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Milestone year for legendary Lyceum

Exterior of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre Exterior of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre. Photo: Eamonn McGoldrick

Nothing is more symbolic of the Lyceum Theatre’s illustrious past than the return of two of its most successful alumni – Brian Cox and Bill Paterson – in Waiting for Godot, directed by outgoing artistic director, Mark Thomson.

“The Lyceum was and remains the most formative experience of my theatrical life,” says Cox, a founding member of the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company 50 years ago. “It introduced me to the tremendous heritage of world-class theatre practitioners that is unique to Scottish theatre. To be afforded the opportunity to observe and work with the greatest Scottish actors of their day, including Duncan Macrae and Fulton Mackay, all led by the visionary ahead of his time, Tom Fleming, was invaluable.”

It was Fleming, a distinguished Scottish actor and co-founder of the Gateway Theatre, who was called upon by the Edinburgh Civic Theatre Trust to establish the Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in 1965.

He later wrote: “I had recently returned from a tour of nine European countries, and had been confronted with the remarkable standard of theatre available all over Europe. For 19 years, Edinburgh had been gaining a reputation as an international capital of the arts, but only for three weeks of the year. I was determined it should have a resident company of the highest international calibre all through the year.”

In fact, Fleming’s tenure proved to be short-lived and he quit after just a year, having fallen out with the trust over some of his artistic choices, which included a Scots version of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, entitled The Burdies, and a double bill by Slawomir Mrozek, an absurdist Polish dramatist.

Lyceum stalwarts Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Laurence Winram
Lyceum stalwarts Bill Paterson and Brian Cox in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Laurence Winram

Fleming was succeeded by Clive Perry, a young, relatively unknown director from the Leicester Phoenix, who mentored an equally young Richard Eyre over a period of seven years, making him director of productions. Perry introduced the Young Lyceum, a small stage for plays considered too risky for the main stage; in 1975, it was moved to Cambridge Street on the present site of the Traverse, and led by Kenny Ireland, who was to return to the Lyceum later as artistic director. The great Bill Bryden also made a huge impression at the Lyceum during Perry’s nine-year tenure, not least with his production of his own play Willie Rough, which inspired a generation of Scottish playwrights.

The Lyceum closed for major refurbishment in 1977, by which time Stephen MacDonald had succeeded Perry, who died in 2006. Having enjoyed great success with Dundee Rep, MacDonald brought the same Scottish theatre ethos to the Lyceum, with revivals of James Bridie’s play The Anatomist, originally produced at the Lyceum in 1930, and his own adaptation of The Diary of a Scoundrel.

Leslie Lawton, artistic director of the Lyceum from 1979-1984, introduced musicals into its mix as well as a cheap seats scheme for schoolchildren. His successor, Ian Wooldridge, favoured classic texts with a contemporary edge, such as Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of The School for Wives, and Liz Lochhead’s version of Dracula, as well as an annual Shakespeare production.

The late Kenny Ireland took over in 1993, and built his reputation on high-octane Shakespearean productions along with canonical works bringing those great Scots actors Cox (The Master Builder) and Paterson (Oedipus) back into the fold. He also encouraged emerging directors and actors to learn from their more experienced peers, a tradition that has continued under his successor, Thomson, who took over in 2003 and is the longest-serving artistic director of them all.

Thomson announced his resignation earlier this year following the announcement of a 17.5% cut in funding over three years by Creative Scotland. He will be succeeded next summer by the prolific Edinburgh-born playwright David Greig.

“I’d rather hoped to be handing on something that was reasonably well funded,” says Thomson. “Our company employs more artists than any other theatre in Scotland, apart from the National Theatre of Scotland, and these cuts effectively mean £250,000 less every year to make theatre. I don’t see any sense to it.”

One of Thomson’s proudest boasts is the very successful Lyceum Youth Theatre, which produces at least three shows a year, sometimes more. “I love the fact that some [members] will go on to become actors, but it is equally important that others enter society as grocers, bank managers, train drivers and so on, that they bring creativity and imagination into our increasingly functional society.”

Next month, as part of the 50th- birthday season, the youth theatre will present a one-off, site-specific show, inviting the audience to explore the Lyceum’s “secret spaces”.

Thomson also pays tribute to “the many people who keep our beautiful theatre running smoothly and bring our productions to the stage, from our wonderful staff to our trustworthy suppliers”.

As to the future, he is confident the Lyceum will survive its funding crisis. “We’re already adept at creating relationships and partnerships with local businesses. Clearly that has an important role to play in the future.”

For information about the Lyceum’s 50th-anniversary season and other events, visit www.lyceum.org.uk

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