The National Theatre of Scotland’s lockdown project includes Brian Cox performing a monologue by Ian Rankin. Its director Cora Bissett and artistic director Jackie Wylie tell David Pollock how Scotland’s ‘theatre without walls’ is operating under lockdown
It’s a Monday morning during lockdown, and director and performer Cora Bissett is preparing at home in Glasgow for one of the most unusual theatre jobs of her life. At 5pm, she will be directing acclaimed actor Brian Cox who is at his home a few hours’ drive outside New York, over a video call.
This is for one of the National Theatre of Scotland’s short, filmed Scenes for Survival pieces – the means by which the company has chosen to help keep Scottish theatremakers working and making during the coronavirus crisis
Produced in association with BBC Scotland, Screen Scotland and BBC Arts’ Culture in Quarantine series, each of NTS’ scenes is a vignette of between three and five minutes, which teams a writer, performer and director in making a new piece of work (although some will feature a solo writer and performer, and others return to an already-existing work).
Bissett and Cox’s piece is a mouth-watering proposition even outside their native Scotland.
Written by the Edinburgh-based crime author Ian Rankin, The Lockdown Blues imagines his fictional detective inspector John Rebus undergoing his own isolation. “Ian and I were delighted to get Brian, because Ian had him in mind for the role of Rebus way back,” says Bissett, of a character previously played on screen by John Hannah and Ken Stott. “It’s come full circle, and he’s playing Rebus at the age he is now, as Ian’s aged him in the books chronologically.”
She continues: “My first Skype with Brian was bizarre. I’d just been bingeing on Succession [the hit HBO series, in which Cox stars], which is extraordinary. I’ve always known he was a very fine actor, but I felt a bit starstruck. We were chatting about the piece and how to present it, and I think [directing him] will be a very light touch. He’ll deliver it beautifully and I’ll just make sure we’ve got a good set-up and a good composition, because he’ll be filming it on his own phone. He’ll try to make his little garden cabin look like an Edinburgh tenement in the background.”
Released among the first batch of six Scenes for Survival pieces, The Lockdown Blues can be seen alongside works including playwright Stef Smith’s The Present, starring Moyo Akandé and directed by Katherine Nesbitt, and novelist Jenni Fagan’s Isolation, with Kate Dickie directed by Debbie Hannan.
Comedian Janey Godley has also written and performed her own short, while future instalments will feature writers Rona Munro, Denise Mina, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway and Douglas Maxwell, performers Maureen Beattie, Alan Cumming, Douglas Henshall, Blythe Duff and Tam Dean Burn, and directors Orla O’Loughlin, Dominic Hill and Andy Arnold.
“We were just about to go into our busiest part of the year,” says NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie, thinking back to the organisation’s immediate reaction to theatres going dark. Among the shows the ‘theatre without walls’ had to cancel up to the autumn were Edinburgh International Festival productions of Liz Lochhead’s Medea adaptation and Rob Drummond’s new work Who Killed Katie?
“NTS doesn’t do a panto, so things start to gear up around March. We had some big projects we were about to kick off across the country,” Wylie says. “It was really hard to suddenly go from a sense of excitement that things were about to kick back in again to cancellation, but the extraordinary thing was the way the theatre sector – even though it was undergoing this intense moment of anxiety – showed brilliant leadership in the way we closed our doors and communicated our cancellations carefully and responsibly.”
She adds: “The way we work means we exist in collaboration. We can’t make work without the nation’s venues, its freelancers, its independent sector. We can only exist if that’s all stable.”
‘Because NTS is a theatre without walls, it’s in our DNA to find flexible ways of carrying on’ – NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie
Wylie says the weekly Friday morning Zoom meeting between major players in Scotland’s theatre sector aims “figure out a way forward as one community,” and she realises the NTS bears a great responsibility to continue operating at some level.
“At a very fundamental level, we wanted to celebrate Scottish theatre,” she says of Scenes for Survival. “When you take all of the [elements involved in it] cumulatively, they should paint a picture of an incredibly exciting, vital, critically important theatre culture in Scotland, because there’s a real balance of levels of experience and perspective there.”
Wylie continues: “Time seems to operate in a very strange way right now, and looking back to seven weeks ago [when the project was beginning] it feels like a different time. When we were setting up the project, we were worried about asking artists to carry on making work, until we realised there was an absolute hunger for self-expression out there. And because we’re a theatre without walls, it’s in our DNA to find flexible ways of carrying on.”
As a director, what does Bissett expect from this new experience of directing? “I guess a lot is in the pre-discussion about how you want to present it. Is the actor looking directly at the camera or slightly off? What kind of tone are they bringing?
“We’ll be on Zoom, because we’ll have a stage manager watching in, and Brian will perform the piece a couple of different ways so I can watch it live. Then just as you would with any actor, really… it will be a similar process, except just from the shoulders up. I’ll be making sure there’s not too much shadow on him, that the framing looks good, making sure it reads as a theatrical piece.”
In that regard, how does this qualify as theatre at all, rather than a short film?
“You’re sitting somewhere between the filmic and the theatrical,” says Bissett, who is also an associate director of the NTS, after a pause. “That’s quite a subtle divide, so it’s about finding a way to capture the right tone for what we’re trying to create here. We’re shooting with very minimal means, everyone’s just using their phone, so that creates a certain paradigm already.
“Then we’re doing the pieces in one long take, which is different from making film and TV, where so much is in the edit, and in cutaways and different shots from different angles telling the story. You’re still focused absolutely on the actor giving the performance, which is a subtle thing, but it should mean this still feels like theatre while you’re watching it. You’re still getting a one-take straight delivery to the audience. But we’re still discovering what this form is, it’s new for all of us.”
“In all honesty, I think people are worried,” says Wylie, when asked for her perspective on the wider Scottish theatre landscape. “Lots of organisations are worried about their survival because they’re not able to earn income, and it’s a difficult place to be, when the thing you’re set up to do, your unique offer, is bringing people together in one space and we can’t do that. But there’s a visceral, emotional articulation in the work that’s going on here, that I think will be comforting to people.”
An initial batch of 40 works has been chosen from 230 open submissions, and one will go live online every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening for an indefinite period. “None of us know how long this is going to be, so there isn’t a clearly defined end,” says Bissett. “But it’s a case of not just rolling over and saying: ‘We’re done.’ It was important to keep a sense of just being able to work and not admit complete defeat.
“Nobody thinks for a second that this is what theatre must be now for the future. We all know that fundamentally theatre can take many shapes and forms, but one of those must always be a crowd of people coming together to share a live experience. We must never lose sight of that, but while we don’t know how long it’s going to take for theatres to open up again, we’re just trying to find ways to let writers write, actors perform and collaborators collaborate, and keep creative juices flowing in some way.”