Interview: Vicky Featherstone on theatre in Scotland

Vicky Featherstone leaves amid a storm of accolades
Vicky Featherstone leaves amid a storm of accolades
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IT’S EIGHT YEARS since Vicky Featherstone was appointed the founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland; eight years since the day when she found herself alone in an unfurnished office in Hope Street, Glasgow, with nothing but a mobile phone, a few scribbled notes, and – she adds – a fundamental belief in the power of theatre to transform lives.

Fresh from the job of running the London-based new-play company Paines Plough – and without having in lived in Scotland, since a brief few years in Alloa when she was a young child – Vicky Featherstone had been given the task not only of creating Scotland’s national theatre, but of doing it according to a revolutionary 21st-century model drawn up by Scotland’s theatre community itself. She was to build a theatre without walls and without a permanent company, a commissioning body with a strong artistic leadership, but working through and with existing Scottish companies and artists. And she freely admits that if she had known then what she knows now – about the weight of expectation of a nation that had landed on her shoulders – she might have been tempted to turn round and walk straight back out again, into the rainy Glasgow street.

Almost a decade on, though, Vicky Featherstone is leaving Scotland – to become the next artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre in London – amid a storm of accolades, and declarations of gratitude, affection, even love. At her leaving party in the Tramway last week, the playwright David Greig even offered up a celebration ode, in the style of Scotland’s famously terrible poet William Topaz McGonagall; and there was no shortage of tributes to the many world-beating shows the NTS has created in its early years, from global hits Black Watch and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart to mainstage versions of Peer Gynt and Men Should Weep, and dozens of inspiring smaller-scale projects that have played in theatre and halls across Scotland. “A theatre built without walls,” wrote Greig in his ode, “in pubs, in tower blocks, village halls/ In big pros-arches like the Lyceum/ And places where only a few people got to see ’em./ Nothing impossible, no barriers, no fences/ A theatre to delight the senses/ Intellect and heart./ And that’s what she dreamed/ Way back at the start.”

“So why am I leaving?” says Featherstone, blinking back tears, as she pours tea in her little office on the Port Dundas industrial estate, just north of the M8 in Glasgow’s city centre; her decision to go to the Royal Court, after all, involves uprooting her whole family – her husband Danny Brown, and their two children aged 11 and 13 – from a city where they have been tremendously happy, and where her children have lived most of their lives. “It’s purely because of the Royal Court job coming up, and that is the only reason. In effect, I’m leaving several years before I would have thought of it, or wanted to do it.

“But once this job came up, and people started talking to me about it, I thought – well, if I don’t go for this now, what is the next move? At heart, I am a new play director. I am obsessive about working with playwrights, and that’s what the Royal Court job is all about. So in the end, I thought that it was much better to leave and have a broken heart, when I’m still in love with this job and with Scotland, than to wait until a time when things might have started to go wrong.

“Could I have moved to another job in Scotland? Well, in theory. But in practice, I don’t think Scotland has seen much of that kind of sideways movement in top arts jobs. In terms of the Scottish scene in general, I think boards are often not very confident about appointing people whose main experience is in Scotland. In fact, I often ask myself why so many boards in Scotland seem to assume that a person from England knows better, even though I’m from England myself.”

All of which casts an interesting light on Featherstone’s experience as the first artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, given the current row about the number of non-Scots in leadership roles in Scottish cultural life. Featherstone says that she has encountered no anti-English prejudice in her face-to-face dealing with people at NTS, but she did have a moment of crisis over press criticisms of her programming policy that raised the issue of her English background, including those by veteran nationalist campaigner Paul Henderson Scott, who felt the NTS’s leadership was ignoring traditional gems of the Scottish canon like Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.

“I was starting to feel really defensive and embattled about it,” says Featherstone now. “But I thought – well, you can’t just run away from this, you have to talk to people about it. So my colleague Graham McLaren and I went to Edinburgh and met Paul, and we had tea, and I asked him why it mattered to him so much that we do The Thrie Estaitis. He told me all about the Tyrone Guthrie production of 1948, and what it had meant to him, to hear the Scots language on stage, and I suddenly realised we were speaking exactly the same language, about voices and stories that hadn’t been heard, finding expression through theatre. It was a revelation to me, and a real turning-point.

“So what have I learned about this business of nationhood, through being NTS director? Well first, I’ve learned not to be afraid of national identity, and to recognise that I am English. I came here thinking that I was British; I come from that part of the British left that would just reject the idea of English national identity, because it’s imperialist. So it’s been liberating to learn about national identity in a context where it’s generally not like that, not destructive or exclusive. The question I’ve always asked in this job is, what are the stories that need to be told? And I think it’s striking that our most stand-out work has happened when we’ve gone from the most intimate and personal experiences of people in Scotland, and worked outwards from that to ideas about community, or nation, or the world; and that would be the same anywhere.

“So now, I think that England’s traditional lack of need to understand its own nationhood is an arrogance, a lack of awareness. And it’s exciting to be taking that knowledge with me to the Royal Court, at a time when England is maybe beginning to examine itself in a different way, at last.”

“And so far as the negative aspects of nationhood are concerned – well I think they all have to do with the impulse to define things, and to narrow the national story down. Scotland has a great tradition of easy, defining negatives about itself, and I have really come to hate them – ‘tall poppy syndrome’, ‘kent his faither’, that sort of phrase. They just don’t describe the energy and creativity I’ve found here. And yet when people generalise about Scotland, they often still say these dismissive, negative things.”

So now, Featherstone moves on and away; but there’s a sense that Scotland has changed her, at least as much as she has changed it. She describes herself as the “biggest convert” to the experience of being directly funded by the Scottish Government, for example, and is hugely relieved that the NTS has therefore not been caught up in the recent row surrounding Creative Scotland, although she has been deeply concerned about the crisis, and describes it as “deeply depressing”; receiving a prize as Scotland’s top “cultural ambassador”, at the organisation’s recent awards ceremony, she said she was leaving Scotland “with bated breath, and fingers crossed” that Creative Scotland can make the changes necessary to win back the trust of artists.

And although she is gradually handing the NTS over to her recently-named successor, Laurie Sansom of the Royal & Derngate Theatre at Northampton, she is passionate about some aspects of her legacy here. “I don’t know Laurie well,” she says, “but he has been up here for a couple of weeks, talking to people. I suppose I want to make sure that the values of the organisation are in his DNA, before I leave, and I think they are. I think he also appreciates the team we’ve built up here, a huge expertise in running a very, very complex operation. And, well I can’t give too much away beyond next year, which is already pretty well programmed, but let’s just say I’ve been delighted by his response to some of the projects we’ve got lined up beyond that, and his enthusiasm to get on with the work. So I think the NTS will be in very good hands.

“And as for being one of the few women in a top theatre job – well, I am a very strong feminist, and I do think constantly about being a woman in the world. But I’m honestly not sure that I think much about being a woman in my job. It never seems to present a problem, and I think that’s to do with my upbringing, and my own attitude. I’m not actually very ambitious – I know people won’t believe that, but it’s true, I’ve never had a career plan. But I am quite fearless, and I always feel quite strong. In the end, I just don’t take things personally; and I think that’s a great source of strength.”