Joyce McMillan: Greatest shows defy easy labels

The first week of September, and a friend asks me what’s on my post-Festival schedule. She glazes over a bit as I talk about the beginning of the new lunchtime season at Oran Mor, and about Rapture Theatre’s new production of All My Sons, one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
Solar Bear's Kind Of Silence is aimed at both deaf and hearing audiencesSolar Bear's Kind Of Silence is aimed at both deaf and hearing audiences
Solar Bear's Kind Of Silence is aimed at both deaf and hearing audiences

She begins to look more animated, though, when I talk about a new show by Solar Bear, Scotland’s theatre company specialising in work aimed at both deaf and hearing audiences, including children. Because here’s something, after all, that any compassionate, engaged citizen can immediately relate to: a theatre company doing something obviously useful to society, linking itself to a generally acknowledged good cause, and not just pursuing the ephemeral and difficult notion of artistic achievement, beauty and truth.

As it turns out, of course, Solar Bear’s new show Kind Of Silence does both at once, in impressive style; it’s a beautiful, exquisitely crafted show. Yet I’m still brooding on the growing need for shows and companies to claim this kind of “useful” function, as the brochures arrive for two more arts festivals with powerful health-related themes: Scotland’s Creative Ageing Festival, Luminate, which runs throughout October, and the increasingly impressive Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival (SMHAFF), which runs this year from 10-31 October.

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Once again, there’s no question that both festivals will contain work of tremendous quality. In Edinburgh alone, Luminate is providing a platform for more than 30 events across half-a-dozen art-forms, ranging from Lung Ha’s new show Thingummy Bob, by award-winning writer Linda McLean, to a debate with the Royal Lyceum’s Waiting For Godot stars, Brian Cox and Bill Paterson, about the portrayal of ageing on stage.

And SMHAFF, which always reflects one of the great central themes of art and performance through the ages, brings together a new Vision Mechanics show, In Her Shadow, directed by National Theatre of Scotland associate Cora Bissett, and Rapture Theatre’s second Arthur Miller play of the autumn, The Last Yankee, which deals with the impact of depression, alongside more than 300 other events across Scotland.

Yet, for all the sheer power and quality of these events, I still can’t help feeling a twinge of unease at the growing need for arts projects to label themselves in this utilitarian and easily-legible way. After all, the main creative excitement in Scottish theatre is rippling around the great Citizens’ Theatre/Edinburgh International Festival stage version of Alasdair’s Gray’s Lanark, now playing in Glasgow, and John McGrath’s 1973 ceilidh masterpiece The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, about to open at Dundee.

And what’s clear about those two great works is that they utterly defy any officially-approved idea of “usefulness”: the Cheviot because it is an explicitly radical piece of agitprop that seeks to put a metaphorical bomb under existing power-structures, and Lanark because its roots and purposes are far too vast and mysterious, even to its own author, ever to be summed up in any such obvious way.

It’s striking, after all, that both Luminate and SMHAFF are often at their best when they are at their angriest, raging against the official neglect and general prejudice that darkens the lives of vulnerable people everywhere. And it’s also worth remembering that great art finally tends to speak to us not because we belong to some particular interest-group, but because we are human, bound up in the big story of humanity that sings through a novel like Lanark; and it’s a lazy culture, and a lazy funding-system, that ever loses sight of that truth, and begins to use obvious utility as a criterion for interest and support, instead of striving to recognise the deep and often unnameable undercurrents of creative energy that power the greatest work, whatever its theme.

• Solar Bear’s Kind Of Silence is on tour until 24 September. Luminate opens across Scotland on 1 October, and SMHAFF on 10 October