Winter exhibition on 40 years of Scottish theatre

  • Sally Harrower and Andrew Martin talk to Mark Fisher about a new exhibition celebrating Scottish theatre over the last four decades. This article appears in 'Discover NLS' issue 14.
Photo of two women in costume
'Mary Queen of Scots got her
head chopped off'.
Photo courtesy of National Theatre
of Scotland.
Larger photo of women

Henry Ford's promise of any colour 'so long as it is black' served the American motor industry well. Curiously, it has also done wonders for theatre in Scotland.

The story of the modern Scottish stage is sandwiched between two world-conquering plays, both with black in the title. It begins in 1973 with John McGrath's 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil' and it ends in 2007 with Gregory Burke's 'Black Watch'. Throw in David Harrower's 'Blackbird', which has enjoyed scores of revivals around the world since its debut in the 2005 Edinburgh International Festival, and it starts to look like a conspiracy, especially if you consider the warm reception given to such Scottish plays as Des Dillon's 'Six Black Candles' and Vox Motus's recent 'Bright Black'.

Substantial archive of theatre material

The scale of the successes of McGrath and Burke is fortuitous for NLS. It means the 'Curtain up' winter exhibition, celebrating the Library's substantial archive of theatre-related material, can start and end with black-to-black triumphs that put Scottish culture on the international map. 'We decided we'd like to highlight the modern collection in the exhibition space,' says Manuscripts Curator Sally Harrower, who has put together the exhibition with Andrew Martin, Curator of Modern Scottish Collections. 'The main archives that we have here pinned us to the 1970s onwards.'

There is another reason for starting with 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil'. NLS is privileged to hold the official archive of 7:84 Scotland, the theatre company set up by John McGrath with a left-wing political agenda informed by the statistic that 7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth. Earlier this year, Sally received the final delivery of material from the company, which ceased trading at the end of 2008. 'That was a really sad day for me,' she says. 'All these odds and ends came in, like a bag of badges - because they were a very badgey company - and a marching banner.'

Badges and banners are not all they had. Shortly after being given the last of the archive, NLS bought one of 7:84 Scotland's earliest artefacts: the original set for 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil'. This is a giant pop-up book painted by John Byrne which the pioneering company toured around the church halls and community centres of rural Scotland in 1973. From the front it looks in pretty good condition, but a peek behind reveals the gaffer tape and scuffs that tell their own tale of the set's frontline duty. Ground-breaking on a number of levels, the play inspired several generations of theatre-makers to forge a career on the stage.

John Byrne and political theatre

McGrath's genius was to tell a history of economic exploitation - 'from the Highland Clearances to the discovery of North Sea oil' - without becoming dull and didactic. The message might have been weighty, but the medium was the opposite: a raucous ceilidh full of music, songs and jokes that had more in common with variety entertainment than classical drama. It was political theatre, in other words, that was not only about the people but of the people, and it established a tradition in Scotland of performances that acknowledged a more equitable relationship between actor and audience.

'We're using "The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil" as a starting point, with a nod towards the influences that might have informed it, such as the variety tradition, Gaelic song and "The Great Northern Welly Boot Show",' says Sally, referring to a lively celebration of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders' work-in starring Billy Connolly in 1972. 'Then there's a big chunk of material about the play itself, including the stage set.'

With such an exuberant starting point, NLS curators realised that an exhibition focusing only on the printed word would be inadequate. The collection has a rich treasure trove of written material (Sally has catalogued 3,000 scripts, many of them unproduced and unpublished, and reckons there might be more), but the characteristic quality shared by 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil' and John Tiffany's production of 'Black Watch' for the National Theatre of Scotland is their theatricality.

Whether it is the energy of the actors or the spectacle of the staging, theatre is always about more than words. 'We made a move away from writers to events and experiences,' says Andrew. 'Focusing on the writers was a wee bit artificial so we broadened it to include things like the Edinburgh Festival and the Citizens Theatre.'

Scripts, programmes and props

Luckily, the Library's collection does not stop at books, even though some items, such as Byrne's set, can cause storage headaches. NLS certainly has plenty of published texts and unpublished scripts - the archive of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre alone contributes many of these. Theatre archives include ephemera such as programmes, posters and photographs and, with some borrowing from theatre companies and the Scottish Theatre Archive at Glasgow University, the curators have tried to convey a sense of the three-dimensional presence of the stage.

Photo of women wearing large bonnets
The cast of 'Bondagers'.
Larger 'Bondagers' cast photo

Items on loan from the National Theatre of Scotland, for example, include the dress worn by Siobhan Redmond when she played Elizabeth in Schiller's 'Mary Stuart' in 2006. 'We've got some lovely things including Alan Cumming's kilt from "The Bacchae" and the original bonnets from Sue Glover's "Bondagers",' says Andrew, who also has the loan of props, costumes and set models from the Citizens and the Traverse.

They have divided the exhibition into six scenes, making the journey thematic rather than chronological. After the 7:84 material of the first scene, we are introduced to the Traverse, the Citizens and some smaller theatre companies, such as Gerry Mulgrew's Communicado, to outline what Sally calls the 'diversity of means of production leading to a thriving theatre scene'.

