Scottish independence debate played out in theatre

The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed
The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed
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A 24-HOUR marathon of micro-plays on the theme of independence is now a tribute to one of the visionaries behind it, writes Mark Fisher

Less than a fortnight ago, I put in a request to the National of Theatre of Scotland (NTS) to set up an interview for The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. I knew director David MacLennan was ill – he had been suffering from motor neuron disease for the past few months – so I was expecting the company to suggest an interview with his co-curator, David Greig. That’s more or less what happened – but with one qualification: if I wanted to interview MacLennan as well, he’d be happy to answer questions by e-mail.

The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed

The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed

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I didn’t take up the offer and it’s only now, since news broke of MacLennan’s death last Friday, that I appreciate quite what an exceptional suggestion it was.

The man who was there at the birth of 7:84 Scotland, who reinvented himself as a driving force behind the musical mavericks of Wildcat Stage Productions and who reinvented himself once more as the progenitor of A Play, a Pie and a Pint – one of the great success stories of 21st-century Scottish theatre – was prepared to promote the work he loved and believed in right until the very end.

And it’s hard to think of a more fitting tribute to a man who engaged so passionately with democratic politics than the project he was working on when he died. Five-Minute Theatre is the addictive idea established by the NTS in 2011 in which micro-performances take place all over Scotland and beyond and are broadcast live on the internet in a back-to-back, round-the-clock compendium.

The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed

The Great Yes, No, Don't Know Five-Minute Theatre Show. Picture: Contributed

Since its debut, the project has involved 1,570 performers from 53 countries in 325 pieces of theatre. It is, in other words, the very model of democratic participation that MacLennan dedicated his life to.

That’s why Five-Minute Theatre seemed such a perfect fit when the two curators were casting about for a format for an independence-themed show. Neither Greig, a Yes supporter, nor MacLennan, who would have been a No voter, was interested in presenting some crude polemical drama that made the case for one side or the other without the complexity that characterises good theatre. And although MacLennan had been part of 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, the archetypal state-of-the-nation play, they were unsure about how to create a vehicle that would reflect the diversity of opinion from Highland to lowland, from island to Central Belt. The democratic ethos of Five-Minute Theatre was the answer they were looking for. It now also looks like a celebration of one of the towering figures, modest though he was, of modern Scottish theatre.

“Both David and I had separately thought we needed to do something about the referendum and it seemed daft to compete,” said Greig, just days before MacLennan’s death.

“I was anxious about doing a variety show about independence with a bunch of artists who would have to pretend they felt balanced. I could mix it up with one sketch Yes and the next sketch No, but that felt really boring.

David MacLennan. Picture: Julie Bull

David MacLennan. Picture: Julie Bull

“Suddenly the idea of Five-Minute Theatre came about and we thought, well, of course, the democratic approach to this referendum is to be democratic in how you put the show together.”

He added: “We realised the only way you could do a show about the referendum was if you invited everyone to the door, let the door open and brought them in – and then also brought it out, so it wasn’t about who can turn up on a particular night in Glasgow or Stornoway, but somebody in Stornoway is getting their voice heard by somebody in Jedburgh and vice versa.”

Even before the sad news broke, plans were afoot to pay tribute to MacLennan’s contribution to Scottish theatre. As well as watching Five-Minute Theatre on computer or, for the first time, mobile device, you can join public events at hubs around the country including Oran Mor – home to MacLennan’s remarkable lunchtime theatre company.

Here, over the course of Monday evening, Greig will lead a celebration of political theatre that will involve variety-style sketches created by a group of playwrights and actors. “Celebratory democratic political theatre is a Scottish tradition and David MacLennan is one of the great practitioners of that tradition and it felt right to have a bit of that at the heart of it,” he said.

MacLennan would have been thrilled to see the variety of ideas and opinions expressed in the 24-hour marathon. 
After the NTS put out a call for scripts, it received 250 proposals which he and Greig whittled down to around 180. Putting their own political leanings to one side, Greig and MacLennan found themselves responding to the most theatrically imaginative ideas.

“It’s really interesting how the dramatic impulse takes over,” said Greig. “I had no qualms about being harsh with material that was propagandistic for Yes, because propagandistic is boring. Similarly, I had no qualms about supporting something that was really funny, interesting or cleverly put together but obviously No. When theatre is your master, you’re much 
more concerned about the audience being interested than you are about your politics.”

At some point in the 24 hours after the 5pm kick-off, you’ll see a pregnant woman from Glasgow reading a letter to her unborn child about what the future holds; high-school students from South Australia asking whether technology makes us more or less independent; primary school children in Dundee turning to Oor Wullie and The Broons to gather opinions about the referendum; and a play from Mumbai about a man making the journey to Glasgow after escaping an oppressive regime.

“I’m excited about the referendum because of its galvanising democratic effect,” added Greig. “When I think there will be a performance by Falkirk children beside the Kelpies and a woman doing a sung performance in Gaelic on a bridge in Harris and a very funny sketch by a young woman in Edinburgh... if I had to say to somebody in London, ‘This is what it’s about, this is why it’s exciting,’ that’s how I would do it. If you sit and watch this for 24 hours, you’re going to know the country and where it is right now in a very different, truthful way.”

After our first conversation, I get back in touch with Greig to ask about his feelings around MacLennan’s loss.

“I feel particularly sad that David won’t see the great outpouring of creative and democratic energy he helped bring into being,” he says. “The idea of a nationwide political variety show was very him. Some of his writing will even be in it.

“There will be great sadness at Oran Mor on Monday night but there will also be celebration of the spirit of a man who truly understood theatre as a form of political expression. It is foolish of me, but on Monday night I imagine David taking time out from fishing some heavenly trout loch, to look down on us as all spending 24 hours making political theatre, and smiling his wry, twinkling smile, happy in a job well done.”

• The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five-Minute Theatre Show begins at 5pm on 23 June, see