Scottish drama


The American Pilot

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

A spy plane crash-lands in a remote valley in a distant country. The local villagers take in the wounded pilot and argue his fate. The American Pilot explores the way the world sees America and the way America sees the world.

The American Pilot premiered with the RSC at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April 2005.

And A Nightingale Sang . . .

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A family try their best to get on with their lives as the bombs fall around them in Taylor’s warm and sincere play, which follows their loves, fears and joys through World War Two.

And A Nightingale Sang . . . opens just before the beginning of the war on a house in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne filled with well-meant and bustling domestic chaos. The scenes are partly related by Helen, who is stoical and self-deprecating and walks with a limp. Her grandfather Andie is recruiting mourners to attend the burial of his dog; her devout Catholic mother is fretting about the health of the local priest; her father is serenading an unwilling audience with the popular songs that light up the whole play. Joyce, Helen’s younger, prettier sister is dithering over whether to accept a marriage proposal from Eric, who is being deployed to France. Helen, depended on for guidance by the whole family, has never had any attention from men – until she meets Norman, who shows her that she can waltz and fall in love. But for all the family, nothing can be the same after the war.

And A Nightingale Sang . . . was first staged in 1977 by Live Theatre in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, and was presented in this version at the Queen’s Theatre, London, in 1979.

Any Given Day  

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Linda McLean's play Any Given Day is a drama about urban isolation, our fear of the unknown, and our guilt and responsibility towards ourselves and others. It was first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 29 May 2010.

The play is divided into two acts or 'plays'. In Play One, we meet Bill (fifties) and Sadie (forties), a couple with mental disabilities, who live in a council-owned flat in the city. They are eagerly expecting a visit from their niece Jackie, but instead their day takes a turn for the worse, and their world is turned upside down when a stranger intrudes. Then, in Play Two, we meet Jackie (forties), who is working in a bar after having to give up her job as a nurse. When the bar's owner, Dave, passes on a phone message from her son, it leads Jackie to reassess her priorities and her emotional needs, and to throw caution to the wind.

The Traverse Theatre production was directed by Jonathan Fensom and designed by Lizzie Powell. It was performed by Kathryn Howden, Lewis Howden, Kate Dickie, Phil McKee and Jamie Quinn.

The Architect

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Architect is a play of crumbling walls and relationships, about the eternally disappointing gap between an idea and its reality.

At the play’s centre is Leo, once a highly successful architect, now in charge of designing ‘access’, or in other words, car parks. In the seventies he built a high-concept and cheap-to-build housing estate shaped like Stonehenge, which won awards and praise for its innovation from everyone except the uncomfortable residents.

Now, as they petition for it to be knocked down and rebuilt, Leo finds that his family is collapsing too. His wife is obsessed by pervasive pollution, unable to move for fear of pesticides and decay. His son is lost in day-dreams about jobs he will never get, and a tense, destructive relationship with a man he met in a public toilet, while his daughter hitchhikes all night with long-distance lorry drivers.

The Architect is a taut, barbed story about vision and the cold light of day. Greig’s play was first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1996.

The Artist Man and the Mother Woman

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Geoffrey Buncher is an art teacher. Until now his only meaningful relationship has been with his mother, Edie, who doesn't want her 'wee man growing up too fast'. But when one day he reads in the newspaper that he's working in one of the top ten sexiest professions, he decides to advertise in the local papers for a wife.

Straying outside of his comfortable existence, where his mother continues to buy her middle-aged son's Ribena, Geoffrey enters a frightening world of adulthood and female companionship that he struggles to adjust to. Attraction manifests itself in warped and disturbing ways and leads to a terrifying conclusion.

Written in Morna Pearson's trademark 'lurid, post-modern Doric' (Scotsman), and with hints of Joe Orton and Harold Pinter, The Artist Man and the Mother Woman is a wickedly funny, deceptively simple, surreal portrait of a spectacularly dysfunctional relationship.

