A couple of weeks ago, at its still-new Rockvilla headquarters in Glasgow, the National Theatre of Scotland announced its programme for 2019 – its 14th since the company began operations in 2006. Launching the programme, artistic director Jackie Wylie said that the company’s 2019 focus would be on “major Scottish artists creating major new works that explore the vital questions facing all of us, both as Scots and as global citizens;” and the list of events – which features ten substantial new shows, two Scottish tours of significant revivals, three international appearances in the US and Canada, and two major community projects – seems as good as her word. Headline productions include adaptations of Jenni Fagan’s acclaimed novel The Panopticon and of Scottish Makar Jackie Kay’s memoir Red Dust Road; and the whole package moved super-cool Edinburgh cultural curators and event-makers Neu Reekie! to declare that with this programme, the NTS had “come of age as a truly national theatre.”
Yet despite what looks like a confident and compelling plan for 2109, Wylie and her team are fully aware that the business of representing a nation through theatre grows ever more complex, as nations across Europe are shaken by conflicting visions of their identity and future, while the art-form itself expands and changes. Recently, the new National Theatre of Wales – set up in 2009, on the same “without walls” model as the NTS – was subjected to a barrage of criticism from the theatre community in Wales, in the shape of letters signed by 41 playwrights and more than 200 actors, about its perceived failure to foreground Welsh talent, and its tendency to bring in English artists with no prior interest in or knowledge of Wales.
And although the NTS has never attracted such a concerted attack, there has been one upfront suggestion – by playwright Liz Lochhead, back in 2015 – that there just aren’t enough Scots working at the NTS, as well as plenty of off-the-record complaints, over its 13 years of operation, that it doesn’t revive enough existing Scottish plays, doesn’t stage enough large-scale productions employing many Scottish actors, and spends too much of its time and money on support work and development projects, as if it were some kind of additional arts council or playwrights’ workshop, rather than a theatre-making company.
Yet today – equipped with its first Scottish artistic director, following its brilliant founding director Vicky Featherstone, and Laurie Sansom, who staged Rona Munro’s massive Scottish history trilogy The James Plays – the NTS seems to be finding some kind of balance, among all the pressures on its programme and resources. “I think we are in a place, now,” says Wylie, who was artistic director at the Arches Theatre before taking up the NTS job early in 2017, “where we can be even more open to the wider Scottish theatre community than we were in our first decade – above all because since 2017 we now have Rockvilla, which gives us the space to welcome people in for development weeks and so on. And that inevitably impacts on the work, in the longer term.
“In 2018, my first full year, we were quite deliberately looking at theatrical futures and forms, through events like the Futureproof festival, that brought together brilliant international experimental theatre artists with youth theatre groups from ten places across Scotland. Next year, the emphasis is on new work from major Scottish artists tangling with huge global contemporary issues; the year after that – well, I’m very interested in how 21st century theatre reaches out to a wider popular audience, and I hope we’ll be doing some work that has a bearing on that. And all of it is about talking about contemporary Scotland, and Scottishness, in a very complex, cumulative way, and doing it from many different global perspectives.”
For Wylie, in other words, the business of running a 21st national theatre is as complex as the nation itself; and she dwells on how meticulously the NTS tries to balance its work so that no sector is excluded, and its geographical reach across Scotland is as wide as possible. It’s true, for example, that an emphasis on new work – characteristic of the NTS since its first year – tends to preclude many revivals of the existing Scottish canon; or that a year dominated by experimental work with international auteurs and Scottish youth companies means relatively few jobs for Scottish actors. It’s also a demographic reality that any ethnically unbiased recruitment process for a well-paid theatre job that draws on the whole of the UK and beyond is likely to find that a majority of candidates are not Scottish; although the boards of arts companies could do far more to insist on some knowledge and experience of Scotland’s distinctive cultural landscape as a key qualification for leading arts posts.
Yet in the end, the primary job of the National Theatre of Scotland – as of any national theatre – is not to please theatre professionals, or even to employ them, but to provide a forum which means something to the wider public, as a place where the nation’s history, conflicts, dilemmas and celebrations can be played out, as brilliantly as possible. One or twice, in its short history – notably with its great 2006 show Black Watch, and then again with Glasgow Girls, now about to be revived for a Scottish tour – the NTS has come close to achieving that goal. And although, due to the nature of the art-form, no-one can predict which NTS show will emerge to strike that kind of spark again, Wylie’s 2019 programme looks like a promising next step on the way to making theatre, at last, as vital a part of Scotland’s national life as poetry, music, and song.
Full details of the National Theatre of Scotland 2019 programme are at www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/about/news/2019-season-announced-for-national-theatre-of-scotland/