experience. Can theatre be 'Scottish'? Still - the book is worth a read.

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