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The National Theatre of Scotland - Ten Years That Shook The World

When the announcement came that a National Theatre of Scotland was to be formed, it ended decades and possibly centuries of wrangling over a desire for artistic self-determination in the country's thriving theatre scene on a par with opera, ballet and classical music. When this new body announced in 2004 that the company's inaugural artistic director would be Vicky Featherstone, with John Tiffany as associate director for new writing and Neil Murray as executive producer, it seemed to some who had championed long-serving directors from major building-based institutions as a leftfield choice.

As it turned out, with an unexpected major international hit on their hands in the company's first year after it was launched in 2006 in the form of Black Watch, Gregory Burke's bombastic theatrical collage on life in the military frontline post Iraq War, it was an inspired one.

Featherstone had come from new writing company, Paines Plough, and had strong ties with theatre in Scotland from her early days directing on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe at the Gilded Balloon. She later directed at the Traverse Theatre, where Tiffany was literary director, and where he was already working his magic on Burke's breakthrough play, Gagarin Way. Murray had worked at 7:84 Scotland, and had taken over from Michael Boyd at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow when Boyd departed to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Murray's appointment was a then rare occurrence of a producer running a theatre building.

With former director of Cumbernauld Theatre Simon Sharkey appointed as an associate director for community and education-based work, this gang of four represented a younger generation of theatre makers who weren't interested in creating monolithic structures, but would rather break moulds in a way that the considerable financial resources behind the NTS would allow. When Featherstone and co declared that their model of the company would not be based in an existing theatre, but would be something they defined as a theatre without walls, it sounded as radical a notion as it remains ten years on.

The fact that the new NTS was named as it was rather than the Scottish National Theatre was making a subtle but significant semantic point that was also political. Being of Scotland spoke of inclusion and diversity. These are both words too often bandied around and rendered meaningless by bureaucrats and politicians, but here were a statement of intent given flesh and blood significance by the company's progressive and outward-looking reach.

The company's first statement came with Home, a series of events performed simultaneously over one night in the towns, cities, villages and islands of Scotland by a multitude of cross-disciplinary collaborators culled from the cream of the country's professional theatre scene working with a specific sense of place in mind. It was to be the NTS' contribution to the 2006 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, however, that would put the company unexpectedly on the map in a major way.

Black Watch was knitted together by Burke and John Tiffany from interviews conducted with ex squaddies from the famed Black Watch regiment who had returned home to Fife after the Iraq War. Using an astonishing array of music, sound, movement and visuals, Tiffany's production became an epic statement on what it means to be on the frontline even as the show's mix of forms looked to Scotland's popular theatrical heritage. Performed in an old army drill hall as part of the Traverse Theatre's Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, the production's furiously choreographed delivery raised the bar considerably in terms of what Scottish theatre could be. Nothing would be the same again.

The programmes that followed were a mix of new work, revivals of the contemporary Scottish canon and reinventions of classical plays. Success bred confidence and ambition. There were community projects, works in progress and development work seemingly going on in every corner of the country, even as the company's flagship shows travelled the world. There were seasons of work from the Middle East and Latin America, twenty-four hour marathons of five minute plays performed live and broadcast online. All life was here in a relentless and at times exhausting itinerary. At times it seemed as if a new NTS production was opening somewhere in some country or other every week.

With an in demand Tiffany stepping down from the company following his production of teenage vampire story, Let The Right One In, Featherstone drafted in Graham McLaren, who had previously run Theatre Babel in Glasgow prior to working abroad for several years. Steeped in Glasgow's theatrical history, McLaren brought a new dynamism to the company through productions of Ena Lamont Stewart's Men Should Weep and a musical reimagining of Joe Corrie's play, In Time O' Strife.

When Featherstone left the NTS to take over the artistic directorship of the Royal Court Theatre in London, she was replaced by Laurie Sansom, who had previously brought his production of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to Edinburgh while artistic director of the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton. Sansom took his time before setting out his store, but when he did, any criticisms of his appointment were silenced by the scale of the undertaking.

The James Plays was Rona Munro's epic trilogy of Scottish history plays presented in co-production with Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain. While commissioned by Featherstone, Sansom's production was presented over an entire day at Edinburgh Festival Theatre in a huge production that featured Sophie Gabrol from Scandic cop show, The Killing, in a large ensemble cast that also starred Blythe Duff.

While Sansom did similarly fine work on another Muriel Spark work, The Driver's Seat, and in The 306: Dawn, a haunting look at the lives of soldiers executed in World War I, the end of the NTS' current era which arguably began with Black Watch looks set to be marked by a show that could be seen as that show's equally potty-mouthed kid sister.

Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was adapted by Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall from The Sopranos, Oban born writer Alan Warner's tragicomic novel about a teenage schoolgirl choir let loose in the big city. When Vicky Featherstone returned to the NTS to direct it at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it grabbed the audience by the scruff of the neck like a girl gang Black Watch high on alcopops and the promise of what the future might bring beyond their underage binging. This beautiful and heartbreaking study of young women on the verge has since toured internationally, dragging the NTS into its second decade with a sound and fury that signifies something very real.

As it prepares to move to its new administrative home and rehearsal space in Rockvilla, a former cash and carry situated in the North of Glasgow currently being developed into complex described by the NTS as an 'engine room for Scottish theatre', the move has provoked some to suggest that the company's theatre without walls concept has come to an end.

Either way, the NTS is at a major turning point. This year's surprise departure of Sansom as artistic director after three years in post came at a time when The James Plays was touring the world. It also came shortly after it had been announced that Murray and McLaren would be leaving to become joint artistic directors of Ireland's de facto national company, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

With Featherstone's ongoing tenure at the Royal Court, Tiffany's Tony award winning production of Once on Broadway, and his production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on the West End, it is clear that the NTS tentacles are reaching out to the world.

With only Sharkey still in place from the company's founding artistic team and no obvious boot-room successor to Sansom, it is also clear that the NTS is likely to evolve into a very different company to how it began, especially with funding cuts biting deep right across the arts establishment. Who the next artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland – and an artistic director it will be – remains to be seen. Whoever it is - and the NTS need to take their time to get it right - they will have several tough acts to follow. With Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour leading the charge towards the future, the next ten years of the NTS look set to be an even bigger adventure than the last.

BBC Arts website, September 24th 2016 to tie in with the screening of National Theatre of Scotland: A Dramatic Decade on September 27th 2016.

ends

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