Scotland’s National Theatre launched with ten events across the country. Artistic director Vicky Feahterstone tells Thom Dibdin why
The National Theatre of Scotland finally came out into the world on Saturday night. It has been a long time getting to this point. Indeed the debate has ranged back and for more than a century. But in the end the NTS came out in a series of nationwide events entitled Home.
It was, to many, an entirely unexpected coming out party. Where was the glitz and glamour? Where were the red carpets and visiting celebrities, the towering tiaras and sexy sporrans? Why no big unifying extravaganza to draw in the world’s media and make a splash?
The answer is quite simply that international image is not what the NTS is about. This weekend was, as NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone is quick to say, about setting out the stall. Just as those who formed the NTS structure wanted it to reach out across Scotland by not being building-based, so its launch aims to reach out into the country.
“No single piece of theatre in a single venue should have to take the responsibility of defining or of being the opening night for the NTS,” says Featherstone.
“So we thought, ‘What is the opposite of that?’,” she continues.
“The opposite is about ten directors, it is about taking a word, ‘Home’, which can be domestic or political and creating a work that is all over Scotland, so it has resonance for all the communities it is in.
“We are not setting up some kind of elite theatre that you will hear about that took place in Edinburgh for 20 nights. This is about saying this really is your national theatre and we want you to be a part of it.”
So ‘Home’ it was. Ten productions ranging across Scotland. These included Home Shetland, about islanders’ relationship with the sea and performed on board the Northlink Ferry while it paused in its round trip from Aberdeen in Lerwick harbour, and Home Dumfries in the Loreburn Drill Hall based on elderly people’s ideas of home, and eight points in between.
Suddenly Scotland has a National Theatre, which is itself an expression of what home is.
Not a nationalist theatre but one that is an expression of national identity in all the ways that this can be expressed.
“We are not saying that every show is going to be like Home,” agrees Featherstone. “But in terms of the opening event it is us communicating that the NTS is forward-looking and 21st-century. It isn’t caught up in old ideas of what nationalism is, and what theatre is supposed to be.
“National identity is a really interesting question because I think it is impossible to define one – ever – and it should be impossible with any country to define one. But actually, a national theatre has a responsibility to ask questions of a nation, of its people.”
If Featherstone is determined not to create an NTS for just one audience, she also does not want to create a homogenised theatre that will appeal to every single person in the country. Its different parts will appeal to different people – whether it is Tutti Frutti or Mary Stuart – and recognise that its individual audiences’ tastes are not static.
What will link all NTS productions together, however, will be the quality of the resources given to it. And while some, like many of the Home productions, will be site-specific, their subject matter will be ubiquitous, enabling them to tour all over Scotland and beyond.
“By being national you automatically become international and I think that is exciting,” asserts Featherstone. “National actually puts you on a world stage. It is not parochial, it is the opposite.”
First, however, the NTS is allowing Scotland to look at itself. In unusual ways, too. In Edinburgh, Anthony Neilson created a piece in which children scripted what they thought First Minister’s Questions might be like in the Holyrood Parliament.
It is not time to start asking political questions, however.
“Edinburgh Home is about a country being made up of different generations and it is more about getting a children’s eye view of the world than being overtly political,” explains Featherstone. “It is about giving them a voice, through their imagination, to unpick the things we take for granted.”
If Neilson used children to look at the bigger picture, out in East Lothian, Gill Roberston’s Catherine Wheels Theatre Company created a piece which was aimed specifically at children. Using the story of Hansel and Gretel, she asked the difficult question of what happens when you are not welcome where you live.
“All these fairy tales are fascinating because they work on many different levels,” says Robertson. “For me that was a big thing when I was creating the show. What we have arrived at is really about growing up, it is about not relying on other people to make your decisions. It is about the fact that you can’t rely on your parents, that you have to step away from them and solve your own problems.”
Which, whether Robertson was trying to do it or not, happens to sum up the whole ethos of what the NTS is. The Scottish theatre community and Scottish society as a whole have managed to create a new National Theatre for the country. Now that theatre is stepping away and beginning to stand up for itself.