2021 Arts preview: The Year Ahead in Theatre

After smashing her crystal ball in a fit of pique, our theatre critic must resort to other, less refined methods in her annual attempt to foretell the future of Scottish theatre...
Matthew Zajac in The Tailor of InvernessMatthew Zajac in The Tailor of Inverness
Matthew Zajac in The Tailor of Inverness

As the New Year approaches, Mystic McMillan is working under difficult circumstances. Back in March 2020, she smashed her own crystal ball into a thousand pieces, after it failed to predict the Covid pandemic. Mystic is therefore working from home, with a dog-eared pack of tarot cards, and a large bottle of gin; small wonder that, this year, her visions seem even more blurred than usual…

January Despite the traumatic events of 2020 – or perhaps because of them – there are stirrings of life in Scottish theatre, as the year begins. Pitlochry Festival Theatre employs its first-ever Winter Ensemble of 21 actors, and starts to plan an ambitious programme of outdoor and online work; although their initial plan to stage a show on the upper slopes of Ben Vrackie is cancelled following a sharp January snowfall. Meanwhile, a light gleams in the Tier 1 lands of the north, as the familiar figure of Dogstar’s Matthew Zajac is seen on stage at Eden Court, in front of a live Inverness audience, performing his greatest hit The Tailor of Inverness as part of Scotland’s first, tentative post-Covid theatre season. The show is streamed live to less fortunate parts of the country; and the theatre fans of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee watch from home, with undisguised longing.

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February At Dundee Rep, meanwhile, Matthew Lenton’s magnificent Vanishing Point company starts distanced rehearsals for a new project called Who Framed Frankie Drago?, in which the leading role will be played every night by a different actor who does not know that night’s story. “How much of this will happen?” asks Matthew Lenton in a statement. “Will theatre ever be live again?” Maybe we will find ourselves in the black hole, at that singularity, that “vanishing point”. But what awaits us there?

Itxaso Moreno in rehearsals for Grid Iron's site-specific show DopplerItxaso Moreno in rehearsals for Grid Iron's site-specific show Doppler
Itxaso Moreno in rehearsals for Grid Iron's site-specific show Doppler

March Rain, sleet and a third wave of Covid infections. The Citizens’ Theatre launches a wildly successful film version of its huge 2017 hit The Macbeths, starring Charlene Boyd and Keith Fleming. Their attempt to follow up with a live Beckett season at the Tramway runs into Covid difficulties, though; so much so that the audience is invited to wrap up warm and decamp to the building-site at the Citizens’ Theatre, where they watch Niall Buggy performing Krapp’s Last Tape amid the ruins of the old building, and the foundations of the new.

April Despite the gradual roll-out of vaccinations, the pandemic continues. Relatively unaffected, though, are Cutting Edge’s Easter Passion Play, presented in multiple media at outdoor sites across Edinburgh, and Peter Arnott and Cora Bissett’s Citizens’ Theatre version of 1970s Scottish political legend Nae Pasaran. Originally planned for the Tramway, the show is performed to enthusiastic distanced crowds on Glasgow Green; and because this is Glasgow, residents of the smart flats in the old Templeton’s carpet factory hang out of their windows to deliver a rousing chorus of The Internationale.

May The weather improves, Covid numbers drop, and Edinburgh Playhouse tries to reopen its doors with a run of the musical Heathers. No one is surprised when the whole event has to transfer to the Greenside car park, well known as a historic outdoor arena which – around 1520 – saw one of the first-ever performances of The Satire of the Three Estates; an Edinburgh theatre ghost who hangs around the Greenside opines that the satire in Heathers is less hard-hitting, but the dance numbers are better.

June and July Summer holidays. Everyone stays at home.

Matthew Lenton, Director of Vanishing Point PIC: Mihaela  BodlovicMatthew Lenton, Director of Vanishing Point PIC: Mihaela  Bodlovic
Matthew Lenton, Director of Vanishing Point PIC: Mihaela Bodlovic

August The Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe take place almost entirely in large tented pavilions on the Meadows, although Edinburgh site-specific theatre specialists Grid Iron are finally able to stage their planned 2019 show Doppler at a gorgeous outdoor site near Cramond. The Edinburgh panto comedy duo Andy Gray and Grant Stott return to the stage with a play by Alan McHugh called Chemo Savvy, inspired by Andy’s recent experience of successful cancer treatment; originally billed to take place in the Gilded Balloon, the show is successfully transferred to the roof garden of the nearby Informatics Building, despite minor injuries sustained by both Stott and Gray tripping over raised shrubbery beds.

September and October Wind and rain. Covid cases decline sharply as the vaccination programme reaches a majority of the population.

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November The huge Cop 26 environment conference in Glasgow goes ahead, as Covid numbers plummet. Security is so tight, though, that the accompanying outpouring of Scottish theatre and installation work finds itself exiled to the familiar surroundings of various nearby car parks. To the delight of fans, among the shows is Dogstar’s bonkers 2018 Fringe piece Let’s Inherit The Earth, a dystopian climate-catastrophe musical comedy written by Morna Pearson; although one of the actors, in the costume of a struggling giant turtle, narrowly escapes being gunned down by an over-zealous Cop 26 security guard, employed on a dodgy UK government contract.

December Panto time; and as audiences arrive for Sleeping Beauty at the Edinburgh King’s, they are amazed to find themselves neither distanced nor masked, nor consigned to a car park round the back of Tollcross. Instead, they enter the theatre, to find the place full to bursting, and the theatre’s biggest glitter-ball in action, bringing back all the sparkling magic of theatre; and just for a moment, it seems as though nothing has changed since Christmas 2019. Yet as Mystic McMillan waits for the home delivery of her new crystal ball, she realises it may be well into 2022 before we begin to see, even dimly, how much our theatre world has been transformed by the strange events of the past two years; and to sense what new shapes it may take, in these changed times.

Cora Bissett PIC: John Devlin / JPI MediaCora Bissett PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media
Cora Bissett PIC: John Devlin / JPI Media
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All shows mentioned by name are currently planned to take place at the times and places described. Many of the details, though, are entirely imaginary.

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