Mayfesto preview: all that’s new on Glasgow’s Theatre scene

Andy Arnold of the Tron is a happy man as he surveys the prospects for this year’s Mayfesto celebration of all that’s new on Glasgow’s theatre scene. In recent years, the Tron’s policy of investing in emerging artists has begun to pay off spectacularly, with young Tron-nurtured company Blood Of The Young and its director Paul Brotherston scoring a huge summer hit last year with their magnificent all-female version of Jane Austen’s best-loved novel, Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of). Meanwhile, recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Anna Russell-Martin – who worked with Brotherston on his studio production of the monologue Bunny for last year’s Mayfesto – has won acclaim for her brilliant performance as the contemporary Nora in Stef Smith’s astonishing version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, presented by the Citizens’ at the Tramway last month; and Arnold has high hopes that this year’s young resident artists will be destined for similar success.

Alice in Wonderland - part of this year's Mayfesto at the Tron

“It’s not that we’re the only theatre organisation giving opportunities to young emerging artists,” says Arnold, who famously ran the now-defunct Arches venue for a mould-breaking 17 years before he moved on to the Tron in 2008. “There’s plenty of rehearsed reading and work-in-progress activity going on everywhere. But what we can do, relatively easily, is to give young artists the chance to take a step up from that, and take responsibility for a full Tron production. That worked well with Bunny last year, and this year we have two young Resident Artists for Mayfesto, Eve Nicol and Andy Edwards, who are working on really interesting projects.”

The overall theme of this year’s Mayfesto is “Escapology” – an acknowledgment of the frightening times we live in, and of the need to find imaginative ways out; and it’s a theme that surfaces, in very different ways, in both Nicol’s and Edwards’s Mayfesto projects.

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As part of the Tron’s tradition of presenting Scottish premieres of recent English and Irish plays, Nicol will be directing The Mistress Contract, Abi Morgan’s 2014 Royal Court play based on the memoir of an American couple who made an unusually explicit contract in which she agreed to provide him with “mistress services” in return for a house to live in and expenses. Over time, “she” and “he” discuss a huge range of issues around male-female relationships, and the imbalances of power that haunt them; while audiences try to work out whether or not they have engineered themselves a successful escape from the constraints of conventional marriage.

“Often, because of financial constraints, young theatre-makers end up working all the time with their own peer-group,” says Arnold, “so one thing I love about this project is that it’s giving Eve a chance to work with two older actors, Cal McAninch and Lorraine McIntosh.”

And Nicol agrees. “Scottish theatre loves its electric guitars, and its challenges to conventional assumptions about theatre,” she says, reflecting on the five years she spent working in the communications department of the National Theatre of Scotland. “But I also love actors and text; and it’s a huge privilege to be working on The Mistress Contract with actors as experienced and brilliant and generous as Cal and Lorraine – a tremendous learning curve.”

Meanwhile, the other Mayfesto resident artist, Andy Edwards, will be working on his own show, Arketype, a work-in-progress which conjures up images of Noah’s Ark in imagining a world of climate collapse and rising oceans. And although the Tron’s much-loved panto genius Johnny McKnight is no longer an emerging artist, he will be trying something brand new when he directs his own new version of Dario Fo’s brilliant 1970s radical farce Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! – now retitled Low Pay? Don’t Pay!, and relocated to Glasgow – in a production by Glasgow Life which will go on tour, after Mayfesto, around community venues in the city.

These three new productions come alongside a visiting programme designed to show some of the most exciting new theatre currently on the move around these islands. Artists involved range from recent National Theatre of Scotland artist-in-residence Gav Prentice with his debut show Turn The Night, to the Edinburgh-based writer, singer and performer Apphia Campbell in her acclaimed 2017 Scotsman Fringe First winning show Woke, about a young black American woman’s journey through song to an understanding of the history of her own people. There’s a second chance to see Wildcard’s Electrolyte, a powerful piece of gig theatre about mental health issues that scored a huge success on last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe; and there are visits from Stellar Quines and Imaginate with their new older children’s show This Girl Laughs, This Girl Cries, This Girl Does Nothing, from Chris Thorpe with his 2018 Fringe First-winning monologue Status, about a man seeking escape from his own nationality, and from the brilliant Sligo-based Blue Raincoat company, with their “visually sumptuous” adult version of Lewis Carroll’s iconic tale of Alice’s escape into Wonderland.

“The escape theme does work well for this year’s shows,” says Arnold. “Really, though, Mayfesto only ever has one theme, and that’s about platforming new talent. So what would I say, if I was trying to persuade someone to come along to Mayfesto for the first time? I’d say that they would have a chance to see a lot of work that’s new and exciting, but also of very high quality. And yes, you do hope that if people are drawn in to see one thing, like Low Pay? Don’t Pay!, for example, then they will stay to see more. Because that’s the whole point of staging a festival: to create a situation where all the pieces of work begin to talk to each other, and where the audience can then be drawn into that conversation, too.”

Mayfesto is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 1-31 May,