National theatres need to counter the heavy weights of cultural heritage

Theatre counterweights

The English speaking National Theatre of Wales presented its inaugural production  this week, watched not only by its audiences at miners’ clubs   but also by political and cultural custodians and commentators viewing it as an instrument of national culture.   In an interview with Will Gomptez, Dai Smith the Chair of Arts Council Wales described NTW as an essential tool in ‘nation building’  and ‘a natural next step in the process of devolution and an important act of self-expression’.  So no pressure there then for John McGrath and his small team.  With only £1m for an eclectic and ambitious programme NTW has saved on costs through its interactive on line community and print-free promotion, but unlikely to have allocated resources for explaining itself.  A theatre company’s work should speak for itself but the expectations of a national theatre company weigh much more heavily.  How long will it be before the inevtiable public debate about its role, its policy and its relationship with the Welsh speaking National Theatre?  

The National Theatre of Scotland‘s honeymoon lasted four years before it found itself the object of serious attack about its attitude to the legacy of Scottish plays.  Its directors have been accused of not respecting a Scottish canon and heritage  in sustained attacks in opinion columns and letters pages of  newspapers.  While NToS has not responded defensively to the attacks,  it would be wise to accept that, as a national theatre, it should show some leadership in articulating its role and responsibilities and to remind us of where it came from as well as where it is going.    National theatres in other small nations have done so. Ireland’s Abbey Theatre has weathered 100 years of public debate about its artistic choice and political role and now lays out its stall, describing its legacy and history and how that influences the present in  initiating and participating in the national conversation

The roots of the National Theatre of Scotland are in the politics of devolution and the symbiotic relationship between culture and identity, and in the contemporary theatre sector’s response to this.  

There is also a vital legacy of  Scottish plays and the Scottish theatrical traditions from variety,  to the  political and community theatre of John McGrath and 784.  The plays by great Scottish playwrights from Hogg and Lindsay, through Barrie, Lamont Stewart, to the great cannon of work from the last 5o years are all part of the ingredients which the National Theatre of Scotland has to play to create great theatre experiences for today’s audiences. 

NToS neither has obligation to produce the historic work  nor  was it  set up to do this. It has produced Chris Hannan’s Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and is to produced Barrie’s Peter Pan as well as new plays from Scottish writers.  Have they got the balance right?  All theatres are faced with hard choices.  The directors of the company would do well to articulate role and policy in the context of the past as well as the present. 

And then get on with the great, internationally successful, relevant-to-contemporary- Scotland shows.

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1 comment
  1. Pike Bishop said:

    Yes The Abbey Theatre has laid out its stall.Sacking the scenic and carpentry depts.Outsourcing the wages dept.Cutting wages and pensions.Hiring English Hatchetmen should do the trick alright.I know what we will do,We will blame it on the recession,no one will notice.Slainte Pike Bishop

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