As 2015 dawns, the crystal ball is barely less cloudy than it was at the start of 2014. Scotland is still in the UK, but the UK is in an uproar over the approaching general election; and Scottish public life remains in a state of high excitement so dramatic that theatre sometimes seems to have little to add to the conversation, beyond the occasional brilliant Twitter fragment from David Greig.
Change is afoot, though, in the field of arts funding. Not only has Creative Scotland announced its first round of regular three-year funding, bringing joy to some and grief to others; but theatre companies across Scotland have noted the success of the Scottish Youth Theatre in defying an adverse Creative Scotland decision by winning direct funding from the Scottish Government, after a successful visit by the former First Minister to their 2014 show Now’s the Hour.
So as the spring season blinks into life, audiences increasingly find their theatres stuffed with squads of politicians, invited by theatre companies keen to impress. At the Royal Lyceum premiere of Faith Healer, by the great Irish playwright Brian Friel, a fight breaks out in the stalls between bag-carriers for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and new Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy. Meanwhile in Aberdeen, Alex Salmond is spotted at the Scottish premiere of the blockbuster Shrek the Musical, set to tour throughout 2015; after the show, exiting the theatre in a Shrek Ears headband, he is mobbed by children who think he is a dead ringer for the hero.
The great liberal classic To Kill a Mockingbird visits the King’s in Edinburgh, while Berthold Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle appears at the Lyceum; the Brecht play, famously set on a collective farm, causes a nasty spat about land reform among politicians in the grand circle. The Citizens’ Theatre revives the great John Byrne classic The Slab Boys, in a new production by David Hayman which also tours to the King’s in Edinburgh; Hayman makes a fiery speech from the stage, and all politicians present walk out in protest except Ruth Davidson of the Tories, who says the play captures the spirit of the aspirational working classes.
Meanwhile, as the National Theatre of Scotland’s vampire story Let the Right One In plays to packed houses in New York, a pale and cadaverous figure is seen in the front row, surrounded by acolytes. Rumours circulate that the NTS has flown the entire new Scottish Labour shadow cabinet to New York to see the show, but are dismissed as malicious.
The weather grows warmer, and theatre fans note that two different versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde have been on tour around Scotland this spring – one by Jo Clifford for the Sell A Door Theatre Company, the other by Morna Pearson for Lung Ha’s. One arts journalist advances the theory that this reveals a moment of deep division in the Scottish psyche; but local councillors attending the shows are too busy fighting over the best seats to notice. It is said that the First Minister and her husband have been seen throwing shapes at a performance of Dirty Dancing at the Edinburgh Playhouse; but the Playhouse denies all knowledge of the visit.
The UK general election looms, and the staff at the Citizens’ Theatre are relieved when no violent incidents erupt during performances of David Hare’s The Absence of War, a searing study of a Labour Party caught between principle and electoral realpolitik, presented by Headlong of London. Shrek the Musical arrives in Glasgow; and at the Tron, the National Theatre of Scotland launches Kai Fischer’s Last Dream (On Earth), a meditation on a group of young people seeking new horizons beyond a wrecked home planet. Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Green Party is guest of honour; harmony prevails.
The UK general election results in a hung parliament, and a dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives; negotiations ensue which last many months. The UK’s troubles pale into insignificance, though, by comparison with a darkening international scene; the Play, Pie And Pint season of lunchtime plays by young Russian and Ukrainian playwrights, co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, is marked not by punch-ups, but by the sight of the young playwrights holding hands and praying for peace in the audience, sometimes accompanied by stray Scottish politicians.
Edinburgh City Council announces its new cashless cultural policy; following the Desire Lines event in Edinburgh in December 2014, and subsequent discussions, the council declares Leith Walk as Edinburgh’s new cultural hub. The new director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Fergus Linehan, welcomes the policy, and announces that as part of his quest to expand the Festival’s audience, he will be hiring Easter Road stadium for the entire month of August, as the main Festival venue; however he is persuaded that the Festival’s flagship performances of Ivo Van Hove’s Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche, should remain at the King’s Theatre, since more than 10,000 tickets have already been sold.
Everyone goes on holiday. News emerges that after a six-month period during which she has been invited to every single theatre event in Scotland, and has endeavoured to attend most of them, Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop has had to retreat to a well-known Borders health spa, for rest and recuperation.
The Edinburgh Festival and Fringe take place mainly in Leith, where both flats and venues are cheaper than in the city centre. The International Festival’s blockbuster production of Sunshine On Leith at Easter Road, featuring a massed choir of Hibs supporters, can be heard as far away as Morningside, and is named UNESCO culturalevent of the year. The UK’s new interim Prime Minister Ed Miliband attends the show and weeps throughout, saying that he wishes he had known about some of these great Proclaimers songs before he went on Desert Island Discs.
Post-Festival calm prevails. Edinburgh site-specific company Gird Iron tours a revival of their department-store classic Devil’s Larder around the Highlands and the Borders, and Mull Theatre tours a new play by rousing intellectual playwright Peter Arnott. Many councillors are invited, but no violent incidents result.
Shrek the Musical arrives in Edinburgh. The First Minister and her husband are seen in the front row at the Playhouse, wearing flashing Shrek Ears headbands. But the FM looks melancholy, as if the show reminded her of someone; or of a time when the biggest decisions landed on somebody else’s desk.
Chill winds, and still no permanent government at Westminster.
The panto season. Ex-Baywatch star David Hasselhoff replaces John Barrowman as the Krankies’ co-star at the SECC panto, giving ace panto writer Alan McHugh a chance to revive his 2014 hit song from Aberdeen, Surfing Cruden Bay. Meanwhile, in Aberdeen itself, Alex and Moira Salmond are seen leaving His Majesty’s after another glittering panto performance by Elaine C Smith. After multiple recounts and legal challenges, the former FM is still not sure whether he won his Westminster seat in the general election; but he and Moira sing a quick panto chorus of Pharrell Williams’s Happy, and look remarkably contented, as they disappear into the north-eastern night.
• Note: Apart from the fantasy Edinburgh International Festival production of Sunshine on Leith, all the shows named in this piece are real, and will take place at the times and places mentioned.