Joyce McMillan: Nationality not the issue in Scots theatre

Liz Lochhead’s complaints about the National Theatre of Scotland miss the point, argues Joyce McMillan
The glory that is Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour surely disproves Makar Liz Lochhead's point. Picture: Neil HannaThe glory that is Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour surely disproves Makar Liz Lochhead's point. Picture: Neil Hanna
The glory that is Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour surely disproves Makar Liz Lochhead's point. Picture: Neil Hanna

HALF past nine on Wednesday evening; and the Traverse Theatre is packed for the official opening night of the latest show from the National Theatre of Scotland, a joyous, thrilling and heartbreaking stage version of Alan Warner’s great 1998 novel The Sopranos, about a choir of teenage girls from a Catholic school in Oban heading to Edinburgh for the day, to take part in a national competition.

In honour of the (fictional) name of the school, the play is called Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Its six-strong cast is Scottish, its three-piece female band trained in Glasgow, Liverpool and Greenwich, it’s co-produced by Live Theatre of Newcastle, and it’s adapted and directed by the world-beating team of Geordie writer Lee Hall – the man who gave us Billy Elliot – and the great Vicky Featherstone, once the inspired founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland, now artistic director at the Royal Court in London.

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It’s a show which perfectly demonstrates, in other words, how a team from all across the UK – and often beyond it – can come together to create a show which gives a powerful, unforgettable theatre voice to a vital moment in Scottish culture. And that glorious NTS success makes it all the more regrettable that this week’s cultural news in Scotland has been dominated by an interview given by Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead, in which she offered the view that there are not enough Scots working at the National Theatre of Scotland.

Now it is true, so far as it goes, that there serious problems with the governance of some arts organisations in Scotland, as there are across the UK. Some have boards that seem to know little and care less about the cultural scene of which their organisations form a part. Many are reluctant to rate some prior knowledge of the Scottish cultural scene as a significant qualification for those seeking posts of major responsibility within it, an omission which seems odd at best. And some are prepared to condone the kind of self-serving bureaucratic nonsense which is currently causing public outrage on Mull, where the board of the Comar arts organisation has effectively dismissed the two creative workers who, between them, nurtured and developed most of the cultural activity on Mull today that Comar exists to support.

Yet whatever the weaknesses in decision-making that dog some arts organisations – and the NTS, I should say, is not one of them – it should be noted that not one of these problems has anything to do with the actual nationality of the people they appoint; so much so that long ago, back in the late 1980s, I made a decision, for three overwhelming reasons, never to join in any chorus of complaint about the origins or accents of people working In the arts in Scotland.

For, in the first place, it’s absolutely clear that what matters about an artist – or an administrator, or an artistic director – is not where he or she comes from, but the attitude he or she brings to the job. At the time of Vicky Featherstone’s appointment to the NTS, for example, she had never held a job in Scotland, although she had worked with many Scottish writers. Yet her work as founding director of the NTS was exemplary for its vision and courage, for its understanding of the radical and popular roots of Scottish theatre (obvious in her production of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour), and for its passionate determination to bring stories from every part of Scotland to the stage, and to make the NTS matter across the whole country.

Then, secondly, no matter how hard those raising issues of nationality strive to make it clear that they are not attacking specific individuals, such comments will always feel profoundly personal to those involved. The vast majority of people instinctively know this, and would never be so rude, hurtful and bigoted as to reject someone purely because of their origin, which they can do nothing to alter. But in my experience, even one or two incidents of being told that you are the wrong nationality and should clear off leave a huge bruise on the psyche, as they did for Vicky Featherstone herself; and inflict unacceptable damage on the whole nation’s hard-won reputation for a confident, welcoming inclusiveness.

Then, finally, I decided to avoid the culture of complaint because it seemed to me a fundamental misdirection of energy.

Every time in my lifetime that Scotland has moved forward in political confidence, in cultural richness, and in its ability to transform itself, it has been not because of complaint, but because of creativity; because of those who got down and created work that gave this country a voice worth hearing on the global stage, and new ways of seeing and understanding itself. From John Byrne’s Slab Boys to Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, and Lochhead’s own magnificent Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, the 1970s and 80s were decades in which artists in Scotland increasingly strove to be the change they wanted to see; they didn’t so much demand more cultural autonomy and confidence, as simply embody it, in the quality of their work.

For, in the end, it’s not the act of self-protection that brings positive change, but the act of creation. If Scotland is a different and more confident place from the country it was 40 years ago, it’s not because of exclusion and defensive measures, but because of our growing capacity to retain a sense of ourselves while embracing the global culture in which we live, along with those who come here to work, and stay to become a vital part of our story. Some of those people are English, some come from much further afield. And if there are still good fights to be fought against the traditional holders of cultural power in these islands, then we will find our allies in that battle not by looking at their birth certificates, but by experiencing their work; in which, if we are lucky, we will hear the unmistakable music of reality, straight from the front line of everyday human experience – as we do in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, and in dozens of other shows, in Edinburgh this month.