The world premiere was staged by the Traverse Theatre Company, Edinburgh on 30 October 2012, in a production directed by Orla O'Loughlin.

The Astronaut’s Chair

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Astronaut's Chair is a play about the race to be the first woman in space. The second of a proposed trilogy of plays about space exploration, it followed her earlier play Little Eagles (2011), about the engineer behind the Soviet space programme.

The Astronaut's Chair was commissioned by and first performed at the Drum Theatre, Plymouth, on 20 September 2012.

The play's protagonist, Renee Coburg (loosely based on pioneer woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran), is a gritty, glamorous aviator, the fastest, highest, bravest woman in the world. A self-made pilot, she battled against a poor childhood to fly planes in World War II. As America and the USSR enter the space race, she becomes determined to be the first woman to go into orbit. However, it won’t all be plain sailing as she faces stiff competition from an ambitious new rival. Jo Green is a determined, brilliant and much younger pilot with her eye on all Renee’s records. They both want to be the first woman in space but there’s only one chair at the top of the rocket.

The Drum Theatre production was directed by Simon Stokes and designed by Bob Bailey. The cast included Ingrid Lacey (as Renee Coburg), Tom Hodgkins, Jack Sandle, Eleanor Wyld and Amanda Ryan.

Baby Reindeer

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

I looked at her, wanting her to laugh. Wanting her to share in the joke. But she didn't. She just stared. I knew then, in that moment – that she had taken it literally...

Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Richard Gadd has a chilling story to tell about obsession, delusion and the terrifying ramifications of a fleeting mistake.

This powerful and engaging monologue play portrays a man brought to the edge by the actions of a chance encounter which takes a toll on all aspects of his life. In doing so it asks important questions about victims, the justice system and how one decision has the ability to change your life.

The Basement Flat

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Basement Flat is a short play for two performers, an unsettling depiction of daily life in a disturbing world not too far in the future. It was commissioned by and first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 13 August 2009 as part of The World is Too Much breakfast play series at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

The play is set in the basement flat of a house once owned by Fiona and Stephen, but which they have been forced to sell. They are now tenants, fearfully renting the flat from their new landlord, who used to be their tenant, and who now paces the floor above their heads. Where once he lovingly cared for the window boxes, he now plans to install a security fence and, furthermore, to bill Fiona and Stephen for it. On top of that the couple’s daughter seems to be living in the overgrown jungle of the garden and outside, although they're too frightened even to search for her.

The Traverse Theatre production was directed by Roxana Silbert, with Cora Bissett as Fiona and Matthew Pidgeon as Stephen.

Being Norwegian

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Sean, just out of prison, invites Lisa back to his flat for a drink. Lisa says she's Norwegian. Is Sean Norwegian too? In this dark, funny encounter two outsiders reach out to each other across the deep fjords of the heart.

'In Norway we're used to darkness in people's heads. We even prefer it. Because if there is no darkness then what in heaven's name are you thinking about? We Norwegians think people who are happy are perhaps just a little above themselves, don't you?'

Being Norwegian was first broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland in December 2003 and first performed for the stage, in a coproduction between A Play, a Pie and a Pint and Paines Plough, at Òran Mór, Glasgow, in October 2007.

Be Near Me

Faber and Faber
Type: Text

Father David Anderton is assigned to a crippled Scottish town on the Ayrshire coast, where sectarianism is rife. He is a cultivated, if naive and unworldly, man, ill-suited to his new parish. Drifting from his peers, he is drawn to Mark and Lisa, a feral teenage couple who attend the nearby school. Their untamed nights of booze and drugs are as exotic and entrancing to him as his solitary and cloistered life is to them.

But, as events take a perilous direction, this combustible liaison will leave Father David's world in pieces.

Adapted for the stage by Ian McDiarmid from the Booker Prize nominated novel by Andrew O'Hagan, Be Near Me premiered in a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the Donmar Warehouse in January 2009.

