MORE than 50 years of campaigning delivered in 2006 the National Theatre of Scotland, billed as a “theatre without walls”, its building “a place of imagination, learning and play”. A lasting, real achievement or a castle in the air? Alan Riach looks at a number of plays and playwrights in the move towards the establishment of the National Theatre and asks what is a national theatre actually for?

PLAYWRIGHTS such as Peter Arnott, David Greig, David Harrower, Ian Brown, Gregory Burke, Nicola McCartney, Rona Munro, Chris Dolan and others have demonstrated again and again, writing in both Scots and English, how historical characters and stories may be trans-historically pertinent in their themes and language, in plays closely focused on contemporary events, not least the question of the state of Scotland’s national political identity.

They have also written plays set in a Scotland more or less “contemporary” with the time of their first productions. The pertinence of history in the exercise of national identity is crucial. And here’s the lesson: nationality cannot ever be only contemporary.

This applies closely to the plays of Arnott, whose experimental epic Thomas Muir’s Voyage to Australia (1986), about the Scottish radical reformer at the time of the French Revolution, was a powerful reminder of Muir’s importance at a period when he was under-appreciated.

Arnott, with White Rose at the Traverse, Edinburgh, in 1985 (centred on Lydia Litvak, the only woman Russian fighter pilot at the siege of Stalingrad in the Second World War), and Thomas Muir’s Voyage to Australia at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, in 1986, produced respectively one of the most intense and intimate plays and one of the most epic and expansive plays, both addressing themes of love, struggle, justice and the ideals of democratic socialism under oppression.

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The first production of White Rose at the Traverse, on a small, intimately lit stage, with a young Tilda Swinton in the main role, supported by a young Ken Stott, was unforgettably intense. It was 1985, with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in its second term, miners throughout Britain on strike, and women setting a determined example of protest against nuclear weaponry at Greenham Common. The political atmosphere was packed with pressure.

Thomas Muir’s Voyage to Australia was put on at the Tron Theatre in three substantial text-rich acts, with a trial scene, flogging, the sea journey to Australia and the revolutionary prospect of the future. The Tom Muir Transportation Show (also 1986) was a short version of the same story performed by young actors from the back of a lorry parked in the streets of Glasgow. The “liveness” of both productions was vivid.

In the previous decade, Ian Brown, in Carnegie (1973), exposed in a way controversial at the time the famous Scottish philanthropist as a brutal exploiter of his workers and partners. Similarly, Brown’s Mary (1977) defamiliarised the conventional characterisation of Mary, Queen of Scots by presenting her career in different theatrical forms.

Other plays by Arnott and Brown exemplify this theme of “the pertinence of history”: for example, Arnott’s The Boxer Benny Lynch (1985), set in Glasgow in the 1930s and 1940s, and his adaptations of Neil Gunn’s The Silver Darlings, set in the early 19th century, and of Robin Jenkins’s The Cone-Gatherers, set during the Second World War.

Brown’s The Scotch Play (1991), is a five-scene play in blank verse based on Macbeth and set in a contemporary football club, while in A Great Reckonin’ (2000), the Royal Company of Guisers, imagined as King James I’s own court theatre company, reconstructs the life of the king after his assassination, and An Act o Love (2011), is written in Scots and based on Le Roy Ladurie’s study of a 14th-century French village, Montaillou.

The key critical text considering the pre-eminence of historical subjects in modern Scottish plays and the pertinence of history in contemporary times is Brown’s History as Theatrical Metaphor: History, Myth and National Identities in Modern Scottish Drama (2016).

One of the most internationally renowned plays of the early 21st century was Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006 before embarking on a world tour in 2007. The play catches the language, strengths, suspicions and cares of a group of young Scottish soldiers in Iraq, their sense of where they are, what their best resources lie in, and whose power they are under.

IT brought on to the stage the language and lives of the individuals in the context of western ideological priorities in the “war against terror”, and difficult enquiries into specific Scottish conditions, such as the relation between unemployment and army recruitment, Scottish military history in both pro-Union and Scottish national causes and non-national issues like loyalty, state control of young lives, cynicism, idealism, sexism, racism, destructive energies and the function of performance in speech, action and theatrical representation, both on stage and in the so-called “theatre” of war.

Its contemporaneity was fierce, drawing deep questions up from the history of Scotland. Script and choreography utilised both playwriting traditions and the history of military spectacle enshrined in the annual Military Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle, one of the most bankable events of the International Festivals. (Technically, the Tattoo is separate from the “official” Edinburgh International Festival but part of the joint organisation supporting all the Festivals.)

In performance, Black Watch is also an astonishing piece of choreographed action, depicting horrors in spectacular visual motion, sometimes ballet-like, ostensibly to bring about a Brechtian distancing from any ideas of easy commitment or simple solution. Arguably, however, it stresses an emotionally sympathetic response to the main characters as opposed to a more coldly objective understanding of their position and is therefore less Brechtian in effect than it seems. Had the work of the Black Watch in Northern Ireland been depicted our sympathies might be more compromised.

Given the necessary flexibility and unfixed nature of theatre, and the political world which is the context of all the literature we have been considering, unanswered questions about the future of plays in Scotland stay live.

The establishment of The National Theatre of Scotland in 2006 made a reality of something many people for more than a half a century had been pushing towards. It was argued that the distinction of the NTS was that it would be a theatre “without walls” – that is, without an actual building.

This was deeply unsatisfying to those who had campaigned for a substantial actual theatre, perhaps to be situated in the capital city, which would be recognised internationally as a cultural statement of self-possession and political self-determination.

However, the argument for a theatre committed to productions that would be visible in different parts of Scotland, across the variety of the nation’s terrain, addressing different audiences, was also recognised as valid and freshening. A number of NTS productions delivered impressive work and gained appropriate praise. Yet questions remain.

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A national theatre, given that title, might be expected to fulfil five essential functions. Resourced to the full extent it should be able:

1) to review, re-appraise and perform new productions of plays from the entire history of Scottish literature (and considering how much I’ve written on the subject, there can be no doubt that there are plenty of them);

2) to have an experimental space, where new plays, especially by Scottish authors, might be tried out, and encouragement directed explicitly to bring such work into the public arena;

3) to mount productions of professional international companies from anywhere in the world;

4) to present plays from the international history of drama on a contemporary stage to Scottish audiences;

5) to make certain all these productions are publicly affordable, and known about, broadcast, nationally and internationally, according to the quality of their achievement.

If such desiderata remain poised with potential, then perhaps, rather than criticise what has not yet been achieved, it is worth recognising clearly what still remains in prospect, and what we have every right to demand.