The Traverse is celebrating its 50-year legacy of original drama by offering a stage to the next generation of playwrights, finds Mark Fisher
For two dozen Edinburgh residents, 2013 began with a theatrical pilgrimage. Spurred into action by Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan, they gathered in the city’s Cambridge Street on the evening of 2 January to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Traverse Theatre. From there, this impromptu gathering walked back in time; first to the Grassmarket, where the theatre was resident in the 1970s and 80s, and then to James Court off the Lawnmarket, where the company launched in 1963 with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos and Fernando Arrabal’s Orisons.
The party included current artistic director Orla O’Loughlin, plus folk who’d worked at the theatre or simply enjoyed the company’s work. On the way, they traded stories about late-night sessions in the bar, narrowly-won battles with the funding bodies, and the occasion, on the second ever performance, when actor Colette O’Neil was stabbed on stage with a paper knife, leading to an emergency dash to hospital and some fantastic publicity for the new-born theatre.
They talked also about the plays they had seen in a theatre which, after its initial explosion of European avant-garde energy, became known as Scotland’s home of new writing. In the history of 20th century British theatre, only London’s Royal Court can compare in its sustained commitment to showcasing the work of living playwrights.
What, then, is the legacy of this theatre? This week, the Traverse will kick off a year of 50th anniversary events with a rehearsed reading of 500-word scripts by 50 playwrights. The majority of these writers, whittled down from 630 applicants, are unfamiliar names and there’s a chance that among them are the playwrights who will shape the story of the theatre’s next 50 years.
It’s hard to think of a professional playwright in Scotland who has not had an association with the theatre. The few exceptions are those who have been intimately involved with their own companies: Robert David MacDonald at Glasgow’s Citizens, John McGrath with 7:84 and today, perhaps, David Leddy with Fire Exit.
To assess the theatre’s impact, let’s start with the two most internationally successful Scottish plays of the past decade. We should be clear that the Traverse was not responsible for David Harrower’s Blackbird (that was the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005) nor Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (that was the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006) but, crucially, it was the Traverse that gave both writers their first break. In fact, if it weren’t for Blackbird and Black Watch, we’d probably still be saying Scotland’s biggest theatrical exports were Harrower’s Knives In Hens and Burke’s Gagarin Way, both of which premiered at the Traverse before being produced scores of times abroad.
Those two debut plays say a lot about the theatre’s approach. On paper and in performance, there is almost nothing to connect them. Knives In Hens is a subtle study of a primitive community that seems to live in fear of language itself. It is sober and mysterious. Gagarin Way, by contrast, is a hilarious heist comedy that takes its name from a street in the communist stronghold of Lumphinnans in Fife. It is abrasive and polemical. Both plays worked because they were true expressions of the playwrights’ sensibilities. They hadn’t been written to order or knocked into some predetermined house style. The Traverse trusted the writers’ instincts and audiences welcomed their distinctive voices.
Often, writers have gone on to higher profile (and better paid) work after a Traverse hit. Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places, a “road movie for the stage”, was directed by John Tiffany in 1997, before the writer invented River City, scripted episodes of Doctor Who and Marchlands, and wrote the Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith (soon to be a movie). Likewise, Simon Donald acted in many shows in the Grassmarket era and, with The Life Of Stuff, wrote one of the first hits of the Cambridge Street era. After this black comedy of drug-fuelled excess, he wrote the feature film Beautiful Creatures starring Rachel Weisz, the TV movie Low Winter Sun, plus various episodes of Dr Finlay, Murphy’s Law and Wallander.
But the Traverse is much more than a jumping off point. It is prestigious in its own right and a place where playwrights at any stage in their career want to be seen. A case in point is John Byrne, who was given a boost by the success of The Slab Boys in 1978 in a production starring the young Robbie Coltrane. He went on to write Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin’ Heart in parallel to his work as a visual artist, but he was still happy to return to the Traverse in 2008 with Nova Scotia, the fourth part of his “trilogy”.
It was a similar story for Liz Lochhead, who wrote her first full-length play, Blood And Ice, for the Traverse in 1982 and returned in triumph with Perfect Days, starring Siobhan Redmond, in 1998. Jo Clifford and Chris Hannan also had plays staged at the Traverse when they were starting out in the 1980s and returned more recently with, respectively, The Tree Of Knowledge and The Three Musketeers And The Princess of Spain (winner of a CATS best new play award).
Other writers, such as Iain Heggie and Zinnie Harris, have come to the Traverse after building their reputations elsewhere; others still, such as Linda McLean, just can’t stop coming back. In this, the prolific David Greig leads the field. His Traverse CV includes Europe, The Architect, The Speculator, Outlying Islands, Danny 306 + Me (4 Ever), When The Bulbul Stopped Singing, Damascus and Midsummer, as well as various early-morning Fringe shows. With patience, we’ll find out which of the Traverse 50 writers is equal to matching that tally.
• 50 Plays for Edinburgh, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Friday and Saturday. www.traverse.co.uk