Paper presented at the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on 4 September 2013, with fine assistance from actor Stuart Hepburn. 1.
If Scotland had a Facebook profile then its relationship status would be ‘it’s complicated’.
First there is our relationship with England and our role within the UK: when it suits, you can hear the girning and moaning about being oppressed while our history shows us to have been a willing partner in imperial ventures; or what about Scotland’s role in the recent financial crisis when the banks which bore its name nearly brought the economic systems crashing? Then there are our close ties in family, language and culture while constantly banging on about being different.
Scotland also has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world – striving to be a kind of celtic Borgen with a modest yet influential role while all the time basking in the glory of being part of one of the world’s most powerful nations; presenting a profile which is modern, enlightened, inventive, a land of discovery –while marching along 6th Avenue once a year in tartan hoping to attract those tourist dollars to the shores.
But Scotland’s most tricky relationship is with itself.
There are many examples of Scottish art which have dealt with the binary nature of Scottish identity – the rural v urban, Highlander v Lowlander, Jacobite v Hanovarian, poor v rich, newcomer v native, catholic v protestant, romantic v rationalist, enlightenment v fundamentalism but I have chosen a piece of 19th century fiction and a piece of theatre it inspired to illustrate the artist’s response to Scotland and to its split personality.
It is possible that even in this well read audience many of you will not have read nor even heard of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Or to give it its full title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor. Unlike the great classic Scottish novelists Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, Hogg and his work are relatively unknown. A contemporary of Scott, he too lived in the Scottish Borders where he worked as a shepherd, educated himself and went on to write both poetry and novels.
Published anonymously in 1824, Confessions was presented as if it were a found document dating from early in the previous century. It is offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. It purports to be the memoirs of Robert Wringhim from the Scottish Borders, who falls under the influence of a stranger Gil-Martin. Wringham believes in predestination– a Calvinist doctrine in which a place in heaven is secured regardless of actions in life. He commits several crimes including the murder of his brother, and descends into madness but not before confessing all in the document that is ‘discovered’ after his death.
The central part of the book is the confession preceded by a long introduction by the editor and the story of Wringham’s decline and fall is in effect, told twice in sometimes contradictory terms. The final section is an explanation by the editor of how the confession was discovered. Throughout the book, Gil- Martin, the stranger, exerts greater and greater influence over Wringham and appears to be able to change shape and identity. It is left to the reader to decide whether Gil-Martin is the devil, a figment of the protagonist’s imagination or in fact a representation of his spilt personality.
It is part-psychological thriller, part-crime novel, set in Scotland with accurate geographical references but at the same time inhabits a gothic world of horror and fantasy. It deals with madness, the supernatural and religious intolerance and is considered to be the inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The principal actions of the novel take place, as I said, in the very early 18th century around the time of the Union in 1707. It can be read as a metaphor for Scotland itself and its struggle to resolve the schism in its own identity. Perhaps it is for this reason it has provided the basis for film, opera and theatre adaptations—few which have been realised and of those, not all successful.
Earlier this year, Untitled Projects, in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, undertook the task of meticulously re-creating an earlier attempt at staging the work by the late Paul Bright, a theatre-maker working here at the end of the 20th century and who died in Paris in his 40s. Under the title Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, this production takes the form of a carefully researched and re-created archive, and an illustrated talk by the actor George Anton, one of Bright’s collaborators, with archive footage and contemporary filmed interviews with people who knew or worked with Bright— Tim Crouch, Annie Griffen, Giles Havergal, Katie Mitchell, Alison Peebles and Di Robson.
It tells the story of Bright’s attempts to stage the work in various site specific and theatre settings including an episode on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and Traquair House in the Scottish Borders as well as a disastrous production at the Edinburgh International Festival.
The critical response to this re-creation was overwhelmingly positive: beautifully written by Pamela Carter, exquisitely realised by Stewart Laing, and passionately performed by George Anton. However what did concern some of the critics was the idea that they were part of a hoax – a new take on the unreliable narrator. It was not what it seemed and did it, in the end, cheat? For Paul Bright never existed.
The production is an exploration of the complexities of the split personality presented in extreme terms. And above all it is the way the artist lies to get at the truth.
To quote George Anton in the play:
‘I knew I wanted to be an actor from about the age of eight. I remember it very clearly … watching a film with my dad… a Truffaut film … ‘the 400 blows’. I remember very clearly watching this scene where this boy was lying to a person in authority … and I had this sort of revelation … this kid’s lying and getting away with it … I get it, he’s acting, that’s what acting is … lying and getting away with it. Imagine being able to do that for a job?’
And here he is quoting Paul Bright:
‘what is the artist if not a shaman … a seer … how else will I alter states if I can’t alter my own state and release what is buried within me … the real, the truth’.
As Scotland again faces up to an uncertain constitutional future which turns a spotlight on its inherent contradictions, here is one response to the current debate on independence and cultural identity – a play about a play that never existed based on a discovered and edited narrative which purports to be a true story, and which was itself a hoax.
