Joyce McMillan: Scottish drama has a new champion

Fergus Linehan unveils his first programme today at The Hub, Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Fergus Linehan unveils his first programme today at The Hub, Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

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SCOTTISH drama has a new champion in EIF’s Fergus Linehan

When Untitled Projects’ brilliantly satirical show Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner first opened at the Tramway in Glasgow, just two years ago, a particularly amused and admiring crowd could be seen gathering around one of the glass cases in the magnificently detailed exhibition that accompanies the show. Untitled’s show, it should be explained, offers a unique perspective on James Hogg’s great 1824 novel The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner; not so much a stage version of the story, as a two-hour lecture – with film and exhibition – about the supposed trials of a 1980s Scottish director called Paul Bright, who (according to director Stewart Laing and his team) once made an ill-fated attempt to film a six-part version of Hogg’s story, in locations across Scotland from Traquair House to Arthur’s Seat.

One of Bright’s struggles, we are led to understand, involves his status as the Scottish artist invited to occupy that year’s “graveyard slot” in the Edinburgh International Festival programme – the one traditionally allocated to a Scottish company which is asked to present a completely new and untested piece of work, alongside the cream of well-
established international theatre. So in the exhibition, we find a reproduction of an Edinburgh International Festival programme of the 1980s, historically perfect in typeface and format, showing the details of Bright’s doomed production.

It’s particularly satisfying to note, then, that in August this year, Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner will become one of the first shows to mark a brand new relationship between Scottish theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival, when alongside the gorgeous show for children and young people, Dragon – a spectacular wordless drama about the inner life of a young boy struggling to deal with the death of his mother, created jointly in 2013 by young Scottish company Vox Motus, the National Theatre of Scotland and Tianjin People’s Arts Theatre of ­China – it becomes one of two already well-established and critically acclaimed Scottish productions to appear in this year’s Festival, in a move that signals a subtle but important change in the Festival’s approach to Scottish theatre, since incoming director Fergus Linehan took over from Jonathan Mills last September.

With hindsight, it’s difficult to say why previous Festival directors adhered so strictly to the rule that all Scottish work should be new work; but as the first EIF director for two decades to come from a strong theatre background, Linehan seems to have been quick to sense the widespread feeling that it was a system that placed Scottish companies at a disadvantage, and produced a memorable series of supposed festival “flops” – including the National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia in 2010, and Grid Iron’s underrated Leaving Planet Earth in 2013.

It’s also clear that Linehan, who was director of the Dublin International Theatre Festival while still in his twenties, has relatively few inhibitions about the idea that it should be one of the Edinburgh Festival’s roles to showcase the best of Scottish work. “It’s something we’re delighted to do,” he says. “And in fact, given the success of the Made In Scotland programme on the Fringe, we’d like to do more in future, if possible, to help present an even wider range of Scottish work to an international audience.” And although these gentle shifts in policy are – and should be – of secondary importance to festival-goers booking their tickets this summer, it’s also true that in the long term, they may have a profound impact both on the Edinburgh Festival, and on the Scottish cultural landscape around it; as the relationship between them shifts and matures into something that looks, every year, a little less like a token inclusion of some Scottish work in a festival with bigger fish to fry, and a little more like a true creative partnership of equals.

Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 19-22 August; Dragon is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-15 August, www.eif.co.uk

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