Joyce McMillan: Indy debate takes centre stage

Actress Victoria Bianchi, playing herself, as part of The Great Yes, No, Don't Know, Five Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Hemedia
Actress Victoria Bianchi, playing herself, as part of The Great Yes, No, Don't Know, Five Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Hemedia
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IT’S five o’clock on Monday afternoon.

The downstairs theatre at Oran Mor falls silent, Neil Murray of the National Theatre of Scotland makes a live introduction, and then we’re off on a 24-hour rollercoaster ride around Scotland and beyond, peering into our laptops, watching 180 tiny five-minute plays live-streamed from beaches and living-rooms and parks and halls all the way from Dumfries to Caithness, and also from Istanbul, Paris and East Timor, all inspired by the “Yes, No, Don’t Know” theme that currently dominates Scottish life.

At “hubs” like Oran Mor – and there are others in Aberdeen, Inverness, Dumfries and Edinburgh – audiences can watch some shows being performed live; and here in Glasgow, the mood is rich with mourning for David MacLennan of A Play, A Pie And A Pint, who – before his death two weeks ago – co-curated this edition of 5 Minute Theatre with David Greig, and left behind a series of powerful short plays of his own, presented here by a terrific scratch team of actors. Andy Clark’s beautiful performance of David Greig’s final Letter To David will become one of the key performances of the night; a reminder of the love that can survive the differences thrown up by the referendum campaign – MacLennan was a “No” man, Greig is a “Yes.”

Elsewhere, though, the mood is almost dizzyingly varied, as groups of schoolchildren mourn what looks like a bitter fall-out between parents, and ordinary citizens wrestle with the “disconnect” between the rhetoric of politicians and the struggles of everyday life. There’s one quietly stunning filmed piece by Stephanie McCormack in which a woman watches Alex Salmond’s fine keynote speech to the SNP conference while feeding her dog and worrying about her bills. Some superbly witty primary school students at Craigowl Primary offer a fine Dundee take on the question, as Oor Wullie sets out to interview all the Broons about their referendum views; back at Oran Mor, ex-MSP turned cabaret star Rosie Kane performs Jen Muir’s proud backward glance from Independence Day 2024, and the resident company raise the roof with David Greig’s short indecision rock-opera, We’re Not Sure.

And are there conclusions? Maybe a few. The first is that three years on from its first edition, 5 Minute Theatre needs to think harder about how it presents itself to the world. There’s no point in running “hubs” where audiences can only see “their own” shows, and get no sense of the wider event; and since online information remains scanty, perhaps the whole event needs a live online presenter, giving a one-sentence introduction to each show, its location and origin. And it certainly isn’t right for the NTS to punctuate this most democratic of shows with long, flashy trailers for forthcoming productions.

In terms of content, though, The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know, Five Minute Theatre Show is as variable and rich as ever. The endless circling around the “divorce” metaphor produces some predictably dire results, as well as one brilliant essay on separation, filmed with megaphones at Carter Bar. Three things finally emerge, though, that I have heard nowhere else in our independence debate. The first is something like a genuine grassroots “no” voice, not impressed with our current UK leaders, but intensely wary of ideological nationalism. The second – in a recurring image – is a genuine fear of a UK ruled by “Prime Minister Farage”. And the third is the voice of deep political wisdom represented by this play’s two co-curators themselves; MacLennan’s farewell blast On Our Own – a chorale for a young socialist Green MSP and three “pragmatic” SNP colleagues – contains perhaps the sharpest political commentary of the night. As David Greig himself puts it, in the final lines of his Letter To David, “If I vote “yes” on 18 September, I’ll be voting for a country you gave me”; and in this endlessly diverse referendum debate, that’s perhaps the biggest paradox of all.

• All plays now available online at www.fiveminutetheatre.com

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