There’s a shelf in the Glasgow offices of the National Theatre of Scotland on which sit an array of awards director John Tiffany has received for Black Watch, Gregory Burke’s play which became an international phenomenon since opening in an old army drill hall as part of the Traverse Theatre’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme in 2006. The awards range from a snazzy-looking South Bank Show statue, to our own Herald Angel award and a multitude of others which suggest a bigger shelf may be needed soon.
Pride of place, for today at least, is a rather splendid-looking chap which all visitors are immediately drawn to. Because the Olivier award for Best Director, which Tiffany won two Sundays ago alongside three other Black Watch victories, is not only the most recent accolade the play has been lauded with. It is also the weightiest, both symbolically and physically. After almost three years travelling the world, it suggests, London’s theatre establishment has finally woken up to the fact that theatre can be created beyond its metropolitan borders. And, as other commentators have already noted, about time too.
Especially as Tiffany had to sit through twenty-two other presentations divided up by a dinner before his win was announced. By that time, Black Watch had won Best Sound Design for Gareth Fry, Best Theatre Choreographer for Steven Hoggett and Best New Play for Burke. The event was enlivened somewhat by a large Black Watch presence, with creatives and actors spread across two tables. Despite Black Watch’s unprecedented success, those in attendance were far from blasé about the eventual result. Whoever won, their boisterousness suggested, they were going to have a good time whatever. Two days after the event, the wicked laughter which punctuates Tiffany’s conversation suggests that to say a good night was had by all would be an understatement.
“It was such a good night,” he beams, “and really, really unexpected. I didn’t think we’d get four. I hoped we might get something, then when Gareth Fry won, I thought, that’s us, we’ve won an Olivier. Then when Steven won, that was brilliant, and when Greg won the Best New Play, I thought there was no way I’d win Best Director. But then when I did, oh my God, what a fantastic night for Scottish theatre, and,” he stresses, “for theatre outside London.”
Tiffany’s statement is telling about how the Oliviers are run. In charge is the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), a body which most venues outside of the west end can’t afford to join. This isn’t just the case with smaller Fringe theatres. The Royal Court, for instance, is only an affiliate member, so isn’t eligible for nomination. Moreover, there is the added absurdity of Black Watch, a play premiered in Edinburgh in August 2006, regarded as new only because in 2008 it played The Barbican.
“The whole notion,” Tiffany observes, “that theatre created outside of London can be on a par with theatre created within London still seems revolutionary to some people. That’s madness, but winning the awards is still fantastic for us. It just means the party gets extended. It’s like a Black Watch Ramadan.”
Tiffany’s glee is some way from the first time The Herald spoke to Tiffany and Burke about Black Watch, when the play was still being put together in Scottish Opera’s rehearsal rooms. Then, by both parties own admission, they had yet to discover what the play was. By the time of the first preview in Edinburgh, however, the spontaneous standing ovation made it clear that something special had happened. By the time of its extended tours of duty to New York, Los Angeles and Australia, the Black Watch legend had been confirmed.
“Maybe the fact that we didn’t know what we were doing was part of why it was a success,” Tiffany admits. “The fact that neither of us could articulate the politics of the piece was also maybe a key to that. Because the piece doesn’t have any politics other than the politics of truth. But it was only when people stood up on that first night that I recognised the power of the piece. That was when, and I say this with absolute pleasure, it wasn’t mine anymore, and that was lovely, because that’s the holy grail.”
Tiffany has been far from idle while the Black Watch band-wagon has been rolling. At the 2007 Edinburgh International Festival he directed Alan Cumming in David Greig’s version of The Bacchae, which also travelled to New York. More recently Tiffany took charge of Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, the Catholic-tainted debut play by actor Paul Higgins, one of the original Black Watch squad.
There’s even more Catholicism on display in Be Near Me, the adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel, which the NTS are about to take to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness following its premiere in Kilmarnock and a stint in London. Adapted by and starring veteran Scottish actor Ian MacDiarmid, the play is flawed, though many of Tiffany’s theatrical trademark remain intact. Best of all is a sit-down take on working-class wedding dance routine, The Slosh, which adds levity to what could otherwise be an unremittingly bleak work.
Tiffany has always been unrepentantly populist in his outlook, something which has paid commercial dividends ever since early productions of Stephen Greenhorn’s Passing Places and Liz Lochhead’s Perfect Days at the Traverse. It was while Literary Director of the Edinburgh theatre that the script of Gregory Burke’s debut play, Gagarin Way, fell into Tiffany’s lap. The subsequent production was itself a smash hit and toured the world. With an important relationship forged between writer and director of the show, it also led directly to Black Watch.
The NTS could, if they wanted to, flog Black Watch on the world circuit ad nauseum. The play is now a set text on the school curriculum, and the NTS have provided every school in the country with an extensive resource pack, so an audience is already in place. Creatively speaking, however, both the company and Tiffany are ready for something new. The bar has been raised, and Tiffany’s obsession with creating events which reach out to audiences continues.
“People like events,” Tiffany says. “At a time when you can stream things from the internet immediately, audiences for live performance are going to go up, because you don’t get a sense of event anymore from watching Dr Who. Our work has to change, and we have to address audiences more directly in whatever way, so theatre becomes more about sharing stories. Brecht is such a writer for our times, because I think for people who want to be actively engaged in what live performance is, going into a theatre and sitting there with a fourth wall, I’m not sure that’s going to cut it anymore.”
Tiffany looks set explore this in his next project, one of the NTS Transform community projects. In the meantime, the Black Watch effect still lingers.
“With Black Watch,” Tiffany says, “we happened on something and articulated something that audiences, not just in Scotland, but across the world, were desperate to hear, and it made theatre the best means to communicate that. I’ve been really lucky with the things I’ve been involved in, but I can’t chase the success of Black Watch with other things, because I’ll be disappointed. I just need to get on with my job, and not think that if it’s not hitting the dizzy heights of Black Watch that it’s failed, because then I’d be failing myself.”
Be Near Me, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 25-April 4. Tour continues to Inverness, Edinburgh, Perth, Salford, Leicester and Truro. Transform ???
The Herald, March 2009