Sunday, 14 April 2013

Towards The End of the Century - Scottish Playwriting in the 1990s


1

There were two words I thought might come up when I started thinking 
about what was going on in Scottish playwriting and Scottish theatre 
throughout the 1990s, and which seemed deeply relevant to its 
trajectory.

I wondered whether to mention them or not, but after events of this 
week, I can't really avoid them.

Those words are Margaret. And Thatcher.

Because the 1990s were a curious decade, in that what Margaret Thatcher 
did in the 1980s seemed to fuel some kind of artistic dissent, yet by 
the 1990s, it seemed to have disappeared.

Whereas in the 1980s, it was obvious who the bad guys were, to the 
point were anger sometimes got in the way of art, in the 1990s, while 
things seemed to become cleverer and more expansive, it was also more 
complex and ambiguous, and less easy to recognise those bad guys.

So for much of the 1990s, it felt that things were in a state of flux 
en route to the end of the century.

Many plays – though by no means all -  were about trying to find 
something to believe in – personally, politically, spiritually, 
hedonistically.

By the end of the decade – and the century – things had started to 
become clearer again, and all that had gone before – the fractured 
narratives, the in-yer-face era, the search for some kind of identity –
was starting to be revealed as a bridge towards something more defined.


2

Three things happened.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

In 1990, Glasgow became European City of Culture.

At the end of 1990, Margaret Thatcher was deposed as UK Prime Minister.

Things were changing.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall opened up borders for international 
theatre companies to travel more freely.

The resources pumped into Glasgow 1990 – whatever cynics like me might 
have thought of what looked at times like a big civic publicity stunt – 
allowed young would-be theatre practitioners for the first time to see 
international companies and auteurs for the first time perhaps outside
of the Edinburgh International Festival.

This had been the case in 1988 when Neil Wallace and Bob Palmer brought 
Peter Brook's Mahabarata to the Old Transport Museum that would become 
Tramway, and it was certainly the case from 1990 onwards.

Without exposure at Tramway and elsewhere to the likes of the Wooster 
Group, Robert LePage, Brith Gof, The Wrestling School, The Maly Theatre 
of Leningrad and others, it's unlikely that home-grown companies, like 
Suspect Culture, Cryptic, Theatre Babel, Grid Iron, Lookout, Vanishing 
Point and others of that generation, would have developed in quite the 
same way.

While not all of those companies still exist, all of them have produced 
international artists and international work that not just can travel 
the world, but has travelled the world.

I remember one Edinburgh Festival Fringe picking up a flyer for a 
double bill of new plays, which I didn't see, but I put the flyer on my 
mantlepiece because I liked the collage design of it.

One of those plays named on the flyer was by someone called Nicola 
McCartney.

The other was a collaboration between someone called John Tiffany, and 
someone called Vicky Featherstone.

And that's how things start.


3

Meanwhile, at the Traverse, which was still in the Grassmarket den of 
iniquity than existed before the Thatcherite centres of excellence 
approach took hold of the arts, there was a similar exposure to
international work which ran parallel with that by Scottish writers.

I'd first visited the Traverse in 1986, during a season which featured 
Tom McGrath's Kora, Chris Hannan's The Orphan's Comedy, Jo Clifford's 
Lucy's Play, a German play directed by a young trainee director called 
Hamish Glen called Burning Love, and a magical realist fantasia  called
Kathy and the Hippopotomus by future Peruvian President, Mario Vargas 
Llosa.

By the time we got to 1990, while Jo Clifford's Ines de Castro was 
revived at the Riverside in London, Michele Celeste's prison-set drama, 
Hanging The President, caused controversy with a bowl of mashed-up 
weetabix, and future Booker Prize winner James Kelman premiered his
political history play, Hardie and Baird.

In a season called Spinning A Line, featuring young, relatively fresh 
writers, a young buck called Anthony Neilson put on a play called 
Welfare My Lovely, while John McKenzie's Bomber pre-dated the 
in-yer-face generation by half a decade.

This was also the case with Spinning A Line the following year, when 
The Cellar, by Lance Flynn, was produced.

Lance Flynn had scored a hit with The Dorm, an angry, impressionistic 
look at a young people's detention centre, which was presented by the 
Mandela Theatre Company, who eventually morphed into Boilerhouse.