1900–1970 During the early twentieth century, the Scots were all too aware of the inadequacies of their theatrical past and, in particular, their lack of a coherent, continuously developing dramatic tradition. They attributed this deficiency to a variety of causes. Murray McClymount blamed English cultural dominance, which began with the departure of King James VI’s court to London in 1603 and reached its height in the heyday of the British Empire in the late nineteenth century. Robert Mitchell, a working-class activist, argued that the fault lay with religion, with the curbs imposed by Calvinism and Presbyterianism. At the turn of the century, there was plenty of theatre available in Scotland, but very little of this was indigenous. While Scottish dramatists such as J. M. Barrie found fame and fortune in London, Scottish cities and towns became largely dependent on the visits of English actor-manager troupes such as Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Company or the Martin-Harvey Players. There were some very successful commercial tours of Scottish plays, such as Isack Pocock’s Rob Roy MacGregor or Graham Moffat’s Bunty Pulls the Strings. However, these plays presented images of Scottish life which were divorced from reality, and immensely trite. The former was an historical drama, presenting the Scotsman as a violent, hairy man in a kilt, the latter an example of what was known as a kailyard drama, set typically in a Lowland parish, portraying a minor event in the lives of two-dimensional village folk in a sentimental and comic fashion. The Scottish Music Halls, with their variety programmes and long-running pantomimes, likewise presented a more distinctly Scottish fare, and in the era of comedians such as Harry Lauder, Will Fyffe, Harry Gordon, Tommy Lorne, Tommy Morgan and George West, the pantomime, as Lewis Casson put it, became the national theatre of Scotland. But the legacy of the music-hall programme, with its comic sketches and songs, is a mixed one. While the comedians themselves tended to indulge and exploit the tartan and kailyard images of Scotland for their comic potential, the playwright John McGrath has used some features of the music-hall programme as part of a new dramatic form, and performers from Duncan McCrae and Molly Urquhart to John Bett, Billy Paterson and Elizabeth McLennan readily acknowledge their debt to music-hall skills.

During the early twentieth century a new national awareness spread through the arts in Scotland, and in its wake two independent theatre movements, competing but in many ways complementary, came into being. First there was a new bourgeois movement, founded by Alfred Wareing’s Scottish Repertory Theatre (1909–14) and revived after the First World War by the Scottish National Players. Its development in the interwar years was furthered by two early provinicial repertory theatres in Dundee and Perth, a series of little theatres including the Curtain Theatre, Glasgow (1930–9), and the MSU Theatre, Rutherglen (1939–44), as well as the many middle-class amateur theatre clubs which took part in the Scottish Community Drama Association’s annual festival of one-act plays, instigated in 1926. Second was the emergence of working-class drama groups in the industrial centres, notably Glasgow and the mining villages of Ayrshire, Fife, Lanarkshire and Lothian. Some of these had links with two British movements, the Workers’ Theatre Movement and the Unity Theatre Society. Many more were formed independently by Scottish socialist organizations – local branches of the Communist, Labour and Independent Labour parties, the Scottish Labour College, the Clarion and Co-operative Societies – as well as apolitical working-class groups such as the local Burns club or, in the case of Glasgow, the Jewish Institute. The two most important clubs of this kind were Joe Corrie’s Bowhill (or Fife) Miner Players (1926–31) and Glasgow Unity Theatre (1941–51).

