Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Three Decades of a Nation's Theatre

Theatre Critic Book

Joyce McMillan , Nick Hern Books , August-19-18
Theatre Critic Book by Joyce McMillan Joyce McMillan's collection of 400-plus pages of reviews and commentary starts in 1982 and ends in 2015. Over her career she has served as drama critic for the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and latterly the Scotsman. The reports of individual years of performance are linked by newly written commentary. The new text seeks to summarise and put theatre into its context of the national history.

“Great nations”, was the view of John Ruskin, “write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art.” McMillan is as good a guide to that third book, at least on stage, as there will ever be. The Scots playwrights are all here, Byrne, Lochhead, Greig, Burke, Harrower- Peter Stein, no less, was in Scotland to do “Blackbird”. Shakespeare, Pinter and the canon feature along with Scotland's own “Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis” and “Men Should Weep.” The majority of productions are inevitably from the lowland belt but McMillan reports from productions in Mull and Orkney.

There are a number of key years. In 1990 Glasgow was European Capital of Culture. The referendum year saw Rona Munro's trilogy of “the James Plays” directed by Laurie Sansom. With their grandeur and ambition “the James plays stepped up magnificently to the referendum challenge.” By contrast, there is a script in Wales that sought to do something similar with the house of Llewellyn. It is little wanted.

But the one year that stands out is the “vintage year of 2007”. John Tiffany directs “the Bacchae” for National Theatre Scotland. Alan Cumming makes his entry dangling upside down from a rope. “Blazing exhibitions of fire and light”, records McMillan, “that are as witty as they are as thrilling.”

A constant with McMillan is that she makes no distinction between high and low. Equal to Euripides in 2007 was “Sunshine on Leith” from Dundee Rep. She discerns two galvanising forces outside the well-established theatres at Glasgow, Dundee, Pitlochry. One is the national company and the other “A Play, A Pie and A Pint”. Her verdict for 2007 reads: “it really seemed as though Scottish theatre had come of age and had finally moved to take its full place in the life of the nation.”

The book is revealing on the relationship between theatre and critic. William Skidelsky a while back (Prospect Magazine February 2008) wrote an article on the fortunes of book reviewing. He included the line: “Throughout its history, the book review has occupied an uncertain position in relation to the body of literature, being perceived, alternatively, as a nourishing agent and a pest.”

“Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams” opens with a page written by Vicky Featherstone. “Hers was the review we all craved” she says. McMillan had not been particularly gushing on the opening of the National Theatre of Scotland. In February 2006 she listed for “Home” a series of downsides and a series of upsides. She ended with a cautious “It's been a start. There are still many miles to travel.” But that the founding director of the national theatre hails the critic is indicator; nourishing agent rather than pest.

The second factor is the maintenance of objectivity. The message to directors is that, like all professionals, “you're as good as your last production.” “Interiors”- reviewed on this site below October 17th 2010- is “a world-class piece of international theatre.” But another production directed by Matthew Lenton is hammered for “poor casting, limp pace, and chronic ability to evoke”.

In 2004 7:84 is criticised for poor political theatre. At the Tron a political play “gets absolutely everything wrong- extraordinary tin ear for reality of current Scottish politics.” Pity the poor playwright as this most politically aware of critics sets to work on her demolition of the play's inadequacies.

Her aesthetics are not complex. A production comes with the most basic flaw “plagued by a chronic lack of simple, basic storytelling drive.” Ian Rankin at his peak was selling 10% of the entire British book market. His try-out in theatre was not a good idea. The crime master writes a play in 2013 that is “a slow motion car crash ...theatrical bad taste, chaotic plotting and sheer, pointless nastiness”, all rounded off with “two staggeringly silly late plot twists.” It should make any successful prose author shudder and shrink from theatre.

The book does not dwell on the institutional background. But a linking article recalls Davd MacLennan and Wildcat's “bruising confrontation with Scottish Arts Council”. “There's been some media criticism of our artistic judgement. I won't tolerate that.” ran a leaked document (below July 19th). Relations have been fissile for years and the CEO fell in July. It is a role of colossal difficulty, the holding court between government and creators. McMillan records a part of it lies in the whole thrust of an Arts Council becoming Creative Scotland. The new body was governed with a more interventionist streak: “playing a far more strategic and directive role in deciding what artists should do and make.”

In the middle of the book the reviews break for an essay. “Theatre and Nationhood” is a fiery 8 pages written for the Tramway in August 1991. McMillan ends with “there is one last point I would like to make, and that is that nations define themselves most fully, most accurately and most impressively not when they are directly examining their own nationhood, but when they are using the stuff of their own language and culture to tackle the substantial issues of their time.”

That could not make a greater contrast with Wales; too much budget is yoked to theatrical anniversary events.

The corollary is that Scottish theatre has a habit of revisiting itself. John Byrne's “The Slab Boys” is revived in 2015 and is appraised as “a glitteringly complex piece of drama”. Dundee Rep revives in the same year “the Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.” McMillan: “ the single most important show in the history of Scottish theatre.” By contrast the theatre of Wales has small interest in its heritage. It is anomalous that it is an outlier like Fluellen that excavates Philip Burton.

“The Slab Boys” is of the same vintage as Alan Osborne's “Merthyr Trilogy.” David Adams' view in 2004 was “They are classics and not only paved the way for other playwrights but are soaring achievements of the imagination, the compassion, the convictions and the intelligence of this son of Merthyr.” A later generation will never know.

McMillan ends with the right word. “When Scottish theatre works its magic over the coming years, I will be there, to try to catch the moment in print, and to tell it as it was. And believe me, on the good nights and the bad ones, the privilege will be mine: to be paid to go looking for joy, and occasionally to find it.”

“Looking for joy”- there is the motive that drives the true critic.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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