- Modernism and Scottish Theatre Since 1969: A Revolution on Stage by Mark Brown
There is no easy answer to the question 'What gives contemporary Scottish theatre its distinctive energy?' The question tends to generate other questions: Are there specific forms and modes that characterise the Scottish tradition? Was its growth stunted by the anti-theatrical bias of Calvinism? Mark Brown's lively and entertaining history of contemporary Scottish theatre attempts to answer the question by stressing the influence of European modernist aesthetics on the contemporary Scottish stage. His start date – 1969 – is not chosen at random. Not only does it provide a neat fifty-year envelope for his discussion, it marks the beginning of the remarkable co-artistic directorship of Giles Havergal, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. As Brown shows, during a long tenure, the triumvirate did little to disguise its distaste for the text-centric English tradition of theatre – or indeed the Scottish playwriting tradition – and instead developed a strikingly European visual and luxuriant style which was unashamedly director-led. Such was the success of the project that in 1990, when Glasgow was European City of Culture, Michael Coveney was able to accurately describe the theatre as one of 'European orientation which bears no relationship whatsoever to the great upheavals in British theatre since the mid-1950s' [The Citz: 21 Years of the Glasgow Citizens Theatre (London: Nick Hern Books, 1990), p. 4.].
Brown's book does very welcome work in placing 'The Citz' at the centre of a discussion of contemporary Scottish theatre and its developing aesthetics. The theatre has often been marginalised in existing histories, partly because it rarely produced contemporary Scottish plays, but also because its artistic policy did not fit easily into a dominant narrative that privileged politicised populism as the defining feature of Scottish theatre. (Its failure to support indigenous playwriting was among the criticisms most regularly levelled at the Citizens during this period.) This latter tradition asserted continuity between the work of Glasgow Unity in the 1940s, John McGrath's 7.84 Scotland – especially the seminal The Cheviot, the Stage, and the Black, Black Oil (1973) – and the work of contemporary playwrights such as Gregory Burke whose Black Watch (2006) was arguably the most successful Scottish show of the last twenty years. Producing a powerful counter-argument, Brown examines the trajectory of the Citizens during the years of the triumvirate [End Page 203] and beyond, paying welcome attention to the contribution made by Dominic Hill who became artistic director in 2011, and quickly established himself as among Scotland's most critically acclaimed directors.
For Brown, the Citizens provided 'the initial impetus' and 'much of the fuel' for the renaissance in Scottish theatre his book seeks to describe (p. 51). As well as starting in 1969, then, Brown also starts from the assumption that Scottish theatre is currently experiencing its golden age, that 'the period since 1969 is the strongest in the history of live drama in Scotland' (p. 29). Placing the Citizens' at the centre of his argument, his aim is to augment it with reference to other developments in theatre practice and infrastructure including the arrival of the influential touring company Communicado, which was founded in Edinburgh in 1983 by Gerry Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Rob Pickavance, the establishment of the Tramway in Glasgow as a venue for international work, the support offered to young experimental theatre makers by the Arches, also in Glasgow, and the cosmopolitan programming of the various Edinburgh festivals. In the second half of the book he tests his thesis about the influence of European modernism on Scottish theatre's artistic ambitions in a series of interviews with five prominent theatre makers: the playwrights David Greig, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower and Anthony Neilson, and the director and designer Stewart Laing.
Readers familiar with Brown's journalism in his role as theatre critic for the Herald on Sunday and the Daily Telegraph will be unsurprised by the occasionally strident tone of the book. It delivers...