When Ian Brown was named as this year’s best director at last weekend’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for his production of Morna Young’s play, Lost at Sea, at Perth Theatre, it was vindication of sorts for his first work in Scotland for more than twenty years. The former artistic director of the Traverse Theatre and TAG, who went on to run West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds for a decade, was also in with some very good company.
Also nominated were Andy Arnold, for his production of Enda Walsh’s play, Ballyturk, at the Tron Theatre, Orla O’Loughlin for Mouthpiece by Kieran Hurley at the Traverse, and Robert Softley Gale for Birds of Paradise and the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of My Left/Right Foot. In the end, however, it was Brown’s sensitive handling of Young’s moving and deeply personal play about the loss of lives within a tight-knit fishing community that won out.
“I’m so proud of what we did with Lost at Sea,” Brown says, the ceremony at Tramway in Glasgow, “and it was a really nice thing to get from Scottish theatre, and to realise that people haven’t forgotten some of the stuff I did when I was here. I think it’s really powerful as well what the critics have done, and that instead of being divided from the artists, it feels like there’s this kind of idea that we’re all in this together, which, in terms of funding cuts and everything else going on in the world, is really important right now.”
Brown first rose to prominence in Scotland as director of TAG (Theatre About Glasgow), then the Citizens Theatre’s theatre in education arm. While in charge between 1984 and 1988, he gave Jo Clifford her first professional writing job by commissioning a version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for schools. Brown and Clifford went on to work together on Clifford’s version of Great Expectations and new plays, Light in the Village and Ines de Castro.
Brown took over the Traverse in 1988, and oversaw the new writing theatre’s move from its old Grassmarket premises into its current Cambridge Street home. He stayed until 1996, with his focus on international work running alongside the theatre’s Scottish core. He introduced Edinburgh audiences to the work of Brad Fraser, directed Tom Courtenay in Moscow Stations and oversaw Tom McGrath’s stunning version of Quebecois writer Daniel Danis’ play, Stones and Ashes.
Brown also directed the very first production of Trainspotting, adapted by Harry Gibson from Irvine Welsh’s iconic novel, and initially seen at both the Citizens and the Traverse. Furthering umbilical links, Trainspotting was recently revived by Gareth Nicholls during his time as resident director of the Citizens. Nicholls’ current tenure as interim artistic director of the Traverse saw him win the Best Production award at the CATS for Ulster American by David Ireland, which was also named as Best Play.
The production that stands out most for Brown while he was at the Traverse is Bondagers, Sue Glover’s play about a group of nineteenth century female farm workers in the Borders. First seen in 1991 before being revived numerous times, the play’s lyrical ensemble aesthetic is a clear forerunner to Brown’s work on Lost at Sea, which began five years ago.
“It was Colin Marr, who at the time was running Eden Court in Inverness who first got me involved with Lost at Sea,” says Brown. “I’d worked with Colin at the Traverse, and when Lost at Sea was originally being developed at Eden Court, he thought of me. One is about the land and one is about the sea, and there’s an epic quality to both plays, as well as an emotional honesty. And because Lost at Sea comes from Morna’s personal experience, it’s something much more than just a play.”
After leaving the Traverse, Brown moved into television, for a while directing episodes of East Enders before succeeding Jude Kelly to run West Yorkshire Playhouse. As an illustration of how intertwined Scotland’s theatre ecology is with the rest of the UK, Brown’s successor in Leeds, James Brining, had already followed in Brown’s footsteps by becoming artistic director of TAG before teaming up with the then outgoing director of the Traverse and current head of the Citz, Dominic Hill, to run Dundee Rep. After an acclaimed decade in post, Brown left Leeds in 2012 to work freelance.
As well as Brown being named as Best Director at the CATS, Lost at Sea also won the Best Ensemble award, and was nominated for Best Design. At the ceremony on Sunday, Brown spoke warmly of Giles Havergal, the former artistic director of the Citizens Theatre, who was guest presenter of the awards, about how he had been the one who first spotted his work during his early days in London, and brought him to Scotland to work at TAG. Brown spoke too of the connections between Lost at Sea and Bondagers, in terms of them both being set among working communities in which the work itself was dying out as a victim of societal change.
“I think for a first play it’s very ambitious,” Brown says. “It’s also fairly uncompromising. Morna has really played around with form, and the way the play uses verbatim material is really interesting. I’m not verbatim theatre’s biggest fan, but the way Morna has put it together is really skilful.
“For me, the play has a universality. It’s about that community its set amongst, but it’s more than that. Like in Bondagers, those days of a once thriving community the play depicts are almost lost now. The power that had on people attached to those communities was phenomenal. It’s a play about life and death, and the struggle to go on making a living, and it’s about how people respond to that, and how their lives are affected by the tragedies that come out of all that forever.”
The Herald, June 12th 2019