Joyce McMillan: We should do more to celebrate the Scottish theatre artists making a global splash

If you head for the Traverse Theatre this weekend – or any evening next week – you’ll have a chance to catch the theatre’s own production of David Ireland’s latest play Ulster American, a smash hit, and winner of a Scotsman Fringe First Award, during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Born of the #MeToo moment, the play deals explosively and outrageously with a crisis in the three-way relationship between a young female Northern Irish playwright, her clueless young London director, and a big male Hollywood star who wants to play the lead in her next show; there is gender politics aplenty, but also a level of sheer, crass cultural misunderstanding around the politics and history of Northern Ireland, that gives the play an extra vicious topical edge. And the sheer brilliance of the play and production has not gone unnoticed beyond Scotland; its short Traverse run, this month, is a prelude to a tour which will take it to Adelaide in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand, as well as to Dublin and Belfast.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster in the 2015 production of SwallowSharon Duncan-Brewster in the 2015 production of Swallow
Sharon Duncan-Brewster in the 2015 production of Swallow

Nor is Ulster American alone, in hitting the international trail over the next few weeks. The Royal Lyceum’s recent production of mountaineering classic Touching The Void, for example – co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, and London producers Fuel – is on stage tonight at the City Hall Theatre in Hong Kong, as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Anything That Gives Off Light, the National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production with the New York based company TEAM, is about to start a short American tour; the 2018 Traverse hit What Girls Are Made Of, written by and starring Cora Bissett, will be seen in Sao Paulo, Brazil, later this spring.

And beyond the costly business of whole productions from Scotland touring outside the UK, there is also the growing international reach of the latest wave of new writing from Scotland. A Scottish Playright’s Studio/Scottish Society of Playwrights survey covering 2016-2017, for example, found that in those two years 69 existing plays, by 26 Scottish-based playwrights, had had productions outside Scotland, most of them outside the UK. In January this year, the leading Scottish playwright and director Zinnie Harris had three different plays opening across Europe in a single weekend, at the Royal Dramaten in Stockholm, in Rome, and in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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Stef Smith, whose new take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, called Nora, is set to open in a Citizens’ production at the Tramway on 15 March, has seen her 2015 Traverse play Swallow run for three years in Istanbul. A study of three troubled women in a 21st century urban landscape, Swallow has also had productions in six other countries, and has been translated into a dozen languages. The relationship between Scottish and Turkish theatre is particularly intense at the moment, revolving around a strong connection with DOT Theatre of Istanbul; David Greig’s Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart is currently running there, and Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Fringe First winning 2018 play Square Go has also been seen in Istanbul. And all of this represents only a fraction of the international work in which Scottish-based playwrights are involved, in a scene that ranges from Jo Clifford’s Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven – now a symbol of resistance to the right-wing Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil – to the National Theatre of Scotland’s parkour-based Jump project in Jamaica, celebrated at the Glasgow Film Festival tomorrow in the documentary film Run Free.

So what are we to make of the international reach of Scottish theatre artists? In the first place, it is worth noting just how low-profile much of this work has become; no organisation has any particular responsibility for keeping a record of, or publicising, the global reach of Scottish theatre work, and the vital organisations which underpin Scotland’s strong presence on the international scene – from the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe to the British Council – have other key priorities.

Secondly, though, the Scottish theatre community could find more effective ways of celebrating Scottish theatre’s huge international reach, and of sharing the experience with their home audiences. A once-a-year event at a major Scottish theatre venue, featuring film and stories, visual images and debate, and involving some of Scottish theatre’s international partners, might help to raise awareness of existing projects, and to create new possibilities for creative co-production and two-way traffic, including more Scottish productions of new plays from elsewhere.

As for the impact on writers of seeing their work performed internationally, all playwrights and theatre-makers seem to agree that the effect can be incalculable. Both Smith and Harris have noted the intensity of the current Turkish response to plays featuring gay or transgender characters, as the Erdogan government moves to ban such plays completely; and both feel they have learned a great deal from their experience of director-led theatre cultures, more likely to play fast and loose with text.

“The whole experience makes the world seem both much bigger, and much smaller,” says Smith, “in very positive ways. You get a sense of all these huge cultural possibilities, but also of the fact that if you write from the truth of your own vision, then people everywhere will respond.”

And Harris agrees. “The bottom line, really, is that by allowing the play to be staged elsewhere, you have to trust the creatives working in a different theatrical culture to stage it in the way that will resonate best. It means you have to let go of your vision a little; and that’s why this part of my work has been so important to me. It’s the chance to connect and learn from theatre makers and audiences across the world, and – through the medium of theatre – to become more outward looking and responsive, in every way.”

Ulster American is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 March; Touching The Void is on tour to Perth and Inverness from 6 March.