Mark Brown[1]

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Since they began in 1947, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) and its sister, off-festival programme (which would soon become known as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe) have had the most profound impact upon the city of Edinburgh (which has gained the enviable reputation of being the host of the premier arts festival in the world). One might contend, as I do, that the festivals[2] (often referred to collectively as “the Edinburgh Festival”) have played an equally important role in transforming artistic culture, and particularly theatre, within Scotland.

For a complex series of theological and political reasons[3] which it would be inappropriate to explore in detail here, theatre has not, historically, been Scotland’s strongest cultural suit; whereas England’s national Bard, William Shakespeare, is first-and-foremost a dramatist, Scotland’s, Robert Burns, is a poet. Even if one compares Scotland (a nation of approximately five million people) with smaller neighbouring countries, such as Ireland or Norway, the historical weakness of Scottish drama becomes clear; there is no Scottish J.M. Synge, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey or Samuel Beckett, nor is there a Scottish Henrik Ibsen.

However, in the post-Second World War period, and particularly since the 1960s, Scotland has seen the emergence of dramatists, directors and theatre companies which have given Scottish theatre, for the first time, a truly global reputation. A “sort of Renaissance” has occurred on the Scottish stage, giving rise to such writers as: Gregory Burke (Black Watch, Gagarin Way),[4] John Byrne (The Slab Boys trilogy, Tutti Frutti), David Greig (The Architect, The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union), Chris Hannan (Shining Souls), Zinnie Harris (Further Than the Furthest Thing), David Harrower (Knives in Hens, Blackbird), Liz Lochhead (Medea after Euripides, Perfect Days) and Anthony Neilson (Stitching, The Wonderful World of Dissocia). Add to that list such directors as Andy Arnold (The Arches, Glasgow and the Tron, Glasgow), Vicky Featherstone (National Theatre of Scotland),[5] Giles Havergal (Citizens, Glasgow), Dominic Hill (Traverse, Edinburgh and Dundee Rep), John McGrath (7:84), Gerry Mulgrew (Communicado), Alison Peebles (Communicado) and John Tiffany (NTS) and their associated companies,[6] and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that contemporary Scottish theatre has become a significant player in world theatre.

It seems to me impossible that this “sort of Renaissance” would have occurred in the way that it has without the development of the Edinburgh Festival. The EIF and the Fringe have brought the artistic world to Scotland in such numbers and in so many forms that Scottish theatre could not fail to be revolutionised. The key ingredient in that revolution has been internationalism. Great though much theatre in London is, Scottish theatre now had an opportunity it had never had before to look beyond the UK’s capital and draw upon the aesthetics of the likes of Jacques Lecoq, Jerzy Grotowski and the Berliner Ensemble. That European continental and internationalist perspective is apparent in both the stage writing and the performative aesthetics of the best contemporary Scottish theatre.

Revolutionised though Scottish theatre has been, I still refer to the developments of recent decades as only a “sort of Renaissance”. Although great claims are often made for Scottish theatre, not least from within the community of theatre practitioners in Scotland itself, the truly great work is, in my opinion, still too rare. The Scottish work presented in Edinburgh in 2010 was a sobering reminder of this.

The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) presented plays at both the Fringe (Beautiful Burnout by Bryony Lavery) and the EIF (Caledonia by renowned satirist Alistair Beaton). Despite some surprisingly positive reviews,[7] both shows were, especially in the context of the world’s biggest arts festival, disappointing.

Lavery’s play about young boxers, a co-production with English theatre company Frantic Assembly, offered a predictable schema (moving from a concerned mother’s kitchen, to the tough training of the gymnasium, to the tension of the boxing ring, and back again) and a largely naturalistic script which descended into cliché. Beaton’s drama – a play about the disastrous attempt, in the late 17th-century, to create a Scottish colony in Darien, Panama – was directed by the fine playwright Anthony Neilson. In the first half of the play – in which the colonial scheme chimed humorously with the global financial speculation of our own times – Beaton gave expression to his satirical talents. In the second – in which the colony collapses, partly due to the rapid and terrible spread of cholera among the colonists – it loses almost all sense of structure. In the context of the prestigious EIF, the production was a further embarrassment for the NTS.[8]

If the NTS is not presenting impressive work at the Edinburgh Festival, the Traverse, Scotland’s self-defined “new writing theatre”, can usually be relied upon to offer exciting and engaging drama. Without doubt, the typically extensive 2010 programme (which included work by fine Irish writer Enda Walsh and leading English dramatist Tim Crouch) included many rewarding shows. However, its main in-house presentation – young playwright Sam Holcroft’s While You Lie – did not measure up to the best work on the theatre’s festival programme.

