2018: The Year in Theatre

Women took centre stage in a year filled with moving, powerful, profound and funny productions, writes Joyce McMillan

The Belles Stratagem at the Royal Lyceum

The date was the first of January; the night was cold, and the walk around almost a dozen locations in central Edinburgh both long and chilly. The show, though, was Message From The Skies: New Year’s Resurrection, written by the wonderful Val McDermid, and directed by Philip Howard; and with hindsight, it marked 2018 as a year that began as it meant to go on, as McDermid set about demolishing the traditional male-dominated view of Edinburgh’s literary heritage, even inviting us to imagine the literal demolition of the Scott Monument, and its replacement with a giant statue of the city’s most neglected female novelist, the great Susan Ferrier.

For 2018 in Scottish theatre was the year of the women; a year when female artists began to make their mark on the nation’s theatre scene as never before. At the Lyceum, the hit of the spring season was Tony Cownie’s hilarious Edinburgh New Town version of The Belle’s Stratagem, Hannah Cowley’s 1780s feminist riposte to George Farquhar’s famous city comedy The Beaux Stratagem – a show that also featured one of the last and finest stage performances of the wonderful actress and singer Pauline Knowles, who died suddenly in October; and as last year, Lyceum associate director Wils Wilson continued to make a powerful impact on the company’s work, directing a magnificent community version of Peter Handke’s The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, and, in the autumn, a lush 1970s take on Twelfth Night.

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At Perth Theatre, artistic director Lu Kemp opened the year with a powerful revival of Knives In Hens, David Harrower’s great 1990s play about a young woman’s quest for intellectual and emotional liberation, featuring an award-winning central performance from Jessica Hardwick. At the Tron, the brilliant young Glasgow company Blood Of The Young staged a mind-blowingly clever and inventive all-female adaptation of Pride and Prejudice featuring co-writer Isobel McArthur as Mr Darcy, alongside Meghan Tyler as Elizabeth Bennett; Tyler also scored a palpable hit with her debut Play, Pie And Pint drama Persians, in which – topically enough – she played a young DUP MP holding a Tory minister to ransom.

The Citizens’ Theatre restaged its 2017 chamber version of Macbeth – The Macbeths – with an all-female cast, featuring the astonishing Lucianne McEvoy as Macbeth. Following John Durnin’s departure, Pitlochry Festival Theatre welcomed new artistic director Elizabeth Newman, alongside associate director Gemma Fairlie, and staged a season full of powerful female performances, not least from former River City star Deirdre Davis, who starred in plays ranging from Jim Cartwright’s The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice to a fine autumn touring production, by season director Richard Baron, of Rona Munro’s historical feminist drama The Last Witch.

At Summerhall during the Edinburgh Fringe the mood of feminist rebellion whipped up by Russian artists-in-residence Pussy Riot was so strong that the venue’s famous pub, The Royal Dick, was temporarily renamed The Royal Pussy. And at the Traverse, in Orla O’Laughlin’s final year as artistic director, strong female voices were everywhere, from Frances Poet’s intense family drama Gut, to Cora Bissett’s joyous What Girls Are Made Of, which formed part of one of the strongest award-winning Festival seasons in the theatre’s 55-year history.

Yet as if to demonstrate that everyone gains from a culture of growing gender equality, 2018 was also a year of great work from the male stars of Scottish theatre, led by Dominic Hill of the Citizens’ with breathtaking productions of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and – after the company’s summer move to the Tramway, to make way for three years of building work in the Gorbals – of Edwin Morgan’s Cyrano De Bergerac, in a glittering and heart-rending co-production with the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland.

NTS associate artist Stewart Laing created a brilliant, dream-like version of Strindberg’s Creditors for the Lyceum, and an acclaimed adaptation of Edouard Louis’s novel The End Of Eddy for the Edinburgh International Festival. At the Traverse, playwright David Ireland and the theatre’s new Interim Artistic Director Gareth Nicholls scored a huge international Fringe hit with Ulster American, in which Lucianne McEvoy played a young Northern Irish playwright running rings around two male colleagues with profound attitude problems. The autumn saw young theatre-makers of all genders, in ten communities across Scotland, working with international experimental artists to create some astonishing theatre experiences in the National Theatre of Scotland’s huge FutureProof Festival; and October and November brought a flurry of productions marking the centenary of the end of the First World War, culminating in The 306: Dusk, the wonderfully moving final play in the 306 trilogy co-produced by Perth Theatre and the NTS, and in John Paul McGroarty’s heroically huge Leith Theatre version of Karl Kraus’s The Last Days Of Mankind, starring theatre companies from seven countries, and the incomparable cabaret band The Tiger Lillies.

Meanwhile, Robert Softley Gale of Birds Of Paradise – Scotland’s leading company working with artists with disabilities – scored a huge Festival comedy hit with his no-holds-barred musical My Left Right Foot; and if Birds Of Paradise recovered brilliantly from the shock of January’s chaotic Creative Scotland funding round – when a range of major Scottish touring companies were suddenly informed that they would no longer receive regular funding, only for some of those decisions to be reversed – then so did other companies affected by the confusion, from Catherine Wheels and Lung Ha’s, which had their funding restored, to David Leddy’s Fire Exit, which did not.

2018 was a theatre year which began in gloom and uncertainty, in other words, and at first seemed to descend into chaos. Yet for those of us who tramped around Edinburgh on New Year’s Day, watching the ghosts of female writers past rise up to shake our preconceptions and challenge old assumptions, there was already a glimpse of new inspiration to match new times; and the result, in the end, was one of the richest Scottish theatre years on record – with much more to come, in 2019.