THE first National Theatre of Scotland production of 2014 addresses slippery notions of national identity – set to a soundtrack of folk music with an urban vibe.
A haunting Gaelic song stills the rehearsal room. Even if we don’t understand the words of Griogal Cridhe, the Glen Lyon Lament, we can hear the sadness in Julia Taudevin’s clear voice. While the harmonies fade, Kieran Hurley begins a monologue about a young man leaving his island home.
But this is no old story of clearance or depopulation. This boy is leaving to study sociology and history of art at university. This is 2014 and Rantin, Hurley’s new play, is a snapshot of Scotland at this moment, a patchwork of stories and songs which portray our country today.
Made in collaboration with Taudevin and musicians Drew Wright (who performs as Wounded Knee) and Gav Prentice (half of pop duo Over the Wall), Rantin began life on the Auteurs programme, a joint initiative of the Arches and the NTS, for last year’s Behaviour Festival, and is now in a touring production for NTS.
It is also the first NTS production in the year of the independence referendum, when a play which claims to be a portrait of a nation inevitably takes on a particular political charge. While NTS is politically neutral, Hurley is a supporter of independence, but he is clear that Rantin is apolitical.
“This show is not actually trying to deal with questions of national sovereignty or self-determination, or even of Scotland’s relationship with England or the rest of the union, it’s simply a show that uses Scotland as a starting point for a discussion about nationhood and collective identity, and the slipperyness of all that. It’s not a don’t-know show, it’s not a show that says, ‘Let’s look at the independence referendum question and then try to stay in the middle’, it is not framed by that question.”
Laurie Sansom, artistic director of the NTS, specifically chose the play to open the season. “Inevitably, the referendum provides the context for the work that’s going to made this year, whether it’s specifically about national identity or not. I wanted Rantin to be the first thing out of the blocks in 2014 because Kieran’s constructed this multi-faceted poem to a mongrel nation. It seems such a pleasant way to begin, a young artist reflecting on what he thinks the country is now, then to go on this journey of the year.”
The rest of the NTS programme for 2014 reads like a series of portraits of a multifarious nation, from the Glasgow of Ivor Cutler (The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler) to Fife in the General Strike (In Time O’ Strife), from Rona Munro’s new history plays to a series of monologues inspired by paintings in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Sansom says: “We ended up creating a season called Dear Scotland, which looks, sometimes in surprising and idiosyncratic ways, at what national identity is.”
However, he says this is no product of enforced neutrality, it’s simply more interesting than taking sides. “The worst thing we can do as artists is become what the debate sometimes becomes, two sides shouting at each other. Sometimes the media and the politicians want to draw it like that, but I think the artists and the audience want a more sophisticated, nuanced, thoughtful celebration of what Scotland is.”
At the same time, the whole question of national identity takes on a particular prescience this year. Hurley says: “It’s absolutely not a coincidence that talking about what constitutes Scotland, our past and our present and our possible future, is something that we feel compelled to do now. Rantin is a piece which starts a discussion about Scotland and our roles in it. That’s a great question to be asking this year, but it’s not a question that we should stop asking after this year. It’s a question which good theatre should be asking anyway.”
For Hurley, the play continues the investigation of music in theatre which began in his CATS award-winning play, Beats. Rantin has an interwoven soundtrack of folk songs and travellers’ songs, albeit filtered through Wright and Prentice’s urban vibe. With its living-room set and the invitation to stay behind afterwards for a bit of a sing-song, it is a ceilidh play for the 21st century.
But, while John McGrath’s seminal ceilidh play, The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, was a major influence, Rantin is a long way from 7:84’s agit-prop. “For us, what the ceilidh play form allowed us to do was play with multiplicity and contradiction and questions. We didn’t have this agit-prop narrative that we wanted to advance upon our audience, we had a series of ideas that we wanted to unpack and unfold in dialogue with them.”
Leading Scottish playwright David Greig says we would be wrong to expect a raft of referendum plays this year. “Playwrights in Scotland have responded to the issues that have brought the referendum up over the last 20 years. I tell you when you really will get work about the referendum: round about 2020, I’d bet my shirt on it. Writers need time to digest this stuff.”
Like Hurley, Greig is a supporter of independence, but he says that makes it harder for him to write about it. “I can’t write to persuade people of things. If I wanted to persuade you, I’d sit down with a cup of coffee and persuade you. It’s quite hard for me to write about independence because I have to write about things I don’t know, and I know Scotland should be independent. What is much more interesting for me to write about is why some people think it shouldn’t be.”
That said, the subject fascinates him, and he can’t keep his writerly hands off it. He is producing twitter plays about it on a daily basis (@theyesnoplays), and hints that a bigger play “very directly about the referendum” may be in gestation. He is also, along with David MacLennan (a supporter of the union) curating The Great Yes No Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show, a 24-hour countrywide platform for sketches, rants and songs from amateur and professionals of all political colours, under the NTS banner in June.
Other writers, meanwhile, are looking at the present through the lens of the past. Tim Barrow’s play Union, about the events around the union of the parliaments in 1707, opens at the Lyceum in Edinburgh on 20 March, and Rona Munro’s The James Plays, about the reigns of James I, II and III, will be produced in the summer by NTS in partnership with the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Edinburgh International Festival. Sansom, who will direct The James Plays, says: “What Rona has done brilliantly is look at what government means and what power means. The plays look at how a nation struggles with what it should be. As a trilogy they are in no way making a political argument for or against independence, but they will allow us to see these arguments in a new way.”
Greig says that, whatever happens politically this year, it should be an interesting year for theatre. “Artistically, I think the referendum has really injected some fizz into things, and that is wholly good. Everything people do has been given a turbocharge of energy. If you do a play about Burns, or a play about people on a scheme in Wishaw, or a play about land ownership, all these will be given a turbocharge because society is fizzy with emotion around politics.”
• Rantin opens at Cove Burgh Hall, Argyll & Bute, on 28 January (with previews at the Arches on 24 and 25 January) then tours extensively throughout Scotland until 1 March. www.nationaltheatrescotland.com