Hill-bent on new horizons

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'IF YOU'RE doing anything that's dangerous, don't take these," says Dominic Hill, handing out a pitchfork, rolling pin and axe to Scottish Opera's male chorus. The director is mid-rehearsal for Verdi's Falstaff and the challenge is to keep a cast of 27 moving safely in a scene with more exits and entrances than a Ray Cooney farce. While baritone Peter Sidhom crouches behind a screen wearing Falstaff's fat suit over his jeans and T-shirt, an angry operatic mob cha

"It's absurd that you've got 30 people mounting an attack on a screen," says Hill when we retreat to the privacy of a sound-proofed practice room in Scottish Opera's Glasgow technical centre. "So I'm pushing that absurd side of the piece."

Giving the opera a gritty period setting infused with the larger-than-life quality of a 19th-century cartoon, Hill is interested in the way Falstaff clings on to his knightly pretensions despite the mundane world in which he finds himself. "Shakespeare creates a very middle-class world and Verdi does too," he says. "So that idea of the middle classes versus this symbol of a fading aristocratic past – the old and the new – is very strong."

This is Hill's second crack at opera after his debut in 2005 with a stripped-down Macbeth, Verdi's first Shakespearean work. "Today there were 27 people on stage, sometimes there are 47, so that's unusual," says the director, typically found staging theatre work on a more modest scale. "The music is so wonderful and it's a great ensemble piece, so doing it has been rather joyful."

On his last stint with Scottish Opera, he was taking time out from his job as joint artistic director of Dundee Rep, a post he'd held since 2003 to considerable acclaim. This time, he is on secondment from Edinburgh's Traverse, where he took over as artistic director at the start of this year.

The installation of a new regime after the 11-year reign of his predecessor Philip Howard at the self-styled home of new writing is an exciting prospect and only now is the scale of Hill's ambition for the Edinburgh theatre becoming apparent. His priority is to increase radically the amount of in-house productions, spread the work more evenly across the year and recapture the sense of artistic innovation with which the Traverse is historically associated.

"Traverse productions will be more prevalent," he promises. "We need to be known more as a producing house and less as a receiving house. I'm really keen on creating a vibrant building that is alive all the time, packed to its capacity in terms of what it can produce, and something brave and ambitious. It's about creating the most important contemporary work we can find."

The first we'll see from Hill as a director is Fall by Edinburgh playwright Zinnie Harris, a centrepiece production of the Traverse's Fringe programme. By the author of Further Than The Furthest Thing, it's a tense thriller dealing with politics, justice and revenge in a nation haunted by its war crimes. Along with Pornography by Simon Stephens, a co-production with Birmingham Rep, it epitomises the kind of play Hill wants the theatre to be producing.

"Pornography breaks taboos about transgressing, is non-naturalistic and has an outlook that is international," he says. "It's about what it is to be human, to be alive. It's an important work about big issues – and for me that's what theatre is about. Zinnie's play is a stunning piece about democracy, revenge and justice. I want work that has a wide outlook, that is provocative, thought-provoking and, to some extent, epic."

He is keeping his Fringe programme smaller than in recent years – no satellite venues around the city this time – in order for it to be a manageable size and to free resources for the rest of the year. What he's trying to achieve is a concentrated line-up of quality plays. Certainly the prospect of seeing back-to-back productions of new work in the main theatre by Harris, Stephens, Enda Walsh, Mark O'Rowe and Daniel Kitson is highly tempting. The studio line-up is scarcely less so, featuring a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and New York's TEAM, a dark comedy by Glasgow's Vox Motus and the Tron, and the return to Edinburgh of Fringe First winners Adam Rapp and Ontroerend Goed.

All this is just a taster for the autumn when the theatre really gets into gear. Hill is making good his commitment to putting on more plays by teaming up with the National Theatre of Scotland to present a season of four productions by debut authors. You might know the name of Paul Higgins, the star of Black Watch and The Thick Of It, only as an actor, but that could change when, along with Andy Duffy, Kenny Lindsay and Sam Holcroft, he appears as a playwright for the first time. Directed by talents as formidable as John Tiffany, Vicky Featherstone and Hill himself, the plays have every chance of being hits. "It's a fantastic opportunity to do brand new work by people who've never had plays on before," he says.

At the same time as that lot, there'll be Midsummer, a musical love story by David Greig, Cherry Blossom, a verbatim play by Catherine Grosvenor about Poles in Scotland and, soon after, in a sign of the Traverse easing its traditional no-classics policy, an international co-production of Schiller's Mary Stuart. "It's about saying, yes, all these collaborations are possible," says Hill. "Let's welcome people to come and work with us and make it the most exciting, vibrant building in Scotland."

Falstaff, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, May 13–24 (selected days) and on tour www.scottishopera.org.uk, www.traverse.co.uk

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