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  • Birnam WoodScotland, Nationalism, and Theatres of War
  • Ariel Watson (bio)

The National Theatre will also look beyond Scotland for inspiration, and stimulate interest in Scottish culture from other countries and cultures. The work will reflect the diversity of Scotland’s culture… National Theatre of Scotland will not have a theatre building of its own. It will present work in the existing network of theatres and venues, or exciting venues annexed for the occasion… Work will also be toured abroad when appropriate.


Third ApparitionMacbeth shall never vanquished be untilGreat Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane HillShall come against him.

MacbethThat will never be.Who can impress the forest, bid the treeUnfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good!Rebellious dead, rise never till the woodOf Birnam rise…


As the tenth anniversary of the founding manifesto of its National Theatre approaches, Scotland finds itself at a crossroads of both theatrical and political nationalism. In the years preceding the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, two of the leading voices of the young National Theatre of Scotland (or NTS)—Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone and Associate Director for New [End Page 226] Work John Tiffany—left the organization. Both have been involved with the NTS since its founding: Featherstone was responsible for commissioning the company’s first major local and global success, Gregory Burke’s war drama Black Watch, and Tiffany for its development and direction. The shift to the company’s second generation of visionary administrators, accompanied by a move to new operational offices, seems an opportunity for reflection, evaluation, and shift in a company that was already in a state of constant (self-)scrutiny.

The development of the NTS has an almost microcosmic relation to Scotland’s status as a devolved nation, and potentially a political state: indeed, in the summer of 2007 Scotland’s First Minister, the Scottish Nationalist Alex Salmond, arranged for a special performance of Black Watch to mark the opening of the Scottish Parliament. This sympathetic resonance with the Scottish independence movement, which coincided exactly and paradoxically with the play’s first international tour under the aegis of the British Council, speaks to Black Watch’s ability to stand in for this moment of decisive split and self-contradiction in both the realms of theatrical and political nationalism. By examining the dissolution of the Scottish Black Watch regiment in the contemporary moment of British and American war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the play uses military occupation as a premise for reflecting on the conflicting experience, both political and psychological, of a nation within a nation-state. This symbolic move would find an echo in the company’s later war play, David Greig’s Dunsinane. In representing, semifictionally, the futile attempt of a documentary playwright to capture the warfront experience of the soldiers, newly returned to Scotland, Black Watch uses creative conflict as a premise for debating the issues of home and estrangement; corps and exclusion; loss corporeal, linguistic, and narrative that would come to define the NTS’s repertoire of original work as a theatre. War—international conflict—stands in allegorically for the intranational conflict and the particular national struggle that defines Scottishness, as does the creative and linguistic battle for expression, articulation, and representation. This creative conflict surrounding the documentarian’s research—a conflict between experience and representation, aesthetics and the inexpressible—crucially stages the anxiety surrounding the NTS’s developing praxis (which closely resembles that of the naive fictional playwright) and purpose. How can a national theatre hope to represent the truth of a diverse and conflicted national experience? What does it mean to hold a mirror up to nation?

The foundation and practice of the National Theatre is the site, instigation, and validation of the utopian project of national definition. As Loren Kruger puts it, dramas of theatrical nationhood “share with the critical and legislative texts the task of representing not merely the question of national identity but [End Page 227] also the anxiety and aspirations invested in the articulation and resolution of that question.”1 If, as David McCrone, Angela Morris, and Richard Kiely argue, Scotland’s historical status as a...


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