Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The National Theatre of Scotland

sure I saw an opinion in there somewhere...
The past year has been a quiet one for the National Theatre of Scotland. To put it another way, the past year has been a busy year for the National Theatre of Scotland.

While there was plenty of noise during the fifth anniversary year, 2013 has seen the company getting on with work without excessive fanfare. The change of artistic directors is always a time for a company to go for a rest, and although the new man at the top hasn’t burst out with a Big Plan, the NTS have been consolidating their strategies. The Auteur season, in collaboration with The Arches, offered evidence of their commitment to the rising generation of theatre-makers, the revival of Dusinane reminded audiences that they could still go a Grand Theatrical Event (even as it turned into a scenery-chewing contest between the stars), the ill-fated Patterson’s Land venue at the Fringe at least suggested they were still interested in ambitious projects. All of these share a preoccupation with the new: new approaches, new plays, new artists.

The birth of the NTS promised a ‘theatre without walls’ both literally – they have no home venue – and metaphorically: there are no boundaries to their vision of performance. Supporting Claire Cunningham sees them wander into choreography; the Jump project is a bold attempt to shape community theatre. A few years ago, The Arches had a reputation for allowing artists ‘the freedom to fail.’ It’s an unfortunate phrase, but the NTS is founded on a similar principle.

Vicky Featherstone liked to mention how, as artistic director of a national company, she was most excited by theatre that was led by the creator. Rather than shaping the company according to a pre-ordained vision, she looked to the theatre community to provide ideas and enthusiasm. While there is a whole discourse about what ‘failure’ means within art (generally, ‘I don’t like it’ becomes the foundation of deeper criticism), the ‘failures’ of the NTS ought not to be counted as the occasional poor production, but in terms of the organisation’s overall remit and ambitions. On these terms, it is doing pretty well.

The Auteur season, although it produced two complete works and a selection of works-in-progress, was a more intriguing success than Blackwatch. Sure, Kieran Hurley’s Rantin is designed to be a smaller show, and won’t ever garner the same international audiences. But it revealed that the NTS is ready to get behind emerging artists and throw down theatre that doesn’t confirm to some grand ideal but engages immediately with specific moments in time. Rantin didn’t conjure up a mythical statement about Scottish identity, but it did sketch out opinions and possibilities. It was also an intriguing fusion of post-dramatic and ‘popular’ theatre, of the sort that once made 7:84 a big deal.

The Auteur selection was all about a National Theatre that speaks to its nation’s artists. Back in the 1960s, when that National Theatre in London was being built, there was still a trace of the ardent nationalism that made a state-supported theatre an urgent need: like Opera Houses, or a good ballet company, matters of British pride were at stake. Somehow, the NTS has avoided that. Sure, it has Blackwatch and whatever Alan Cumming vehicle it needs to show the world how wonderful Scotland is. More importantly, it is cultivating artists who work in the country. There are probably a few competing agenda in there somewhere, but its output has been remarkably free of the kind of pontificating national pride that sadly marked Dear Larry’s stewardship of the NT down in the Big Smoke.

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