Joyce McMillan: Toasting 50 years of Royal Lyceum

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ON the 50th anniversary of its first production, Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan pays tribute to the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company

It’s a jewel of high Victorian theatre architecture, the old lady of Grindlay Street, and by some measures at least, the most important Scottish repertory theatre; but it takes only a brief glance from its elegant facade, through its gleaming foyer, to its exquisite blue, gold and red-plush auditorium, to understand that the relationship between the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland is almost bound, by sheer architecture, to be a complex and occasionally conflicted one.

Kelly Reilly as Allison and David Tennant as Jimmy Porter in a Royal Lyceum Theatre Company-produced play, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, in 2005. Picture: Euan Myles.

Kelly Reilly as Allison and David Tennant as Jimmy Porter in a Royal Lyceum Theatre Company-produced play, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, in 2005. Picture: Euan Myles.

Built in the heyday of British pride and Empire by the legendary Glasgow-based theatre managers John Howard and Frederick Wyndham, The Lyceum has always been part of the British theatre scene as well as of the Scottish one. It’s first production in 1883, of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, starred those icons of the British stage Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, still commemorated in the names of The Lyceum’s two elegant function rooms. And on occasions – particularly during the Edinburgh International Festival – it also becomes a key international stage, hosting productions that range from Peter Zadek’s superb The Merchant Of Venice, seen there in 1995, to this year’s visit from Tao Dance of China.

Yet despite – or perhaps because of – these complex layers of cultural history and belonging, The Lyceum has also, at least twice in its history, become the focus of hopes for a national theatre for Scotland – a dream eventually realised in a very different form, when Scotland’s 21st century national theatre without walls was launched in Glasgow in 2006.

This year of celebration at The Lyceum marks the 50th anniversary of one of those moments, when the late, great Tom Fleming, director and actor extraordinaire, gathered up all the talent that had been developing around the Scottish theatre scene – not least at the old Gateway Theatre in Leith Walk – and founded the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, dedicated to presenting world-class theatre with a strong Scottish voice; the first production was Victor Carin’s Scots version of Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, with a young Brian Cox in the cast.

It is characteristic of The Lyceum’s complex identity, though, that this legendary phase in its history lasted barely a year; Fleming resigned late in 1966, amid serious differences of opinion with the Board about the company’s voice and direction. Yet that brief first phase of the company’s history is still remembered with tremendous vividness both by audience members who experienced it and theatre-makers who were involved in it. It remains one of the many paradoxes of The Lyceum’s story that its peak memorable moments of creativity and influence (in terms of the future of theatre in Scotland and beyond) often frustratingly fail to coincide with its peak moments of commercial and box-office success, essential though those are to its long-term survival.

It is perhaps because of these tensions, written into the very fabric of the theatre, that when I look back over the five artistic directorships I have seen at The Lyceum since the late 1970s, what I recall most distinctly is a series of brave, brilliant and challenging highlights, often produced at moments of stress, when directors had no option but to throw the whole weight of their creative energy at the stage, and to compel their grand old lady of a theatre to serve their vision. In the late 1970s, when I first became a Lyceum-goer, the then artistic director Stephen MacDonald seemed to have all but given up the unequal struggle to sort out the status of the main auditorium, then leased to the company by Edinburgh City Council for only part of the year, and was pouring much of his creative energy into The Lyceum’s studio, perched on the edge of the Castle Terrace hole-in-the-ground, where he directed a production of Marlowe’s Edward II, starring Philip Franks, so vivid and passionate in its reimagining of a classic text that it literally changed my life. MacDonald’s successor Leslie Lawton won box office success by returning The Lyceum to something like a standard British repertoire, with the occasional new Scottish play; although I still remember the sheer boldness of his mainstage production of the surreal anti-war musical King Of Hearts, in which the inhabitants of the local asylum take over a deserted town threatened by an unexploded bomb.

Ian Wooldridge, who took over the artistic directorship in 1984, sought with varying degrees of success to weave the theatre back into the fabric of creative life in Scotland, commissioning Liz Lochhead’s thrilling version of Dracula, and a memorable production of As You Like It, directed by Hamish Glen, that boldly asserted the authority of Shakespeare spoken in a Scottish voice. Wooldridge signed off, after a decade in the job, with a breathtakingly bold production of Tankred Dorst’s Merlin, set on the kind of open, stripped-back stage that seems to balance the strong presence of The Lyceum auditorium and unleash a huge charge of creative energy across the theatre; the production was the result of several years of exchange with artists in East Germany and Eastern Europe, inspired by Wooldridge’s determination to engage with the massive changes sweeping the continent, as the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

The late Kenny Ireland, who became artistic director in 1993, was a one-man powerhouse of Scottish theatre, determined to build up a strong ensemble of actors associated with The Lyceum, and to put the theatre at the heart of another push to create a national theatre for Scotland. His nine years at The Lyceum – informed by his experience at The Young Lyceum in the 1970s – offered a rich mix of classics and new work, and he succeeded in drawing back to the theatre great Scottish actors like Brian Cox, who appeared in his 1993 production of The Master Builder.

