Joyce McMillan: Referendum focus of 2014 theatre

THE referendum was the lens through which much of our major drama was viewed, writes Joyce McMillan

The James Plays established the NTSs Laurie Sansom as a world-class large scale director. Picture: Contributed

Long before it began, we knew that 2014 would be a year marked by momentous events and anniversaries; the year of the Commonwealth Games, the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and above all the year of Scotland’s independence referendum. The outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Jonathan Mills, even invited controversy, back in 2013, by declaring that he would programme events to mark the first two of these occasions, but not the third; although in the end, he staged the world premiere of the most spectacular and talked-about Scottish theatre show of the year, rich in contemporary political resonances, in the shape of Rona Munro’s James Plays, a great three-play history cycle about the early Stewart kings co-produced by the Edinburgh International Festival with the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

The James Plays opened at the Festival Theatre in August – with audiences thrilled by sheer scale and boldness of the arena-like staging – and then went on to take London by storm, playing to packed houses at the Olivier Theatre, winning the Evening Standard award for Best New Play, and moving one London critic to describe it as “better than Shakespeare”. And although the plays’ relationship to the real stuff of contemporary Scottish politics was probably marginal at best, the glorious success of the production firmly established the NTS’s Laurie Sansom as a world-class large scale director, and a powerful hand on the tiller of Scotland’s national company.

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And all across Scottish theatre this year, it was possible to trace similar tensions, a mixture of business as usual, and an acknowledgment that, even if artists cannot be expected to dance to the drumbeat of official events and short-term politics, this was a special year, and one that offered unusual opportunities. During the Commonwealth Games cultural programe – played out against the backdrop of a near-tropical heatwave along the Clyde – the National Theatre of Scotland created a huge community project called Tin Forest, based on a much-loved children’s story, and built around the theme of urban regeneration; the final event – among many Games-related shows around the city – was a memorable piece of puppet theatre, staged at the South Rotunda on the Clyde. The First World War was remembered in dozens of shows, as the Edinburgh International Festival played host to Luk Perceval’s Front from Hamburg, and the Chekhov International Theatre Festival’s The War, from Moscow. In a fine year for the Festival and King’s Theatres in Edinburgh, they staged the National Theatre’s mighty War Horse in January, and the stage version of Pat Barker’s fine First World War war novel Regeneration in September; and the new Beacon Arts Centre at Greenock came together with the touring company Sell A Door to present an autumn tour of Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s great novel about how the Great War marked the end of a farming way of life in the Mearns of north-east Scotland.

The referendum, though, posed a tougher challenge to Scottish writers and theatre-makers; in many ways, the creative response to it was a living demonstration of how art and politics move to different drum-beats. On one hand, most Scottish playwrights produced their major work on Scotland’s emerging post-modern identity 20 years ago, in the long run-up to the devolution referendum of 1997; on the other, their great plays about the 2014 referendum and its outcome are probably at least half a decade in the future.

Yet if most of the work written about the referendum this year was fragmentary, short-form, instant-response stuff – often produced by artists on a kind of political sabbatical from their normal work – the National Theatre of Scotland stepped up magnificently to the task of collating some of this work into a series of memorable events, ranging from the spring Dear Scotland project at the National Portrait Gallery, in which 20 leading writers gave a voice to the subjects of pictures in the gallery, to The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five Minute Theatre Show of tiny live-streamed plays from across the country, staged at midsummer. The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know... show was overshadowed, though, by the death just ten days before the event of David MacLennan, one of its two co-curators, founder of both Wildcat Stage Productions in the 1970s, and the A Play, A Pie And A Pint lunchtime theatre phenomenon of the last ten years; MacLennan’s co-curator David Greig’s Letter To David, a final message from a Yes supporter to a friend who was a No supporter, was perhaps the finest single piece of theatre writing to emerge from Scotland’s great referendum debate.

It was a year of too many farewells in Scottish theatre, marked by the loss not only of David MacLennan, but also of the former Royal Lyceum Theatre director Kenny Ireland, a veteran, like MacLennan, of the radical 1970s generation of Scottish theatre-makers. Ireland would doubtless have been impressed, though, by a fine year’s work at the Royal Lyceum, which opened in January with a perfectly-pitched ensemble production of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, included a bold spring staging of one of the few full-length new referendum plays of the year in Tim Barrow’s messy but hugely vivid Union, continued with a much-admired world premiere of David Haig’s conventional but powerful Second World War drama, Pressure, and also featured successful autumn productions of DC Jackson’s new gangster drama Kill Johnny Glendenning, and Sue Glover’s great modern Scottish classic, Bondagers. It was a year that made it all the more surprising to learn that the Lyceum had been hit by an unexpected 17 per cent cut, in the first round of Creative Scotland’s new Regular Funding system; in grim news for Edinburgh’s two major producing theatres, the Traverse also suffered a significant reduction in support.

Elsewhere, Pitlochry Festival Theatre staged a rich summer season of Scottish plays ranging from Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places to JM Barrie’s Admirable Crichton, and announced the start of fund-raising for some massive new building plans. The Citizens’ enjoyed another successful year under Dominic Hill’s artistic directorship, and is also on the brink of major construction work. Scotland’s impressive generation of artists with disability went from strength to strength in 2014, building an outstanding international reputation; shows like Wendy Hoose – a hilarious sex comedy from Random Accomplice and Birds Of Paradise – and Claire Cunningham’s Commonwealth Games show Guide Gods, about religious attitudes to disability, formed a rich seam of work in Scotland this year.

And theatre continued to happen in new and exciting spaces across the country, from the forests of Fife 
– where I watched a snowy Midwinter Night’s Dream on a chill February evening - to the great sugar-sheds at Greenock, opened up this year for a spectacular community show called White Gold, and the basement labyrinth of Summerhall in Edinburgh, which helped inspire The Voice Thief, the latest show 
from leading Scottish chldren’s company Catherine Wheels. Whether Scottish theatre won or lost, in this dramatic year of debate and remembrance, remains to be seen; the implications of Creative Scotland’s new funding regime are complex, and will take months if not years to emerge in full. Yet in 2014 the nation’s theatre artists played their hand with impressive flair, through complicated times; and through what must have been one of the busiest years in the whole history of Scottish theatre and performance.

• The NTS’s Dear Scotland and Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Show plays are all available online, and