The Top 20 ...Scottish theatre events of all time

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LISTING the top 20 theatre events ever to take place in Scotland is an almost impossible task, but we have tried to come up with a selection that is rich, interesting and shaped by our own passion for theatre as part of the nation's life.

Our rules were as follows: we would try to capture a sense of theatre history, while not apologising for showing a bias towards the past half-century, a time that saw a true renaissance in theatre-making in this country. Also, this would not be a list of Scottish-made productions, but of great theatre events in Scotland, which had impact, significance and some kind of transforming power.

Many thanks to our judging panel - arts journalists Jackie McGlone, Mark Fisher and Andrew Burnet, along with Catherine Lockerbie, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Brian McMaster, recently retired director of the Edinburgh International Festival, and Christopher Richardson, founder of that great Fringe venue, the Pleasance.



Global themes in very human terms

IT WASN'T David Greig's first play, and he would later produce dramas of greater scope and moment, but Europe signalled his arrival, aged 26, as a major voice in Scottish theatre. The action centres on the railway station of a small European town. Once it stood on the border between two countries, but now the border has shifted, taking with it whatever significance the town once held. Meanwhile, two refugees have arrived, destination uncertain, fleeing some unspecified conflict. With the town stripped of its raison d'tre, the newcomers soon become the focus of the citizens' frustrations and anxieties.

Written during the dreadful Balkan wars that were undermining the continent's civilised self-image, Europe demonstrated Greig's confidence in tackling global themes through small personal encounters, the sensitivity and subtlety of his characterisation, and the sly humour that often pervades his dialogue. As its recent revival has shown, the play's pertinence has not declined.

Europe also marked the beginning of Greig's fruitful collaboration with Philip Howard, now the artistic director of the Traverse, and benefited from some memorable performances, including those of Alasdair McCrone, Louise Ironside, John Kazek and Michael Nardone. Both a lamentation on the clumsy cruelties of geopolitics and a celebration of human resilience, it was a low-key triumph.




Location, location, location...

HAD it been a straightforward adaptation of Angela Carter's gothic chiller, Ben Harrison's production would have been positively received. The Bloody Chamber, however, was Grid Iron's first foray into site-specific theatre and there was nothing straightforward about it.

The young Edinburgh company reasoned that a spooky story deserved a spooky setting, so opened up the allegedly haunted corridors of Mary King's Close and led the audience on a torch-lit journey through the rooms where victims of the plague were said to have been left to die in 1645 - much like Count Bluebeard's former wives in the dungeons of his castle.

Harrison's staging, which featured live piano and cello, made electrifying use of the crannies and catacombs, so that the theatrical experience never let up. The show returned at Hogmanay and toured to the London Dungeon and Belfast's Lagan Weir, kicking off a decade of site-specific adventures. Later came Gargantua, a foodie extravaganza that gave birth to Edinburgh's Underbelly; Decky Does a Bronco, the Douglas Maxwell play performed in children's playgrounds; The Devil's Larder, staged in Debenhams; and Roam, the only play ever to be staged in the departure lounge of an international airport.




Theatre of death breathed new life

TODAY it wouldn't be the Edinburgh Fringe without a clutch of exotic performances in some impenetrable language, but in the 1970s it was a novelty to discover Tadeusz Kantor and his Cricot II company from Poland. Thanks to impresario Richard Demarco, Kantor arrived in the capital in 1972 with Stanislaw Witkiewicz's play The Water Hen, described as that year's "least-publicised, most talked-about event".

He returned in 1973 with Lovelies and Dowdies, but the production that made the biggest impact was Dead Class in 1976 at the Sculpture Court of Edinburgh College of Art. Hurried into their seats, the audience was confronted by a classroom full of lifesize dummies representing dead pupils presided over by Kantor himself.

"I didn't have a clue what I was being taken along to see," recalled Ian Brown on his first visit to the Edinburgh Fringe more than a decade before he became artistic director of the Traverse. "It turned out to be Kantor's Dead Class, which was awe-inspiring."

The show made Kantor's name on the international circuit, inspiring a generation of theatre-makers with his "theatre of death". When he returned in 1980 with the haunting Wielepole, Wielepole it was to the high-status acclaim of the Edinburgh International Festival.




A voyage of discovery for all onboard Bryden's ship

IT WAS to be the crowning event in a year of crowning events. Glasgow's tenure as European City of Culture was already fulfilling its promise. But while many highlights had been imported, this was a performance drawn from the city's own social and industrial history - even if its instigator came from doon the watter and was now resident in London.

Bill Bryden was born in Greenock, and made his mark as a theatre director at the Royal Court in London. In 1971 he returned to Scotland as associate director of the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, helping establish it as the country's most vibrant theatre. It was here he developed a naturalistic style rooted in the left-wing politics of western Scotland.

He drew on his own family background for Willie Rough (1972), the story of a firebrand Greenock shipyard worker who leads his fellow workers into a strike, and followed this with a powerful account of the life of Benny Lynch the boxer. He also presented the pioneering work-play, Roddy MacMillan's The Bevellers, set in a Glasgow glassworks.

In 1975, Bryden was recruited by the National Theatre, where he remained for more than a decade. He experimented with promenade performance, notably with his version of the York Mystery Plays, and championed the work of then-unknown US playwright David Mamet.

For Glasgow 1990, he conceived a celebration of the city's heyday as a shipbuilding centre, which would also lay bare the heartbreaking decline of the industry. With the audience perched around the steel skeleton of the hull, a large cast led by Tom Watson and a live band attempted to resurrect the spirit of Clydeside shipbuilding.

Ultimately, the spectacle and noise proved more glorious than the rather thin, disjointed and mawkish drama. But The Ship was a bold, defiant tribute to the men who built Glasgow's prosperity.


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