WHEN the Scottish Executive first announced, back in 2000, that it was prepared to fund a National Theatre project for Scotland, there was rejoicing among theatre professionals and audiences, but also some apprehension.
On one hand, there were fears that any National Theatre was bound to evolve into a huge building-based institution that would sap funding and energy from the rest of a nationwide theatre community that has won a global reputation over the past decade for cutting-edge productions and superb new writing.
And on the other, there was a nightmare vision of the National Theatre as a tweedy, inward-looking affair, projecting an old-fashioned vision of Scottish life and drama to a nation already inclined to dismiss theatre as old hat, and to a wider world unlikely to be impressed by a steady diet of James Bridie and Molire in Scots.
But now that the National Theatre of Scotland is beginning to take shape, even the sharpest critics of the idea are being forced to concede that those fears may have been misplaced. For one thing, the organisation is being set up on an innovative commissioning model designed to ensure that the NTS works through Scotland’s existing companies, investing its budget in developing world-class new projects with them, and helping them to raise their game with every new production.
And for another, the creative team now being put together by the NTS board, chaired by Richard Findlay of Scottish Media Holdings, represents a dazzling roll-call of some of the brightest talent in contemporary British theatre, most of them still under 40 and all of them bringing to the table a rich mix of Scottish and international experience.
The NTS’s director, Vicky Featherstone, brings with her a glittering reputation as a producer and director of new work for her previous company, Paines Plough, and represents a generation of UK theatre professionals who are used to seeing Scotland as one of Europe’s leading centres of great playwriting and innovative theatre work.
The chief executive, Neil Murray, has been working in Scottish theatre for almost 20 years, and in the past half-decade has made the Tron Theatre in Glasgow into a thrilling centre for new stage work in Scotland, not by directing himself, but by commissioning and producing the right people at the right time.
The director of new work, John Tiffany, appointed last week, is one of the most brilliant young literary directors the Traverse Theatre has ever had. He worked there from 1997 to 2001 and played a key role in the development and staging of work such as Gregory Burke’s global post-socialist smash-hit Gagarin Way.
And this week, the NTS has confirmed the appointment of David Greig - undisputed leader of the thirtysomething generation of Scottish playwrights - as the company’s dramaturg, or man in charge of the quality and development of texts; and of Liz Lochhead, doyenne of Scottish poetry and, increasingly, of popular modern drama for big audiences, as an associate artist.
So with this rich harvest of bright, internationally minded and forward-looking talent now on board, is everything lovely in the garden of the new National Theatre? Perhaps not quite.
First, the speed with which Findlay and Featherstone are scooping up the country’s best theatre talent may increase the fear in some quarters that the National is bound to suck energy from the wider theatre scene; the Tron, for example, will find it very difficult to replace Murray’s formidable class act in its top job.
Second, the sheer amount of creative talent Featherstone is gathering around her may create its own tensions.
It is surprising to some, for instance, that Murray, who very much enjoyed running his own show and his own building at the Tron, has been willing to sacrifice that to work under Featherstone’s directorship; and since Tiffany is himself a superb dramaturg and text man, it is difficult - though not impossible - to see exactly how he will work with Greig as dramaturg.
But these are already problems of success, rather than of failure. And if we had been told this time last year that the NTS would be facing the possibility of too much exciting younger-generation talent in its artistic team, rather than too little, I guess some of us who care about the future of Scottish theatre would have been dancing in the streets.