Banned play to be given world premiere at Royal High School

War in America will be staged at a temporary theatre at the Royal High School. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
War in America will be staged at a temporary theatre at the Royal High School. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Have your say

A play banned by an Edinburgh theatre is to finally see the light of day two decades later in a landmark building which was considered as a possible home for the Scottish Parliament.

The former Royal High School, on Calton Hill, will be transformed into a temporary theatre to allow award-winning playwright Jo Clifford’s work to get its world premiere.

War in America, which was deemed “too offensive” by the Royal Lyceum Theatre when the script was submitted by the writer in 1996, will be one of the first productions to be tackled by a new company for emerging acting talent in the city.

Written a year before the demise of John Major’s Conservative government and set in the near future, the play is billed as “a hard-hitting portrait of a degenerate European democracy, rife with corruption, hypocrisy, division and distrust, set against the backdrop of a religious war in America”.

Edinburgh City Council, which owns the 1829 neoclassical building, has given permission for the play to go ahead in May of next year in the “debating chamber” which was created ahead of the 1979 devolution referendum.

The building, which has been lying largely empty since the school relocated in 1968, has been used by the Edinburgh Art Festival in recent years.

The city council announced six years ago that it had agreed a long-term lease of the building to allow it to become a hotel. However the plans were rejected due to concerns about the impact of two “Inca-style extensions” on either side of the landmark.

Councillors later approved a bid by the city’s independent music school, St Mary’s, to take over the site.

War in America is being performed by the Attic Company – set up by the trust which runs the Festival and King’s theatres in Edinburgh – after a long-standing partnership between director Susan Worsfold and Ms Clifford, who has written more than 80 plays.

The playwright said: “War in America was originally commissioned by the Lyceum’s artistic director, Kenny Ireland.

It was at the time of John Major’s Tory government when there was a lot of corruption around and I was disgusted at the state of the world.

“I wrote the play and didn’t hear anything from them for ages until eventually they said it was too shocking and they were worried about losing their subscription audience if it went ahead.

“It all happened at a very difficult and unhappy time, because for years no theatre would commission me to write an original play. I’d been approaching the Lyceum for years to try to get something from them.

“I’d forgotten all about the play. I felt it was just awful. But when I read it again earlier this year I thought it was really good and up to-the-minute.

“One of the things I imagine in the play is an almost terminal decay of Westminster party politics, which we’re living through now, and a state of civil war in America, which we’re very much on the edge of. I thought: ‘My God, I saw all this coming.’”

Ms Worsfold said: “Jo sent the play to me after a discussion we had in a rehearsal room one day about the state of the nation and the politics of our time. I was completely bowled over when I read it. Jo is a playwright who has always been ahead of her time. War in America is a real example of that.

“It is a state of the nation play that looks at the patriarchy of politics. It follows a woman who is the head of a political party and is set in and around a parliament in a non-specified European state. It follows her ascendancy to become head of that state and all the courage, compromise, corruption and hope that is involved in being part of a patriarchal political system.

“When the old Royal High School was suggested for the play it felt like an incredible opportunity.”

Cat Sheridan, creative producer at the Attic Collective, said: “I asked the council if I could go in and see the space in the debating chamber. I thought it was phenomenal and just perfect for the show.

“The council was really positive about it. At the end of the day, it’s a big, beautiful building that it’s paying to maintain. It’s not without its limitations, but when you’re doing site-specific work that’s all part and parcel of it. You just have to work within then, but you get all the opportunities that come with the space.

“It’s very much a political piece and it couldn’t ask for a more resonant building to go into, especially as 2017 will be the 20th anniversary of the vote for the Scottish Parliament. For the company, it is an amazing coup.”