Paul Bright’s Confessions is also about how theatre is made and how it works. Specifically how it can destroy those who believe in their own genius and indestructability. It is, to quote the brief for this talk, ‘the re-creating of mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre and performance-making’. But it is also about how theatre was made in the 1980s and exposes the differences between the pre and post devolution theatre in Scotland.
Katie Mitchell, English theatre director, in the interview for Paul Bright’s Confessions says:
‘It was difficult in the late ‘80s starting out as a director … it was the latter stages of Thatcher’s regime and we all felt very much on the outside and at that time the mainstream was pitted against the fringe. I think we all felt that maybe at that time there was a possibility to make a change to create a different mainstream culture. I think we thought that was a fight we hoped to win, but most of my generation didn’t get near to fighting that fight and definitely we lost.’
Wow, ‘we lost’. Just to be absolutely clear this quote from Mitchell is in the context of a piece of fiction but this position is echoed by others working in English theatre.
Mark Ravenhill in the inaugural speech for the Edinburgh Fringe last month asserts that artists in general and theatre in particular, bought into the Blair agenda of the late 1990s and early 21st century because, in part, the money flowed to the arts, and in part because the artists, like the much of the rest of society, wanted to believe it really was a new dawn and the third way was possible. He implies the arts community sold out by adopting and accepting the new cultural lexicon of ‘business plans and strategic thinking’.
No doubt that there was a growing target culture in the way in which the arts were viewed; that the importance of the creative industries became a cornerstone of Whitehall policy; that the role of the artist in social inclusion and urban regeneration became part of the way in which the arts were discussed and supported. But what I would question is, did this start with Blair or is this not simply a continuation of the policy of the Thatcher/Major years?
Ravenhill’s conclusion is that anger drives theatre and the arts are at their most powerful when in opposition to government (as they were under Thatcher) and asserts, ‘ thank god we’ve got a government in Westminster we can properly hate and wholeheartedly attack’.
How does this play in Scotland in policy terms?
Agreed that the politics of the 1980s and 1990s provided the same oppositional position for theatre in Scotland but, I contend, with a very different outcome. In a paper in 1990, I argued that the then growing confidence of artists was because of, not in spite of Thatcherism and Scottish artists were drawing inspiration from being in opposition to what was happening in the political sphere. 2.
A decade or so later, in a paper I co-authored with Adrienne Scullion in 2003, we reflected that one reaction to a hostile Westminster government was for artists to ‘refocuse[d] their attentions on work for and in Scotland, looking to the past with new application, creating texts of linguistic and visual specificity, reassessing the cultural influences that make Scotland’. This could well be a description of Paul Bright’s Confessions.
We also argued, that the arts in Scotland were open to influences from beyond –driven to some extent with the increasing access to international work and concluded that, ‘both dynamics were about bypassing London, or at least finding ways of working beyond the ‘them and us’ identities that the Thatcher government engendered in Scotland.’
And echoing this in a piece just last month in the Scotsman, political commentator and critic Joyce McMillan pointed out that in the 80s and 90s ‘Scotland’s artists, writers and musicians did most of their heavy lifting – in terms of reimagining a post-modern Scottish identity that would be inclusive, creative, and infinitely open to changing accounts of itself.’
So out of being in opposition came a re-visiting of Scotland’s distinctive cultural identity—and no suggestion that ‘we lost’.
Devolution in 1999 was the driver for that change. It unleashed an energy in creation of work and brought the political and artistic worlds closer together in dialogue if not in agreement. They were part of a shared future: ‘This is about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves’, said Donald Dewar (Labour) First Minster at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.
A recent speech by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture in the (SNP) Scottish Government put clear tartan water between her and Maria Miller, Secretary of State for culture in England:
‘We do not measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence – we value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.’
So what have these fine words 14 years apart delivered for theatre in Scotland? And what is theatre delivering for Scotland?
Government funding to the arts and heritage has been but cut but not slashed nor threatened completely as it has south of the border or elsewhere in Europe. Can we argue, however that theatre is telling the truth to politicians? Is this a community which has acquiesced to government control and is tick boxing its way to more money?
Scotland has not escaped the ideas so derided by Ravenhill. Creative Scotland, the relatively new body created from a merger of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, has faced a barrage of criticism from the arts community about how it speaks about and to the arts and artists. So much so that battle between the agency and the arts community (known locally as #CSstooshie) led to the departure of its chief executive and a senior member of his team and a commitment from the board to re-visit its policies and its language.
But what is happening on the ground, in theatre itself?
One of the first cultural interventions of the Scottish Government post devolution was to establish a national theatre. The vision from the theatre community was ‘The Scottish Parliament and a National Theatre for Scotland reflect[ing] each other in the enterprise of a truly democratic civic society.’3. So moving from being oppositional to being reflective. This civic role for theatre, I would argue underpins not only NTS itself but also the theatre community more widely. It sees itself as part of the new Scotland with a voice in its future.
