When Peter Arnott's debut play, White Rose, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in 1985, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government were two years into their second time of office, and Britain appeared to be in the midst of civil war. The miners strike was still ongoing, while outside the Royal Airforce base in Greenham Common, all-women peace camps were set up in protest of the American cruise missiles housed there. In 1982, some 30,000 women joined hands around the camp's perimeter. When Arnott read Night Witches, a book by Bruce Miles, which told the little-known story of the female pilots who flew Soviet aeroplanes during the Second World War, something caught Arnott's imagination.
“It was my first commission, and my brief was to do something big with three actors,” Arnott says on the eve of the play's first major revival in almost thirty years by the Borders-based Firebrand Theatre company. “It was forty years since the end of the Second World War, and Night Witches seemed to fit in with a lot of things that were going on. All these women's support groups had formed around the miners strike, and with Greenham Common happening as well, there was this feeling that these women’s lives had been changed by fighting the good fight. Whatever happened to the fight, they were still changed, and they weren't going to be defeated.”
Two women who are fighting the good fight in different ways to those in the play are Janet Coulson and Ellie Zeegan, who are joint artistic directors of Firebrand. The pair set up the Hawick-based company after coincidentally moving to the Borders in 2010. The pair had met at The Actors Temple, a London-based initiative founded by Zeegan, so, as Coulson points out, “It was a no-brainer that we carry on working together. It was too much of a coincidence to ignore. The area is crying out for more theatre to be produced here, and we very much wanted to do contemporary work.”
“We wanted to do strong plays with powerful stories, but we also wanted to do something that dealt with big things in intimate spaces,” she says.
With seasoned director Richard Baron, a veteran of every main-house producing stage in Scotland, drafted in as Director of Productions, to date, Firebrand have produced revivals of David Mamet's play, Oleanna, and Rona Munro's women's prison-set drama, Iron.
White Rose continues the company's exploration of big ideas. For Arnott going back to the play after such a long time was “distinctly strange. I re-read the script when I was first asked if it could be done, and my thoughts were, who is this up and coming young man with all this energy. It's very much a play about young people, written by a young man.
While White Rose reminded Arnott of his younger self, he wasn't tempted to apply almost three decades of experience as a playwright to rewrite it.
“It was written by somebody who was twenty-two years old,” he says, “so revisiting it after all this time wouldn't have felt right.”
White Rose is one of a multitude of seminal works from the 1970s and 1980s by Scottish playwrights which have faded from view, and which are only now being rediscovered.
“It's only really since the advent of the National Theatre of Scotland that second productions of plays have really started to happen,” Arnott observes. “We used to have hits, but they would run the same length of time as the disasters. White Rose transferred to the Almeida in London for two weeks, and that was that.
“Also, it wasn't in print in the way a lot of new plays are now, so there was no access to it. It was nearly published in a collection of Scottish plays called Scot Free, but in the end there wasn't enough room. There were a couple of small-scale productions, one of which was done in New York by someone who saw the original at the Traverse, and was so off-off Broadway it was practically New Jersey, but after a while the momentum stops, and this is the first fully resourced production since it was first done.”
One of the most memorable things about the original production of White Rose was the casting of a young actress called Tilda Swinton. Swinton would go on to appear in several other plays at the Traverse and films by Derek Jarman before going on to become the international superstar she is today.
“People keep asking me about Tilda Swinton,” Arnott says, “but at the time Tilda Swinton wasn't Tilda Swinton yet in terms of what she would become. She was in my year at Cambridge, and was a fantastic young actress then, so it's very strange looking at all the fantastic work she's done over the last ten years.”
A quarter of a century on, stepping into Swinton's shoes is Alison O'Donnell, an equally talented actress who intends making the part her own.
“They're some pretty big shoes to fill,” O'Donnell admits of her latest role. “But I guess she was much less established then than she is now. It's quite good having such a solid reference point, because Tilda Swinton has such intensity as an actress, although I'm not trying to be her. I've got to give it my own interpretation.”
Beyond White Rose, O'Donnell's profile looks set to soar. She is about to appear in two television pilots set to be aired in the spring, including a crime drama based in Shetland. Firebrand too look set to continue to blaze a trail of high quality productions of what now might be regarded as contemporary classics. Arnott, meanwhile, is returning to the Second World War for a new play for the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, where another Traverse old boy, Hamish Glen, is artistic director.
“It's called Propaganda Swing, and is about a Nazi jazz band called Charlie and his Orchestra,” Arnott says. “They actually existed, and we want to do it as a radio play for the stage, with foley artists and everything like that.”
Let's hope it won't take thirty years for this one to get a second production.
White Rose, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 26th-March 2nd, then tours.
The Herald, February 26th 2013