It was back in 2016, just before he stepped down from the job, that former National Theatre of Scotland director Laurie Sansom decided it was time for the NTS to take action on one of the main problems facing playwrights in Scotland today. It had been clearly identified by arts consultant Christine Hamilton in a report for the Scottish Playwrights’ Studio and the Scottish Society of Playwrights, and it boiled down to this: that while there are currently plenty of opportunities for playwrights in Scotland to have their work performed in short and work-in-progress form, up to and including 50 minute shows at A Play, A Pie And A Pint, it seems increasingly difficult for emerging playwrights to step up to the intermediate stage beyond that, and to achieve their first medium-scale productions of full-length plays.
The reasons for this gap are complex, although they partly revolve around the fact that Creative Scotland no longer allocates a special fund for commissioning new plays. Sansom’s idea, therefore, was that the National Theatre of Scotland should step in, and work with the Traverse and the Tron to support two new plays from emerging writers, one to be produced at each theatre; and two years on, audiences will have the chance – over the next month – to catch the first two plays to emerge from this process at both theatres, as the Traverse stages the world premiere of Frances Poet’s first full-length original play Gut, and the Tron launches Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths, by award-winning writer and actor Martin McCormick.
“I don’t know why it is,” says McCormick, who was born in Paisley in 1981, and trained at the RSAMD after a brief attempt at becoming a quantity surveyor, “but all my plays seem to revolve around some kind of claustrophobic situation, where people are trapped in a room with no real escape. Is it a Scottish thing? Is it class? I don’t know; but I know my 2014 Play, Pie And Pint Play Squash was about three people in a claustrophobic room in a tower-block flat, and my 2016 one Flo – which I really wrote for my wife – was about a woman trapped by her role as a new mother in an unfamiliar country.
“And now this one has this elderly couple, Ma and Pa, apparently alone in their flat, until they give refuge to a woman they find hiding under a car in the street outside; it’s surreal and absurdist, and there are echoes of Pinter there, and Philip Ridley, among other writers. And of course Andy Arnold at the Tron has put together a dream cast for it, with Gerry Mulgrew and Karen Dunbar as Ma and Pa, and Nalini Chetty as the woman, Neil. How could you ask for anything more?”
Despite the fact that McCormick works steadily in Scotland as both a writer and an actor – he won the 2015 CATS Award for Best New Play for Squash, and recently appeared as an impressive Catesby in the Perth production of Richard III – he says that his life as an emerging playwright, married to the actress Kirsty Stuart, and bringing up their two small sons, remains both precarious and stressful; even as he rehearses Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths in Glasgow, Kirsty is playing a leading role in Gut in Edinburgh, and the pressures are formidable. “We’re constantly exhausted, and I’m constantly wondering whether I’m capable of producing my best work under these circumstances. But it is very exciting to have a chance to move on from the 50-minute format, and to write something longer, and more expansive.”
It’s striking that at a time of fierce political division and debate in Scotland – over both independence and Brexit – both McCormick and Poet have written plays that seem, at first glance, to look inward to the family, rather than outward to the wider world. Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths is set in the closed world of an older couple; Gut is a tense study of the question of children and risk, and how parents cope with day-to-day decisions about who can be trusted with their children, and how much freedom they can be allowed.
Yet the playwright and director Zinnie Harris – who is directing Gut for the Traverse, where she is currently associate artist – believes that Poet’s intense domestic drama does have much wider resonances. Also in her late 30s, Poet is a formidably experienced writer and dramaturg, who played a key role in shaping the scripts both for the Perth Richard III and for the Traverse’s 2017 Festival hit Adam, about the journey of a young transgender man from Egypt to Scotland; and Harris believes that her new play reflects that wide perspective, although from a domestic starting-point.
“Because of Frances’s experience as a literary manager, she’s worked on my scripts as much as I’ve worked on hers,” says Harris. “We have this really strong reciprocal relationship, where we always seem to be pulling in the same direction. And I think this play, Gut, asks some really profound questions – about how we deal with the idea of ‘the stranger’ in our lives. What do we project onto the face of the unknown, of people we don’t know? Does it just become a place to place all our fears? So yes, these are plays about family. But they’re also about how we interact with the world, and whether we allow fear of ‘the other’ to overwhelm us; and it’s hard to think of a more topical subject than that, in today’s world.”
Gut is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 12 May, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from 16-19 May. Ma, Pa And The Little Mouths is at the Tron from 3-12 May, and at the Traverse from 16-19 May.