These two traditions remained discernible in postwar Scotland. The middle-class companies of the interwar years were the precursors of wartime and postwar repertory theatres, including the Citizens' in Glasgow (from 1943), the Gateway in Edinburgh (1943–65), the Royal Lyceum (also in Edinburgh from 1965), and the Scottish Theatre Company (1981–6), as well as smaller experimental theatre clubs including the Traverse (from 1963), the Close (1965–73) and the Tron (from 1981). Similarly, the working-class theatres of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s prepared the way for the popular political groups of the 1970s, including 7:84 (Scotland) and Wildcat Stage Productions. Their fortunes have fluctuated due to external developments such as the advent of television and access to state funding. During the interwar years, the vast majority of Scottish theatre groups were amateur and drew on the fact that people were used to making their own entertainment. After the war, a change in the habits of the general public, notably a growing reluctance to adopt pastimes which would take them outside the home, threatened amateur theatre, and there was increasing emphasis on a theatre’s capacity to survive as a professional organization. During the immediate postwar period, state funding became available. The Citizens’ had received help from the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) during the war, and other bourgeois theatres soon found themselves in receipt of grants from the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1947–67). Working-class groups were less fortunate. Forced back on their amateur status at a time when working-class communities were being broken up by the closure of traditional centres of work, the clearance of slums for high-rise flats and ring roads, the working-class theatre of the interwar years virtually disappeared. In 1967 the Scottish Arts Council replaced the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain and, under its auspices, new theatres were built and new companies formed, the latter including new popular political groups. In the 1980s circumstances changed again, and theatres catering for bourgeois and working-class audiences were faced with the possibility of a major reduction of resources or complete loss of funding.

Scotland, then, has forged two independent drama traditions. They have been dominated by two major concerns. First, there is the concept of the Scottish national theatre, the Scots’ urge to create a native drama and, allied to this, their desire to assert their independence of English drama. While this has led some playwrights, directors and individual performers to turn inwards to aspects of their native culture, others have looked to international models for inspiration. During the interwar years, both theatre traditions were influenced by the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, early bourgeois companies like the Scottish National Players leaning towards Yeats and Synge, working-class theatres such as the Fife Miner Players or Glasgow Unity towards Sean O’Casey. Similarly, both traditions recognised the need to stage a range of international works, bourgeois reps turning to Ibsen and Chekhov, their working-class counterparts to Americans such as Odets and European authors such as Gorky and Toller. Some Scottish theatres offered Scots adaptations of the classics: the Gateway Theatre presented Robert Kemp’s Scots adaptations of Molière. Since the Second World War, the Scots have been brought into regular contact with international developments thanks to two annual festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival of Music and Drama (from 1947, and latterly also the Fringe), and Glasgow’s Mayfest (from 1983), and thanks to the policies of individual companies, notably the Traverse and the Citizens’, under the artistic directorship of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse.

The second major concern has been to create a tradition of native writing. At the start of the twentieth century the number of Scottish plays was minute, but since then Scottish writers have acknowledged the need to produce a body of native drama, poets and novelists alike attempting to write a play at some point in their careers. Naturally, the bourgeois and working-class traditions had different views about what a Scottish play should ideally be like, though both recognized the need to abandon or re-examine the myths behind the tartan and kailyard images of Scottish life. At this point, it is important to mention James Bridie. He was the founder of the Citizens’ and of the Drama College attached to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, chairman of the Scottish Committee of the Arts Council of Great Britain and of the Scottish Community Drama Association, and Drama Adviser to the Edinburgh Festival, and as such his influence on the development of Scottish drama was very considerable. His plays made less impact, for the vast majority were first performed outside Scotland and their content and style remain unique to Bridie, the next generation of playwrights preferring to follow other trends. None the less, his ‘Scottish’ plays, which include The Anatomist (Masque Theatre, Royal Lyceum, London, 1930), The Sleeping Clergyman (Malvern Festival, 1933), Mr Bolfry (Westminster Theatre, London, 1943) and Mr Gillie (King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 1950), became very popular in Scotland and can be seen as a response to the needs of Scottish drama. They present archetypal Scottish characters (the doctor, the minister, the schoolteacher), the familiar figures of kailyard comedy. At one level, they portray these characters as exceptional, exploring their intellectual or moral stature in an effort to restore their credibility as subjects for serious drama. At another, they seek a measure of detachment – through the inclusion of lengthy academic discussion about the nature of man and God and through a somewhat subversive mocking humour – which seems to have been Bridie’s answer to the excessive sentimentality of earlier Scottish plays.

