Autumn Theatrics – New Season Highlights
The Fringe is all well and good - a cornucopia of international talent, comedians fighting turf wars and venues shouting that they represent the true spirit of the Fringe - but Scotland copes pretty well without the visitors. Although the theatres could probably do with a rest - and the critics need a month to pick the star ratings out of their hair - the new seasons are starting with Autumn's arrival. Luckily, the first month provides a handy-dandy guide to the contours of Scottish theatre, as the various venues re-establish their individual identities and reveal that work made in the country is difficult to categorise.
The diverse venues do have their own preoccupations and themes. The Arches covers that boundary between Live Art and theatre; The Tron and Traverse like new work; The Lyceum is known to be old school, and the Citizens is all about the adaptation. A brief survey of the coming attractions demonstrates how the theatres both embrace and play against their type.
The Lyceum shakes off its image as a home just for classic adaptations with three world premieres this season: September has a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland of The Guid Sisters. Named as a Scots classic by Vicky Featherstone, the NTS' artistic director, it brings together the Canadian director Serge Denoncourt - most recently in Scotland working with Stellar Quines on Ana but perhpas best known for his productions with Cirque du Soleil - a cast of fifteen women, including Scottish legend Karen Dunbar, and the Scots translation of the Quebecois original by Michel Tremblay. The mixture of Canadian and Scottish personality marks this production as a fine example of how Scottish theatre is defining itself not as a local phenonenon, but as part of a broader, international stream.
If theatre is an art form that values the past - reinterpretations like this fill auditoria across the world - The Lyceum is rightly celebrated for restoring classics to wider attention. Over in Glasgow, another company reiterates the trend. Glasgow's Citizens Theatre received a great deal of critical enthusiasm following the appointment of Dominic Hill as artistic director: having made his name at Dundee Rep, his reputation for interpreting classic works with a hip style made him ideal to continue the legacy for the venue that was once known for pushing the possibilities of known scripts, but had settled into a more conventional role over the past decade.
September does not start with Hill's own works, but three plays that sketch out the boundaries of the Scottish touring scene. Communicado offer Tam O'Shanter, directed by the mighty Gerry Mulgrew and fresh from five starring at the Fringe; a new version of Euripides Medea comes from Warwick and Watford - the Greek tragedy may be familiar, but Euripides is still one of the most visceral and alarming voices; the perennial David Greig favourite Yellow Moon takes to the upstairs studio.
Classic plays, and the new work that is moving towards classic status, are paralleled by performances that bring history to life. Up in Dundee, the Rep kicks off with The Mill Lavvies and She Town, two plays that celebrate the history of the city.
Like The Guid Sisters, She Town rejoices in a female cast, including Barbara Rafferty out of Rab C Nesbitt and another Scottish legend. Based in the true stories of the 1930s, when women kept the city running, it recalls the successful social realist strand of Scottish theatre, where performance becomes a way of connecting the present to the past and holding witness to the forgotten heroes and heroines - and villains - of the nation's past.
Sharman MacDonald's She Town may use history as raw material, but this is a new play. There is a preoccupation with new work in Scotland - perhaps due to its rising sense of nationhood. The Traverse featured at least three productions led by the younger generation in its Fringe (Kieran Hurley, Rob Drummond and Gary McNair), and The Tron is leading with a new piece by Random Accomplice, who have repeatedly shown an enthusiasm for the script and new ways of using it.
The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam has director and writer Johnny McKnight sharing the stage with animation in a story of "a typical 15 year old, who can literally turn invisible." Typically for Random Accomplice, it deals with the mundane in a fantastic manner. McKnight has been reinventing pantomime up at Macrobert and RA alternate the serious and hilarious: their arch style allows them to tinker with the conventions of theatre either for laughs or to hit home.
McKnight might be at the younger end of the new writing spectrum, but Sylvia Dow is at the older end. At seventy three, she has come late to scriptwriting, but her A Beginning, A Middle and An End has been co-produced by Stellar Quines and Greyscale. These two companies have supported the traditional craft of the script without rejecting contemporary issues and concerns: Quines explicitly encourage women's work, while Greyscale are provocative in content and form.
A Beginning... was given a rehearsed reading earlier in the year. It fits into the sparse, emotive tradition of writing that would include Harold Pinter, and is abstract enough to evoke various possible readings without losing the emotional punch. And although the Traverse deserves a rest after the Fringe, it makes sense that this, alongside Peter Arnott's A Number and a team up with Playwright's Studio, starts off their Autumn season.
Identifying these particular venues - The Tron and Citizens in Glasgow, Lyceum and Traverse in Edinburgh, and The Dundee Rep, does not provide an exhaustive description of Scottish theatre. It ignores the good work in the Highlands and Islands, the Macrobert's lively programming and the other venues that house the touring companies or the more marginal companies and artists.
It does, however, locate the venues that are most likely to present theatre that is based on the expected - the script, the odd version of Shakespeare (absent in September but soon to arrive in October) - and twist it to more contemporary versions. There is also the sheer range and scale of the various works, each emerging from the new found national enthusiasm for experiment and socially engaged performance.
The number of co-productions, the blending of different genres, the influence and support of the NTS, the bold artists going their own way and discovering new audiences: it may not cover the entire field, but September is, at least, a limited survey of a scene that does provide different voices, challenges and an eclectic selection of approaches.