He often seemed at his ebullient best, though, when duffing the old theatre up a bit, flooring over the stalls to create an in-the-round arena for shows like his vivid version of Phaedra, starring Gerda Stevenson. And of course, his intense creative relationship with the great English playwright Howard Barker always inspired Kenny Ireland to new creative heights; his production of Barker’s greatest play Victory, about the aftermath of the English Civil War, was an unforgettable five-star masterpiece, starring a magnificent Scottish ensemble.

And as for Mark Thomson, who came to The Lyceum from The Brunton at Musselburgh in 2002, and will leave in 2016 after 13 years in the job, it’s perhaps too soon to name definitive highlights of his directorship. Like Kenny Ireland, he pursued a rich mix of classics and new Scottish work; and his programming had a slightly more flexible feel, as he built relationships with guest directors including, most significantly, John Dove, whose beautiful, unassuming productions of American and Irish classics have became huge favourites with The Lyceum audience. It’s unlikely, though that anyone summing up Thomson’s time at the Lyceum will forget his great 2015 production of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which once again stripped the big Lyceum stage back to the walls, and exploited all the huge current strengths of Scottish theatre in passionate storytelling, brilliant visual theatre, superb original sound and music, and a strong shared political awareness, to create an overwhelmingly powerful and gripping three hours of theatre.

What conclusions can we draw from this 50-year history of high achievement and occasional disaster? First, that The Lyceum is a theatre unavoidably bound, by its very shape, setting and history, to reflect some profound tensions – sometimes destructive, often highly productive – in the culture of Edinburgh and Scotland, and to attract an audience that is sometimes willing to journey to the thrilling limits of what is possible in Scottish and international theatre, but often prefers something more like a conventional classic repertoire, delivered to the highest possible standard.

Secondly, that The Lyceum’s ability to handle these tensions, and to transform them into a creative opportunity, depends on the theatre’s capacity to produce an abundant, steady and diverse stream of productions – at least seven or eight of its own shows a year – and to work to the highest international production standards. The Lyceum’s presence as a world-class production base, with all the workshops, wardrobe and rehearsal facilities that entails, is one of the vital elements of Scotland’s theatre life; and it’s a matter of great concern that in its 50th anniversary year, the theatre has been hit by a substantial funding cut from Creative Scotland that may threaten the scale and quality of its operation.

And finally, for those who care about The Lyceum and its future, it’s always worth remembering that this is a theatre space of huge and sometimes domineering personality; not large in capacity, at only 658 seats, but sometimes overwhelming in its decorative beauty and huge sense of history. It therefore takes a big show to match the energy of the space, and to work in harmony with it; not necessarily big in physical scale, but big in ambition, in heart, in quality, and in its absolute belief in the importance of what it has to say. The 2014/15 season included The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which met all those criteria. But it also included a John Dove production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, an apparently small-scale play made up of three monologues. Yet to see Dove’s three fine actors – led by a mighty Sean O’Callaghan as Francis Hardy, the faith healer – come right to the front of The Lyceum stage, look the audience in the eye, and deliver their heart-shaking monologues of love, and mystery, and the sheer terror of life in a universe we can never fully understand – was to see a theatre utterly at the service of a great dramatic text.

The Lyceum will never be the easiest theatre in Scotland – the easiest to love, the easiest to run, the easiest to write for, or the easiest to play. On its day, though – when all its connections to Scotland, Britain, Europe and the world are singing through the work of a great playwright – it can be the best and richest of them all. Scotland needs its Royal Lyceum Theatre Company; and as they begin a new half-century of world-class theatre production, made here in Edinburgh, the old lady of Grindlay Street continues to offer a bench-mark of theatrical quality, and of the creative struggle with the pressures and tensions of our time, of which the city and the country can be proud.

• This is an extract from 50 Years of The Lyceum – a limited edition souvenir book featuring stunning archive photography from the last 50 years of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, along with essays and reminiscences from a variety of Lyceum alumni including Richard Eyre, Bill Bryden, Eileen McCallum, David Tennant, Siobhan Redmond and Alan Cumming. Available in person at The Lyceum or online at www.lyceum.org.uk, price £25

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