Flynn wrote a couple more plays for Boilerhouse, but have all but been 
forgotten, and I'm not sure why he and John McKenzie weren't nurtured 
as other writers were.

Maybe they were too bloody-minded.

Maybe they wouldn't play the game.

Maybe they weren't interested.

Either way, given what would come later, both were ahead of their time.


4

When the Traverse moved into this building in 1992, the first play of 
note to be produced was Simon Donald's The Life of Stuff, which again, 
in its look at hedonism and excess in an empty night-club seemed ahead 
of its time dramatically, even as it chimed with what was going on in
Scottish literature via the arrival of Trainspotting.

When Harry Gibson's stage version of Irvine Welsh's novel hit the 
Traverse stage in 1994, it was clear that things had changed again.

In London, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and others were causing a similar 
kind of commotion, as they announced a generation who seemed to have 
lost their faith in anything and everything, including themselves, and 
could only party like it was – well – 1999.

Yet, in Scotland, the explorations of selfhood seemed quieter, and more 
forensic, somehow.

Maybe that was the influence of the likes of Brad Fraser or Michel 
Tremblay, who'd both had works on at the Traverse.

Or maybe it was the Cliffords, Hannans, Lochheads, McGraths and others 
that preceded them that made Scottish writers look more to poetry and 
playing with form than merely lashing out without anything to even aim 
at.


5

The first real signs of this – for me at least – came with  David 
Greig's play, Europe, in 1994, and Knives in Hens, by David Harrower, 
in 1995.

Both very different plays by very different writers, yet they were 
inevitably dubbed 'The Davids', as if they were two sides of the same 
dramatic coin.

Which, in a way, they were.

Where Europe was epic in its depiction of a group of disparate people 
at a deserted railway station, Knives in Hens was intimate and 
erotically charged.

Yet both, somehow, were about identity, and the ability to name 
oneself, just as much as the brasher plays that had taken London by 
storm were.

Eventually, all were revealed to be cut from the same cloth.

They were all Thatcher's Children, and they were going to change the 
world.


6

Of older writers, Chris Hannan's Shining Souls did something similar, 
but with considerably more laughs.

Tom McGrath and Ella Wildridge's translation of Quebecois writer Daniel 
Danis' Stones and Ashes was an astonishing emotional study of four 
people via a series of criss-crossing monologues.

By the time Stephen Greenhorn's road movie for the stage, Passing 
Places, roared onstage in 1997, any search for meaning had become a 
literal journey rather than a mere metaphorical one.

If Greenhorn's play implied light at the end of the tunnel, the 
emotionally charged summer of 1997 suggested something different.

While Mike Cullen's Anna Weiss so devastatingly tackled the 
controversial topic of sexual abuse and false memory syndrome;  Suspect 
Culture took a show called Timeless to the Edinburgh International 
Festival, which had four lifelong friends clinging onto each other for 
dear life while also tearing each other apart.

While all about them were grafting banging techno soundtracks onto 
physical largesse, Suspect Culture's Nick Powell brought in a string 
quartet onstage, while the piece used a series of small physical tics 
that spoke quieter, and with less certainty, but which said far more.

If Liz Lochhead's Perfect Days showed how to do comedy with compassion 
in 1998, by this time, the bar had been raised considerably since the 
decade began.

There wasn't just one generation of working playwrights and 
theatre-makers, it seemed.

There were several, co-existing at home and abroad.

For me, the 1990s, - which began with walls collapsing, borders opening 
up to cities of culture and the apparent end of politics, if not 
history – had been a period of watching artists and writers doing their 
growing up in public.

Now they were ready to take on the world.

I can think of no better example of this than The Speculator, David 
Greig's play about love and money, but mainly money and how it was 
invented, and which played at the Edinburgh International Festival of 
1999.

At the end of the play, Silvia, the actress lover of playwright 
Marivaux, muses
somewhat plaintively on how life can be like a mudfish waiting for rain.

'Mudfish underground.
One brief rain.
Then earth goes hard again.
What if that's all there is?'

As the century ended, and people started finding something to believe 
in again, it was clear that wasn't the case.

In Scottish theatre, and Scottish play-writing, the floodgates were 
about to open, and the possibilities were endless.
An address given as an introduction to The Four Decades: Celebrating Scottish Playwriting -  The 1990s, presented by the Scottish Society of Playwrights and Saltire Events, and curated by Nicola        McCartney at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wednesday April 10th 2013.

ends

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