In August 2005, a couple of months after I started working at the National Theatre of Scotland, I attended a cycle of plays at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival. The cycle was produced by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company and consisted of all six of JM Synge’s plays performed by the same company of actors over nine hours with breaks for sustenance. It was a truly amazing experience to sit and watch the entire dramatic output of one brilliant playwright. As a celebration of the achievements of Irish theatre, it felt truly national.
I got to thinking about the role of NTS in terms of the history of Scottish
theatre, and how we could honour and rouse its traditions. There have been, and continue to be, many great dramatists producing great plays over the years. Major revivals of Scottish classics along with world premieres will always have a strong presence in our programme. But the plays are
not the whole story. Fuelled by variety, visual art, music and a deep love of storytelling, Scotland’s artists have created a form of theatre that is as significant and vital as its written drama. It features narration, song, movement, stand-up comedy, film, politics and, above all, an urgent need to connect with its audience. It is often contemporaneous with world events and issues, although never dry and academic, and therefore deeply relevant and bound to the time in which it is created. It is a distinct form of theatre of which Scotland can be very proud.
It is a tradition that has been fired by, and has found expression in, the work of a great number of theatre companies and artists: John McGrath and 7:84 changed the face of Scottish theatre with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, which encompassed 200 years of Scottish history from the Clearances in the 18th century to the discovery of North Sea oil in the 70s; Gerry Mulgrew and Communicado collaborated with Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan to create visceral and riotous shows such as Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Cyrano de Bergerac; Bill Bryden told the story of dying industry with a great demotic energy in The Ship, performed in the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan. All these pieces of theatre used cabaret, spectacle, passion and honesty to communicate with their audiences.
It is these productions, among others, that were the inspiration behind the
ambition of Black Watch. This ambition resulted in a development and rehearsal process that was unfamiliar to me, Greg Burke and the creative team. For the most part we were making it up as we went along. At the end of 2004, as one of the first things she did as artistic director of NTS, Vicky Featherstone asked Greg to keep an eye on the story of the Black Watch, who had just returned to Scotland from Camp Dogwood. When I joined the company in April 2005, Greg had discovered some fascinating stories with real dramatic potential, so we decided to programme the piece in our
inaugural year as a ‘highly physical piece of political theatre’. I told Greg not to go away and write a fictional drama set in Iraq, but that instead we should try and tell the ‘real’ stories of the soldiers in their own words. This led to Greg interviewing a group of Black Watch lads in a Fife pub over a couple of months (thanks to our researcher Sophie Johnston), all of whom had just left the regiment. I knew that I wanted to perform the piece in a space in which we could create our own version of the Tattoo, with seating banks down either side of an esplanade. This we found in Edinburgh, in an old drill hall near the castle that was being used as a car park by the university. For the first time as a director, and through nobody’s fault but my own, I was going into rehearsals without a script. All we had were the interviews, some traditional Black Watch songs and the dimensions of the drill hall. Luckily Greg had been secretly writing some fictional scenes set in Dogwood and these made a powerful contrast with the pub interviews. We soon had material from Steven Hoggett, Associate Director (Movement), who was working with the actors on a ‘letters from home’ sequence and brought in a Regimental Sergeant Major to teach us parade marches, and Davey Anderson, Associate Director (Music), who was creating radical new arrangements of the Black Watch songs.
We also had fantastic support from Sarah Alford-Smith, our stage manager, who created a 21st-century rehearsal environment with internet access, DVD players and video cameras, and who, along with the actors, collated a goldmine of news reports, radio extracts, documentaries, political speeches, statistics and visual references. Even with all this material it still wasn’t clear to us whether we had a piece of theatre that would communicate anything to an audience. We continued not to know until the first night in Edinburgh. Then it became apparent that there was a real connection being made and that we were telling a story that the audience desperately wanted to hear.
–John Tiffany, February 2007
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