Bridie aside, various patterns of playwriting have emerged. Many bourgeois exponents of the Scottish national theatre called for subjects which were ‘abstract’ or ‘general’ in the belief that this would elevate and universalize the works. The playwright John Brandane, a leading member of the Scottish National Theatre Society and the Scottish National Players’ Play Reading Panel, was particularly enthusiastic about plays concerning Scottish antiquity, the ‘Celtic Twilight’. He was the prime mover behind the production of Neil Gunn’s The Ancient Fire (Scottish National Players, Lyric Theatre, Glasgow, 1929) which stimulated a great deal of discussion about the direction which Scottish drama should be taking. His own plays, including The Glen is Mine (Athenaeum Theatre, Glasgow, 1923), fell into another of the Scottish National Players’ favourite categories, portraying rural, preferably Highland experience as the true Scottish experience, free from the influence of English culture, which had corrupted the cities. A third type of play was the Scottish history drama, which included some fine works such as Robert McLellan’s Jamie the Saxt (Curtain Theatre, Glasgow, 1937), but which at its worst descended into formulaic renditions of the same well-known episodes, notably the 1745 Rebellion. The playwrights debated at length the kind of language they should use; McLellan, like many poets of the day, wrote in Lallans, or old Scots.

By contrast, working-class play wrights such as Joe Corrie, Robert McLeish and Ena Lamont Stewart argued that a national drama should portray some of the concrete realities of the present day. They wrote plays – In Time O’Strife (Bowhill Players, 1927), The Gorbals Story (Glasgow Unity, 1946) and Men Should Weep (Glasgow Unity, 1947) respectively – about the life of the urban working class, partly because at that time Scotland was a depressed industrial nation, but mainly because this was the life they knew. They wrote not in Lallans but in the regional dialects they used every day. Following in their footsteps, the plays of John McGrath – from The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (7:84 Scotland, 1973) to Border Warfare (Freeway Films and Wildcat, 1989) – bring together many of the themes which have dominated Scottish playwriting in the twentieth century, portraying experience which might be historical or contemporary, Highland or urban.

While dramatic developments have dominated the Scottish theatrical scene, the twentieth century has also seen an expansion in other performing arts. Despite the decline of the music hall, traditional pantomime remains as popular as ever. Scottish Opera presents an international repertoire which includes Scottish works, while since 1970 the Scottish Ballet which traces its origins back to Margaret Morris’s Celtic Ballet of 1947–58 and the Scottish National Ballet of 1960 – has also been immensely active.

1970–2000 The distinct concerns of Scottish theatre, as noted above, were still identifiable in the last quarter of the century but found new and vibrant expression. A flourishing cultural independence substituted for the political independence that failed to appear in 1979 when the devolution vote was lost, and Scotland’s play wrights became vital to its sense of identity.

The three notable movements of abstract expressionism, historical nostalgia and contemporary social realism remain but are no longer mutually exclusive, often assimilating each other’s strengths. Sue Glover’s Bondagers (1991), portraying female farm labourers in the Borders towards the end of the nineteenth century, strikes an emotional chord in Scotland with its story of a forgotten community, but the lyricism of the language and expressionistic images of the women working in the fields give the piece an epic quality, borne out by the international success of the play. Similarly, the majority of Chris Hannan’s work is set in working-class tenements but has a distinct absurdist streak running through it, as exemplified by Elizabeth Gordon Quinn (1985), whose eponymous heroine cries ‘I refuse to learn how to be poor!’

