IT SEEMS appropriate that when I call Neil Murray to talk about his newly announced job as executive director of the nascent National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), I find him in Toronto. Indeed, the outgoing director of Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is en route from New York to Vancouver, spreading the word about Scottish theatre and trying to secure deals for his company to tour abroad.
He has had promising meetings in the Big Apple about the possibility of Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia playing there in 2006 after its rapturous reception in the last Edinburgh International Festival. In Toronto, he has been a guest of the Canadian Playwrights Guild, exchanging ideas as part of a Scottish delegation. In Vancouver, he will attend rehearsed readings of David Greig’s San Diego, which the Tron performed in the Edinburgh International Festival of 2003, as well as Henry Adam’s The People Next Door and Linda McLean’s Shimmer.
Of course, it was a minor inconvenience that Murray was in North America just as his new job was announced, but it’s a perfect illustration of why he has been so good for the Tron - and why he should make a formidable partnership with Vicky Featherstone, the inaugural artistic director of the NTS, appointed last year.
Through his time at 7:84 and his nine years at the Tron, the Welshman has acquired a rare grounding in Scottish theatre, yet there is nothing parochial about his vision. With Murray behind it, this national theatre will operate on an international platform. That means Scottish artists being seen abroad and foreign artists being seen here.
"Vicky and I think the National Theatre should be international as well," he says. "Its first role is within Scotland, but any national theatre worth its salt also looks outside. I see no reason why international artists can’t be part of a team working in Scotland."
For Featherstone, the decision to give him the job was easy. "Who wouldn’t appoint Neil Murray?" she says, herself desperately busy as she directs David Greig’s Pyrenees - unfinished business from her former company, Paines Plough. "He has an exemplary track record in doing exactly what this model has been created for, which is to bring artists and companies together to create work that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Neil’s particular skill is to create the space and the environment for people to do their best."
These are fascinating times for the NTS, when the much talked-about theory becomes practice. The organisation has been conceived like no other national theatre, and until its programme swings into action next year, its exact nature is unknown. What we do know is this: there will be no building apart from modest administrative offices, and there will be no fixed company of actors. Instead, the NTS will draw on the whole of Scottish theatre to create shows both large and small, using its two-year 7.5m budget to transform the theatrical landscape.
MURRAY’S APPOINTMENT precedes the imminent hiring of associate directors responsible for new work and education and, to use Featherstone’s phrase, puts a little more flesh on the skeleton. "Neil is a perfect complement to me and it’s an exciting combination. He’s got such respect in Scotland and internationally. It’s important that I’m able to work with somebody who has their own reputation and is able to further the company in their own direction."
Unlike Featherstone, Murray has no interest in personally directing plays, but as a producer, he has a keen artistic eye. Five years ago, he decided the Tron’s output did not require a full-time artistic director, and when Irina Brown left in 1999 he did not replace her. Instead, he set about inviting some of Scotland’s most interesting theatre-makers to work there.
Brown herself returned in 2000 with Further than the Furthest Thing by Zinnie Harris. Subsequent in-house shows and co-productions have included work by Stella Quines, Iain Heggie, Forbes Masson, Douglas Maxwell, Alison Peebles and Nicola McCartney, as well as the two Edinburgh International Festival productions, San Diego, starring Billy Boyd of The Lord of the Rings fame, and The Wonderful World of Dissocia, a highlight of 2004.
"I’ve had the best job in Scottish theatre, which is why it was hard to leave," says Murray. "But the NTS was a challenge I couldn’t refuse."
Many people assumed that Murray would apply for the job of artistic director of the NTS, but he says it was only once Featherstone was appointed that he could imagine a place for himself. It was intended that the top job would go to a producer, but Featherstone shifted the agenda by suggesting she would play an artistic role including, on occasion, directing NTS plays herself. That opened up the possibility of Murray joining her with a more clearly defined brief as executive director.
"I didn’t think I was right for that job and Vicky is absolutely right for it," he says. "Her appointment changed a lot of people’s perceptions of what the National Theatre could be. She’s got great connections and I’ve got great connections and the hope is that we’ll be able to combine them."
For her part, Featherstone is starting to get the measure of the potential of the new organisation and regards Murray’s arrival in the next few months as essential to her vision. "I’ve become increasingly aware of the amount of work we can achieve," she says. "I don’t want to set up any huge promises, but we need all hands on deck."
What does Murray think the NTS will be like? "We want to deliver a range of high-quality work across Scotland," he says. "If, for example, there was a big production of Hamlet happening in Glasgow, clearly you can’t take that show to Poolewe Village Hall. But what you can do is create a project around that Hamlet whereby Poolewe Village Hall will see a show properly designed for small spaces with great actors and directors. The whole country should get a sense of what the National Theatre is about."
He sees the company’s remit falling into two areas: work it generates itself and work it enables others to do. "There will be the commissioning of writers and staging of classics. My hope is that the National Theatre will tackle classic plays that aren’t often done in Scotland. I miss the golden era of the Citizens’ Theatre, when you would see Schiller and Goethe taken on in challenging and invigorating productions. Not everybody loved them, but they were part of the Scottish theatre scene.
"Then we will be working in partnership with organisations already producing great work, like the Tron, Traverse, Citz, Lyceum and Dundee, and making projects happen that wouldn’t otherwise have done. We wouldn’t control them, but we’d enable them and give them a wider life."