The first Fringe programme of Traverse director Dominic Hill, launched yesterday, includes a hard-hitting play about dark events from the British Army's recent past.
WHEN, in July of last year, Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre appointed Dominic Hill (then of Dundee Rep) as its new artistic director, it was widely agreed that Scotland's self-styled "new writing theatre" had secured the services of a man of tremendous vision, energy and intelligence. There was, therefore, a palpable buzz of anticipation ahead of yesterday's launch of his first Edinburgh Fringe programme.
In the event, the theatre's 2008 programme – which is boldly entitled Manifesto – seems unlikely to disappoint. In particular, many eyes will be drawn towards the premiere of Philip Ralph's play Deep Cut.
The play (which is staged by Welsh company Sherman Cymru) considers the harrowing story of the Deepcut army barracks in Surrey, where four young soldiers died of gunshot wounds in the space of just seven years. The drama is based upon publicly available material and first-hand testimonies of those closest to North Wales soldier Private Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut, aged 18.
The piece is given even greater poignancy following the announcement by the Ministry of Defence, in January of this year, that the barracks is to be closed, demolished and sold to property developers. Yvonne Collinson, mother of Perth soldier James Collinson (who died at Deepcut, aged 17, in 2002), has been among many who have expressed surprise that the Army training centre is to be pulled down, despite considerable financial investment and while the loved ones of the dead soldiers are continuing to call for a public inquiry into the deaths; the government's Blake Review considered that the fatalities were most likely caused by self-inflicted wounds, but criticised the "harassment, discrimination and oppressive behaviour" it discovered at Deepcut.
For Hill, Ralph's play was an obvious choice for his first Fringe programme. "It felt like it was an important story", he explains, "and the sort of play we want to help to put on stage.
"What interested me about it was that the whole Deepcut story was originally sparked off by an investigation by the Scottish press, and the fact that one of the soldiers who died was from Scotland, and -- finally -- the news that the barracks are being knocked down."
Hill – who is best known in Scotland for his acclaimed productions of often disquieting classic plays, such as Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution and Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt – believes that theatre should confront us with uncomfortable ideas and emotions. Where the Deepcut story is concerned, he thinks that "the ultimate way to try to bury the story was to concrete it (the barracks] over". He is "sure" that the play will make uncomfortable viewing for both the British Army top brass and the MoD.
There are two elements in Deep Cut – namely its military theme and its use of interview material – which might lead some to draw comparisons with Black Watch, Gregory Burke's Iraq War drama, which has brought phenomenal success for the National Theatre of Scotland. However, such parallels are, according to Hill, barking up the wrong tree.
Ralph's drama is "not in the slightest" like Black Watch, says the Traverse director. "It's really not that kind of show... It's more domestic, more focused on the families, and less on the military." Nor, Hill insists, should Deep Cut be compared with straightforward verbatim dramas, such as David Hare's rail privatisation piece The Permanent Way, or the public-evidence plays, such as the Stephen Lawrence piece The Colour of Justice, which are often staged at London's Tricycle Theatre.
The Welsh play is, according to Hill, more consciously dramatic than the term "verbatim theatre" implies. "I knew director Mick Gordon from our time together in London", Hill explains. "We had a conversation about the limitations of verbatim theatre. He was keen to find a way of telling the story that wasn't just people standing up and talking."
Indeed, Hill's entire Fringe programme is directed towards ambitious new drama. Both of the Traverse's own productions – Simon Stephens's Pornography (co-produced with Birmigham Rep) and Zinnie Harris's Fall (presented in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company) – are exciting, large-scale projects.
Stephens's drama – which was premiered in Germany last year by the Schauspielhaus of Hamburg and Hanover's Theaterformen festival – has been greeted as "the first 7/7 play", owing to its reimagining of the young men who carried out the bomb attacks in London on July 7, 2005. However – like the play's German director, Sebastian Nbling, who says the piece is about "transgression" – Hill insists that Pornography is "not a 7/7 play, it's about the things that we think about behind closed doors".
Hill is directing Harris's play himself. An admirer of the playwright ever since seeing her acclaimed drama Further Than the Furthest Thing, which premiered at the Traverse in 2000, Hill believes Harris has "the potential to be the finest stage writer in Scotland". Fall is set in an unspecified country following a period of crisis and is, says the director, "an evocative, large scale work" which draws us powerfully into questions of democracy, what it means to us, and how we engage with it.
The programme for the Traverse 1 (the larger of the theatre's two stages) also includes work by the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, Daniel Kitson, and Enda Walsh's latest play The New Electric Ballroom; the latter of which is, says Hill, "even better" than Walsh's 2007 Fringe hit The Walworth Farce. In Traverse 2 the emphasis is very much on supporting emerging theatre artists, including young Scottish dramatists.
Fans of award-winning American ensemble the Riot Group will be glad to see two of the company's actors, Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman, performing in young Scots playwright Alan McKendrick's piece Finished With Engines, for Glasgow's Arches theatre company. There's another Scots-American collaboration in Architecting, a co-production between acclaimed young American company The TEAM and the National Theatre of Scotland Workshop.
Add to that work by the likes of Glasgow's Tron Theatre, and the Royal Court and Almeida theatres of London, and Dominic Hill's first Fringe programme looks destined to re-assert the Traverse's status as the number-one theatre in Edinburgh this August.
For details of the Traverse's Fringe programme, visit: www.traverse.co.uk