In scene three, we turn to the plays and consider the versions of Scotland and Scottish history that have been put on the stage. The history play was in vogue in the 1970s and 1980s, a reflection perhaps of a nation exploring its past to help define its identity for today. In plays such as 'The Jesuit' by Donald Campbell (about John Ogilvie, who died upholding his Catholic faith in 1615), writers used the past to inform the present. Since Liz Lochhead's 1987 masterpiece 'Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off', recently revived by the National Theatre of Scotland, the historical drama has been less common ­and by the time we got to 'Black Watch' it was enough to condense the history of the regiment into a brief, if memorable, vignette of military costume changes.

Scots language and Scottish dialects

What has not gone out of fashion is an interest in language. Fewer playwrights are writing in Scots today, but many make vigorous use of dialect, from the working-class Fife of Gregory Burke to the Glasgow patter of Tony Roper's 'The Steamie', and no one does magpie-like linguistic eclecticism as well as Liz Lochhead. 'A lot of people have loved using language and I think that is a Scottish trait,' says Andrew. 'You get it in the poetic side of things and also in that witty repartee and rhetoric that runs through everything.'

Other visions of Scotland covered by this part of the exhibition include Sue Glover's 'Bondagers', about the bonded female labour of the 19th-century Borders, and 7:84's Clydebuilt season in 1982, a revival of neglected early-20th century working-class plays depicting what Andrew calls 'hard man/strong woman city life'. 'It's a snapshot of a variety of plays that are set in Scotland,' he says. 'It's different Scotlands - rural, city, past and present.'

Next we explore the international impact of Scottish theatre. Several years before 'Blackbird' was a hit on Broadway, David Harrower wrote the mysterious, elemental 'Knives in Hens', which has had a similarly extended life in translations such as the Danish 'Knive i Hons' and German 'Messer in Hennen'. In the exhibition, they've got a copy of the Norwegian 'Knivar i Høner'. Also represented is the prolific David Greig, who has explored the idea of internationalism in many of his plays and has enjoyed success further afield. And it's in this section that we come across the Edinburgh International Festival, the opportunity for Scotland to showcase itself on a global stage and the chance for Scottish audiences to see major names of world theatre from Ninagawa to Peter Stein.

Campaign for a national theatre

The fifth scene traces the history of the campaign for a national theatre in Scotland, looking at attempts at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in the 1970s, the Scottish Theatre Company in the 1980s and the National Theatre for Scotland Campaign in the 1990s, bringing us up to date with the launch of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006. 'We end with "Black Watch" as an example of a big success and a play by a Scottish writer,' says Andrew.

The final scene is the interactive area, combining plays with playfulness and providing the opportunity to look in greater depth at some of the themes. During the long run of the exhibition there will be a number of associated events, including a reunion of several of the company members from 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil', among them Bill Paterson, John Bett and Elizabeth MacLennan; a discussion involving the generation of playwrights who emerged from the Traverse in 1985, including Jo (formerly John) Clifford, Peter Arnott and Chris Hannan; and the launch of a book of plays by Alasdair Gray.

'It was a good opportunity to exploit the archives,' says Andrew. 'I think people will be surprised that we've got a lot of this material. It will look very eye-catching and dramatic.'


'Curtain up: 40 years of Scottish theatre' runs from 19 December 2009 to 3 May 2010 at the National Library of Scotland, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh.



The National Theatre of Scotland: From pipedream to Black Watch

Photo of two women in costume
'Black Watch' poster.
Courtesy of National Theatre
of Scotland.
Larger poster image

'Why not be national?' was the rallying cry of 'The Scotsman' [newspaper] theatre critic, filled with patriotic pride after the first-night staging of Sir Walter Scott's 'Rob Roy'. 'Why should we not be proud of our national genius, humour, music, kindness and fidelity?'

The unnamed critic was surely not the only one to be so stirred, yet this was 1819 and it would be the best part of two centuries before Scotland would get its own national theatre.

'Rob Roy' had appeared at Edinburgh's Theatre Royal, on the east end of Princes Street, described a century later by Donald Mackenzie as 'Scotland's First National Theatre' in a book of the same name. In the 1920s, the Scottish National Players had visions of a 'Scottish National Theatre along the lines of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin', an idea not so far removed from that of Clive Perry at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in the late-1960s and Ewan Hooper, who set up the touring Scottish Theatre Company in 1981.

There are many reasons for the long wait, but it is no coincidence that the National Theatre of Scotland happened when it did.

The establishment of a Scottish Parliament in 1999 meant that, for the first time, there was a generation of politicians both willing and able to back a national scheme.

Thus in 2006, the National Theatre of Scotland launched with an event called Home that set the agenda for the kind of organisation this could be. It consisted of ten productions in every corner of the country, ranging from a puppet show in a disused shop in Stornoway to a drama in a drill hall in Dumfries. Here was a national theatre prepared to make you question the very idea of nationhood and even theatre itself.

It was the new organisation's tremendous good fortune that in its very first year it produced 'Black Watch'. Gregory Burke's play, as directed by John Tiffany, was based on interviews with soldiers who had fought in Iraq at the exact moment that the Black Watch regiment was being amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The play managed to combine an urgent topicality with thrilling theatricality, not to mention the playwright's tremendous empathy for the ordinary squaddie. The result was Scottish theatre's biggest hit since 'The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil' and a tour of duty that took in New York, New Zealand and London.


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