The strong tradition of writing in a Scots language has always been important for the country’s sense of identity, but its use developed and changed remarkably over the last three decades of the century. During the 1970s many dramatists eschewed both the artificial form of older Scots used for historical plays and the accented dialogue used for contemporary plays in favour of a demotic Scots they felt to be real. The resulting plays harnessed a great energy, as in Tom McGrath’s The Hard Man (1977), about a Glasgow gangster, and Hector MacMillan’s The Sash (1974), exploring religious sectarianism. Questions of identity, both of gender and of nation, and of how these are expressed through language have become a fascination for many play wrights. A defining moment in this progression is Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) in which the Scots of Queen Mary is set against the English of Queen Elizabeth. This relationship is made all the more interesting by giving Mary’s Scots a heavy French accent and having her switch roles (and languages) with Elizabeth, each becoming the other’s maid. There has always been an element of fantasy in Scots, and over the last 30 years of the century the exotic metaphors which characterize working-class speech in west central Scotland were best expressed in the work of John Byrne, Chris Hannan and Iain Heggie. As well as linguistic expression, questions of national identity have also been a rich source of subject matter for Scottish theatre. In Liz Lochhead’s devised piece Jock Tamson’s Bairns (1990) the central character (androgynously) embodies the whole of Scottish identity in ‘his’ head. Another fine example is Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places (1997), which can be seen as the ultimate Scotland play as its two heroes journey north and discover that their country is bigger and much more disparate than they had bargained for. This inward focus has been matched by a strong drive to look at Scotland’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, which has found expression in the work of both playwrights and theatre companies. The Citizens’ Theatre has gained a reputation for bringing the best of European drama to Scotland, and the effect on audiences, and in shaping a new generation of playwrights, has been immense. Since the early 1980s Communicado Theatre Company has brought a performance style inspired by Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor to a whole host of Scottish and international plays. New Scots translations/versions of both classic and contemporary texts have been produced to great acclaim; highlights are Liz Lochhead’s Tartuffe (1985) and Medea (2000), Hector Mac Millan’s The Hypochondriak (1987) and Edwin Morgan’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1992). Scotland, ‘a country within a country’, has also found dramatic parallels in other such nations around the world. The Tron Theatre’s production of Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman’s Scots translation of the Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay’s The Guid Sisters (1989) was successful in both Scotland and, surprisingly, Montreal. In fact this, and much of Tremblay’s other work, has found such resonance that he has been called the finest playwright Scotland never had. The Traverse Theatre, which has a long history of presenting international work alongside native new writing, produced plays by David Greig (The Speculator, 1999) and Lluisa Cunïllé (The Meeting, 1999) at the Edinburgh International Festival under the banner Caledonia/Catalonia. David Greig has also found great success on an international platform with his own theatre company Suspect Culture, which has developed a unique visual and gestural performance style inspired by European working methods. This fusion of new writing and a physical, visual style has also characterised the productions of Ktc and their work with David Harrower.

During the 1990s much original work was produced with a keen eye on Europe and the rest of the world. This saw plays written in a more standard English (though no less Scottish because of it) finding great success at home and abroad. John Clifford’s plays have a style, and often subject matter, illuminated by his interest in seventeenth-century Spanish drama. Latin America has also had an impact on his writing, resulting in affinities with the work of the magic realists. David Greig’s work has a strong international streak running through it, from the east European setting of Stalinland (1994) and Europe (1995) to the multinational The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman he Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (1999). Mike Cullen has been strongly influenced by the American playwright David Mamet, as can be clearly seen in his multi-award-winning play Anna Weiss (1997).

This is not to say that writing in a dialect has precluded international success for Scotland’s playwrights. David Harrower’s atavistic Knives in Hens (1995) has become something of a European classic, translated into over ten languages and produced in countless countries worldwide, as has Liz Lochhead’s romantic comedy Perfect Days (1998).

In 1997 Scotland overwhelmingly voted to regain its own parliament. Scottish theatre is as political as ever, although there is now much less overt agitprop in its plays. It currently has a generation of vital playwrights inspired by a strong tradition of indigenous work. The new Scottish parliament is responding to the theatre community’s appeal for a national theatre, one of the most powerful arguments being that there is now a repertoire of Scottish plays worth producing. Might this not be as a result of the confidence that has grown up around the prospect of constitutional change?

from Linda MacKenney, John Tiffany, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).