2011 Arts Roundup: Joyce McMillan, Theatre

Despite funding cuts and uncertainty, 2011 was still a thrilling year for Scottish theatre with plenty of innovative, provoking and delightful productions

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times. On one hand, the Scottish theatre scene was busier – and in total more richly funded – than at any time in its history; in the course of the year, this particular Fairy Godmother saw and reviewed more than 270 shows, the vast majority of them made here in Scotland.

Yet fear stalked the land, as local authorities faced swingeing cuts, and the main funding body Creative Scotland prepared for a theatre review widely expected to mean curtains for some familiar companies. Only the National Theatre of Scotland - funded directly by the Scottish Government, along with the other national arts flagships – escaped the mood of apprehension and gloom; and was often rewarded for its jollity with the snarling ill-will of the rest of the Scottish theatre community.

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So what happened in Scottish theatre in 2011? Well, if you kept your eyes on the stage, an untold feast of weird, wonderful and straightforwardly brilliant theatrical riches; here are the headlines, and they don’t tell you the half of it.

The National Theatre of Scotland Celebrated Its Fifth Birthday – and did it with a packed programme of work, beginning in February with its gorgeous, magical pub show The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (a 21st-century tribute by David Greig to the great Border Ballads tradition), and ending this month with its first-ever Christmas show, a version of Dickens’s Christmas Carol, staged in an old schoolroom at Film City, once Govan Town Hall. There was a powerful mainstage version of Ena Lamont Stewart’s 1947 classic Men Should Weep, starring Lorraine McIntosh and Michael Nardone and directed by Graham McLaren, which toured across Scotland to great acclaim in the autumn; a bold revival of Greig’s Dunsinane at the Lyceum in the Spring; and a rich range of smaller shows. And throughout the year, the NTS ran what was often an electrifying series of debates and events on the story of Scottish theatre. Highlights included a star-studded session on the works of John Byrne at the Traverse in the spring, a packed celebration of panto with Alan Cumming at the Theatre Royal in November, and – just this month – a brilliantly-curated evening at the Scottish Parliament on the history and future of political theatre in Scotland, partly put together by that increasingly important father-figure of the Scottish stage, David MacLennan.

The Kids Were Alright – both in the shows they performed themselves, and in a fine year for theatre made for young people by professional companies. One of the outstanding events of the year was the National Theatre of Scotland’s Extreme project in Aberdeen, culminating in a mind-blowing promenade theatre show, Nothing To See Here, in which small groups of audience members were led by young actors through the bowels of a soon-to-be-demolished community centre, and into a range of ever more extreme and thrilling experiences. Towards the end of the year, again for NTS, John Retallack of Company of Angels produced a fine touring show called Truant, about troubled teenagers, seen and debated in community centres across Glasgow. Edinburgh’s Lyceum Youth Theatre delivered a memorable and timely production of James Graham’s hard-hitting play Bassett, about the town that – until this year – commemorated Britain’s war dead from Iraq and Afghanistan; and in the autumn, two shows backed by leading children’s company Catherine Wheels – Rob Evans’s new version of the story of Kes, and Shona Reppe’s delicious mini-show The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean – thrilled young audiences across Scotland.

Scotland Welcomed Some Brilliant Visitors – and not only during the Edinburgh Festival; although this year’s Asian-facing festival featured a quiet masterpiece in Stephen Earnhart and Greg Pierce’s version of Haruki Murakami’s beautiful novel about urban alienation in modern Japan, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the Traverse Fringe played host to the brilliant TEAM of New York in their wild, cabaret-like elegy for the American dream, Mission Drift. A great year for touring shows visiting Scotland began in January, when cutting-edge visual theatre company 1927 brought their superb The Animals and Children Took to the Streets to the Traverse; it also included Derek Jacobi’s King Lear in Glasgow in March, and reached a pinnacle of perfection in October, when the King’s in Edinburgh played host to Nicholas Hytner’s inspired Sixties-set version of One Man, Two Guvnors (Servant of Two Masters), starring James Corden.

Artists Smashed the Boundaries Between Art Forms – not least in Stewart Laing’s fabulous Salon Project, at the Traverse in October, a cross between social event, installation, performance and debate in which the entire audience of 60 people were dressed to kill in superb period costume by an inspired team of dressers and make-up artists; and then unleashed into the strange white world of an elegant salon built on the Traverse stage, to contemplate the nature and end of civilisation. Rob Drummond’s Wrestling, at the Arches in the spring, was a theatre show turned wrestling match. Vanishing Point’s Saturday Night – at the Tramway and the Traverse in October – was also part-installation, a lyrical and chilling wordless meditation on change and memory created with an international European company. And towards the end of the year, both Magnetic North’s hilariously operatic cook-show farce Pass the Spoon, at the Tramway, and Cryptic’s exquisite Little Match Girl Passion, at the Tron and the Traverse, merged movement, music, dialogue, design, oratorio and song to mind-blowing effect.

And Amid All the Experimentation, the Main Stages and New Play Theatres Still Produced Some Gems – with hits ranging from Muriel Romanes’s terrific Stellar Quines/Royal Lyceum production of the suffragette story, Age Of Arousal, back in February, to a wonderful Phillip Breen staging of Peter Nichols’s 1967 masterpiece A Day in the Death Of Joe Egg, at the Citizens’ Theatre in October. It was a good year all round for Nichols, whose brave 1972 play, Privates on Parade also received a fine production at Pitlochry. In what was sometimes a disappointing year for new writing, the Tron and Traverse played host to one 24-carat classic of a piece, in David Harrower’s exquisite double monologue of modern Scotland, A Slow Air. And at Oran Mor in Glasgow, David MacLennan’s miraculous lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint seasons powered on, presenting almost 40 short plays in the year, allowing new talent to find its feet and old stagers to spread their wings, finding new partners and imitators from Philadelphia to Moscow; and now preparing to celebrate the 250th play in the series, due sometime in February, 2012.