Joyce McMillan: Funding worries overshadow Lyceum

Brian Cox is returning to the Lyceum in Waiting For Godot. Picture: Contributed
Brian Cox is returning to the Lyceum in Waiting For Godot. Picture: Contributed
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Artistically the Lyceum is thriving but its funding levels are a worry, writes Joyce McMillan

It was 50 years ago this autumn that the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company launched its first production, under the direction of the late, great Tom Fleming. The date was 1 October 1965, the play was Victor Carin’s Servant O’ Twa Maisters, a glittering Scots version of the Goldoni comic classic; and ever since, the old theatre in Grindlay Street – first opened in 1883 – has stood together with the Citizens’ in Glasgow and Dundee Rep as one of Scotland’s premier producing companies, and leading city reps.

Last week, with more than a bit of a fanfare, the company announced its celebration 50th anniversary season, to run from September 2015 to the summer of 2016. Packed with the same bold mix of classics and new work that has characterised the Lyceum’s successful recent seasons, it opens with the thrilling prospect of Brian Cox and Bill Paterson starring in a new production of Waiting For Godot, directed by Lyceum boss Mark Thomson, with John Bett as their passing visitor Pozzo. The season also includes a first-ever stage version of luscious lesbian romance Tipping The Velvet, new plays by Liz Lochhead (on Moliere) and Chris Hannan (on The Iliad), a special backstage site-specific show from the Lyceum Youth Theatre, and a rich range of classics, including Arthur Miller’s The Crucible directed by John Dove, and Conor McPherson’s The Weir. “Not a hint of a midlife crisis,” said director Mark Thomson at the season launch, adding that the Lyceum is “a great Scottish theatre company that is proud of its past, but with contemporary theatre adventure keeping it youthful and vigorous.”

As Lyceum fans revel in the new season though – and recall recent glorious successes like this spring’s Caucasian Chalk Circle – it’s worth remembering that this 2015-16 celebration has been bought at a high price. Hit with a huge and unexpected 17 per cent grant cut for 2015-18 in last November’s Creative Scotland three-year funding round, the Lyceum had no option but to go ahead with the anniversary season as planned, and to ask Creative Scotland to load the whole cut onto the years 2016-18. The result – barring a sudden growth in income from elsewhere – will be a sharp 10 per cent plunge in the company’s overall resources from next summer, with a disproportionate effect on the work that can be produced, given the high fixed costs of occupying the historic Lyceum building.

So as Edinburgh audiences pick up their tickets for Waiting For Godot – and celebrate the astonishing fact that Brian Cox, then aged 19, was part of the cast of that first production of Servant O’ Twa Maisters, 50 years ago – they should also be asking themselves some tough questions about the future of the city producing theatre we’ve come to take for granted. Will this remarkable season mark the beginning of a new age of relative self-sufficiency for the Lyceum, or it will be a last hurrah? Will Mark Thomson stay around to implement the cuts, or wll he move on, after an impressive 12 years in the job?

And does Edinburgh – wealthy Edinburgh, above all – care enough to rouse itself to support the grand old lady of Grindlay Street, in her hour of need? The paradox is that if Creative Scotland decisions had much to do with artistic quality, the question would not arise, this year of all years; the Lyceum is now in its best creative shape for a decade. In the strange world of modern theatre funding, though, good work is not always enough; unless an audience sees it, loves it, and decides to ensure that – come hell or high funding cuts – it will carry on.

Waiting For Godot opens at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, on 22 September, with previews from 18 September.