THINK of the Commonwealth and it’s hard not to focus on the story of empire, and of post-colonial change, that led to the founding of the organisation in 1949.
In Glasgow, as the Games approach, we’ve already seen shows about the impact of Commonwealth immigration to Britain in the 1950s and ’60s, and about the imperial legacy of homophobic legislation and attitudes in more than 40 Commonwealth countries. In the Merchant City, the Empire Cafe at the Briggait is about to launch a nine-day programme of events designed to explore and acknowledge the role of Glasgow-based merchant companies in the transatlantic slave trade.
At the Tron, though, artistic director Andy Arnold, below, is taking a slightly different perspective on the Commonwealth; and after a Mayfesto event in the spring which explored the theme of colonialism, the Tron will celebrate the period of the Games by focussing on the distinctive voices of the four Home Nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and on the wide-ranging, border-crossing inspiration of the great poets who speak for those nations.
“The idea really developed out of our feeling that this would be a great occasion to re-stage Liz Lochhead’s 2011 play Edwin Morgan’s Dreams and Other Nightmares, which went brilliantly with audiences, but had a very short run back then,” says Arnold. “It’s a very Glasgow piece, with a terrific sense of the city about it, so we thought it would be great to stage it during the Games. And then out of that came the idea of celebrating other great poets from the Home Nations at the same time – those terrific voices that really seem to represent a people, and their language, on a world stage.”
So, working with Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, as co-curator, Arnold has put together a programme which opens this weekend with a Tron Theatre Community Company version of Dylan Thomas’s great Welsh classic Under Milk Wood, and moves on to Arnold’s own production of Edwin Morgan’s Dreams, to a new staging of Seamus Heaney’s acclaimed version of Beowulf by Lynne Parker of the Dublin-based Rough Magic company, and to Cardiff-based Theatre Iolo’s staging of Carol Anne Duffy’s Grimm Tales. And alongside these four shows, there will be play- readings, a poetry slam, live music, a rehearsed reading (co-produced with the Empire Cafe) of Jackie Kay’s epic dramatic poem “The Lamplighter”, and a Newsboy evening of short “living newspaper” pieces on the theme of the Commonwealth.
What the season offers, in other words, is both a series of towering and distinctive poetic voices, and a set of infinitely complex, interwoven cultural relationships. Beowulf is an Old English version of a Norse legend in a version by a great Northern Irish poet; Grimm Tales – which will appear in community centres around Glasgow, before arriving at the Tron – involves German folk stories retold by a Scottish-born writer who is now the UK’s Poet Laureate, and presented by Wales’s leading children’s theatre company; Edwin Morgan’s Dreams celebrates a poet who was himself a great translator, from Russian, French and other languages. “For me, theatre has always been primarily about the spoken word,” says Arnold. “There is something about the rhythm, the musicality and the lyricism of poetry that is profoundly theatrical. And then when you think about the iconic artists of these four home nations, so many of them are poets; writers like Seamus Heaney, Dylan Thomas and Edwin Morgan who reach out from these nations, to a world audience.
“So in this Home Nations season, we want to celebrate the power of poetry in theatre, and all the different voices of the language we home nations share. We’re exceptionally proud to have been awarded funding to present this programme during the Commonwealth Games. We hope people will come along during the festival and spend time with us here at the Tron, in Glasgow, at a truly unique time in the city’s history.”
Home Nations is at the Tron, Glasgow, 17 July until 3 August.