Last year I led a review of theatre in Scotland for Creative Scotland and one of the most striking conclusions is the importance of new work – mainly but not exclusively new writing – to the theatre landscape here. We undertook and analysis of repertoire sampled over three decades. This sample showed that not only has there been an increase in the number of shows produced but that the largest increase is in new writing from Scotland. This in part can be ascribed to the development of lunchtime theatre in Glasgow at Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons but not exclusively.
There has been a surge in new work, and a flagship company which has accepted and delivered on its role to present to audiences across Scotland a huge range of work –much of this in collaboration with the theatres and companies which lobbied for its creation in the first place.
But what is theatre saying and where stands Scottish theatre on the question of the day? Yes or no? And here we do come to work in progress.
The question was raised during this year’s Edinburgh Festival, where is the Scottish independence play? Echoing Joyce McMillan’s comment earlier, the reaction from some Scottish playwrights is, ‘I wrote it five years ago’
McMillan also argues that Scottish playwrights and theatre makers are just as concerned with ‘extreme political violence and our response to it, or the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, or the growth of a pervasive sadistic porn culture on the internet, [which] are not at least as important and urgent as Scottish independence’.
As for 2014 and the referendum itself, NTS has risen to the challenge and commissioned work which will deal directly with the arguments from both sides. However the other chatter from the festival was the outgoing Director Jonathan Mills’s infelicitous comment that there will be no events specifically dealing with the referendum in 2014 and the festival will be a politics free zone. Presumably the Commonwealth and the First World War – which will be festival themes — don’t count as being political. Or perhaps as journalist Lesley Riddoch has pointed out, these are British political themes and count in a different way.
‘It’s very hard to think about any dramatist who has not had a point of view on the politics of the country in which they work.’ riposted Alasdair Gray, novelist and author of Lanark. Gray has form in this debate. Earlier this year he published an article which talked about ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’ in Scotland – the former being folk who choose to move and settle here (implication good) and the latter those who choose to further their career by coming here for a few years and then moving away again (implication bad). The problem with Gray’s analysis is that the language is inflammatory and verging on racist, and the examples are often shot through with inaccuracies. More recently James McMillan, composer took a view at the opposite extreme and made some unfortunate remarks accusing artists in the Yes campaign of ‘fascistic mob mentality’.
However the debate generally amongst artists has not been as ill-tempered and these voices might be regarded as outliers in the debate. Generally Scottish theatre makers’ involvement, while passionate, is more measured- sometimes even nuanced. The majority are in the Yes camp, but it is not all one way, and there are many who support a No vote—fearing nationalism and arguing for the route to internationalism, preferably of the Marxist variety. However, the mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre are not yet the place in which they have explored the issue directly and instead have taken to blogging and other forms of social media.
Here is an imagined landscape, created by the playwright David Greig on a blogging site Bella Caledonia:
There is girl. She’s seventeen. She and her three siblings have lived all their life inside an old castle. It’s a vast rambling pile with hundreds of rooms, once it was the fortress of powerful landowner but it’s long ago fallen into disrepair. The kitchens have been abandoned, the rooms are riddled with damp, the floorboards rotten. The roof has mostly fallen in and the windows are shuttered. The girl and her brothers camp now in the old ballroom where they burn the furniture to keep warm. There, they are attended to by old retainers in faded liveries who serve bad food on silver plates. Every day the retainers demand the siblings enact the old rituals of chivalry that were established when the house was first built. They bow and curtsey, they swear allegiance, they practice sword fighting, they call each other Lord and Baron and Knight. Meanwhile, in the attic of the west tower the old king, demented and sick, bangs on tin cans and shouts out to the empty fields about his power and his glory.
The girl has known nothing else. Doesn’t every child live like this? But deep down she has a slowly growing sense that something’s wrong. And then one day her unease becomes too much. She breaks the rules of the house and she opens the shutters of the ballroom window. Her eyes are dazzled briefly by the light but then they adjust and she sees: in the distance, in the valley below, a village. In the village people are going about their business, children go to school, people work, people play football, they garden…she sees and for the first time the girl realises. There is another way things can be.
So Bella, when you ask me how I’ll feel on the morning of independence my answer is this. Imagine that girl walking boldly down the long rotten corridor of the castle, imagine her stopping at the great wooden door, imagine her pushing at it and finding it open, imagine her stepping out into the fresh damp air of a spring day? That. That’s how I’ll feel.’
In summary, theatre makers in Scotland are part of the debate: issues of national identity are already there in the work, and more direct dealing with the referendum issue is yet to come.
However, I say to David and other theatre makers, the day after the referendum, regardless of the result, we will still be facing the same economic and environmental problems and issues of inequality. And we will be a place which if not exactly torn itself apart, has inflicted on itself wounds which will be hard to heal.
So David, the real challenge for Scottish theatre makers, is imagining a Scotland in 2015 and beyond.
2. Keynote Speech, Council of Regional Arts Associations Conference, 16 July 1990.
3. Federation of Scottish Theatre, Proposal for a National Theatre for Scotland (Edinburgh: FST, 2000), p. 3.