An example of the dominant house style of new stage writing throughout the UK – at London’s Royal Court as much as the Traverse in Edinburgh – the play falls into the current British formula, what I call “soap opera with a twist of Sarah Kane”. Despite some flashes of nice writing, Holcroft seems to have accepted the dubious notion that contemporary theatre audiences want small-scale, domestic dramas, in which people speak more or less naturalistically (as they “speak in the street”),[9] mixed with the kind of “shocking” action and language which is considered more “powerful” in the live theatre environment than on the television or cinema screen. Consequently her drama – in which a charismatic and sinister plastic surgeon arrives in the midst of a broken down marriage and distorted sexual relations in the workplace – is a very predictable combination of naturalistic dialogue and sudden moments of sexual or psychological “shock”.

White, written by Andy Manley, and presented by the theatre company Cathering Wheels © Douglas McBride
White, written by Andy Manley, and presented by the theatre company Cathering Wheels
© Douglas McBride

If most of the major Scottish productions in Edinburgh disappointed, however, White – presented by children’s theatre company Catherine Wheels, and written by talented children’s theatre maker Andy Manley – certainly did not. It is a beautifully simple piece for children aged two to four, in which two male characters – Cotton (Manley) and Wrinkle (Ian Cameron) – live in an entirely white world. Everything – from the clothes they wear to the tepee they live in – is white.

The pair go through the daily ritual of cleaning themselves and their many pristine little bird houses in preparation for the dropping from the sky of small white eggs (from which emanate the sounds of children’s play and laughter). However, when a coloured egg drops from the sky (and is later retrieved from the white dustbin by Cotton), this world of “perfect” whiteness becomes “polluted” with colour.

Technically ingenious (how do Manley, Cameron, director Gill Robertson and designer Shona Reppe make the various colours appear throughout the set and props?) and beautifully performed (with fine music and sound by Danny Krass), the show is a charming and world-class work of theatre for very young children.
That Catherine Wheels’ production should be, arguably, the strongest piece of Scottish theatre in the 2010 Edinburgh Festival should not be surprising.

hildren’s theatre has become particularly strong in Scotland over the last decade or so. White allowed Scottish theatre to showcase a piece which could take its place alongside such great productions at the 2010 Festival as American composer and theatre maker Meredith Monk’s exceptional and deeply moving Songs of Ascension, Polynesian choreographer Lemi Ponifasio’s extraordinary dance piece Tempest: Without a Body and Água by Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal.

Songs of Ascension, by Meredith Monk © Edinburgh International Festival
Songs of Ascension, by Meredith Monk © Edinburgh International Festival

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[1] Mark Brown is theatre critic of the Scottish national newspaper the Sunday Herald and an occasional contributor to the arts pages of the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph. He teaches at the University of Strathclyde and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. He is a member of the executive committee of the International Association of Theatre Critics and a member of the editorial board ofCritical Stages. He is editor of the forthcoming book Howard Barker interviews 1980-2010: Conversations in Catastrophe (published by Intellect Books, February 2011). In 1999 he received the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society’s ‘Allen Wright Award’ for “outstanding arts journalism” by a young writer.
[2] The EIF and the Fringe run either concurrently with or with diaries partially over-lapping with the following festivals: the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Edinburgh Art Festival, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, the Edinburgh Mela and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The following website carries details of all festivals held in Edinburgh throughout the year, including the Imaginate festival, the UK’s biggest and highest quality festival of children’s theatre: www.edinburghfestivals.co.uk
[3] Although some on the more fundamentalist fringe of Scottish Nationalist politics might contend that a rich Scottish theatre tradition has been suppressed by English influence, particularly since the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, most people who have researched the history of Scottish theatre would agree that the Scottish Protestant Reformation, which was deeply hostile to the theatre, played the most significant role in ensuring that modern Scotland would emerge as a nation with a weak tradition in live drama.
[4] Burke’s biting political comedy about globalisation has been translated into at least 20 languages.
[5] The National Theatre of Scotland was established in 2006. Calling itself a “theatre without walls”, the company has no theatre building of its own, and is based in administrative headquarters in Glasgow.
[6] One might also mention theatre companies such as Grid Iron, Vanishing Point, the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and Wildcat (the latter of which is no longer in existence), and also leading children’s and cross-generational theatre companies and practitioners such as Catherine Wheels, Wee Stories and Andy Manley.
[7] It is better that critics do not attempt to deduce the reasons for colleagues’ judgments, but, rather, give the clearest possible expression to their own.
[8] Although the NTS’s first Edinburgh Fringe production – John Tiffany’s 2006 presentation of Gregory Burke’s Iraq War drama Black Watch – was a massive success, both with critics and audiences, and has led to a number of successful, international revivals, the NTS’s subsequent Edinburgh Festival productions, such as John Tiffany’s adaptation of Euripides’s The Bacchae in 2007 and David Harrower’s 365 in 2008 have disappointed.
[9] If one wishes to hear people speak “as they do in the street”, one, surely, need only step out into the street. As the great English dramatist Howard Barker writes: “The art of theatre asserts its absolute independence of the street”; Death, The One and the Art of Theatre (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005) p.3.

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The Edinburgh Festival 2010: a Report from a Scottish Perspective