EDINBURGH — It was a red-letter night for Scottish theater, but you’d have been hard pressed to find a red carpet. The National Theater of Scotland launched Feb. 25 with 10 site-specific productions in places as unlikely as a public housing project in Glasgow and a ferry boat in Shetland. It was a declaration of intent that helmer Vicky Featherstone’s new org is going to be no ordinary national theater.
Backed by a two-year budget of £7.5 million ($13 million) in public funds, the NTS has no theater building of its own and no fixed company. Instead, it will work with Scotland’s best theater practitioners to produce shows at home and abroad.It was with this broad brief in mind that Featherstone came up with last week’s unconventional kickoff. Launching the NTS in a grand theater in Glasgow or Edinburgh would have provided a glamorous photo op for members of the Scottish Parliament and assorted hangers-on. But that kind of hype runs counter to the spirit of a body whose goal is to be inclusive and speak to the entire nation of 5 million.
Reflecting the NTS aim to break down traditional preconceptions of theater, Featherstone signed up 10 directors and gave them a simple brief: Create a show called “Home” in a nontheater space, making use of a mixture of professionals and locals. All productions would take place on the same day with the option of a few extra perfs on either side.
So it was that Stewart Laing created a doll’s house puppet show in an unused shop on the Isle of Lewis; Matthew Lenton devised a spiritual odyssey in a glass factory in Caithness; and Gill Robertson reworked “Hansel and Gretel” at a mystery location on the East Lothian coast.
The approach meant that most of the productions were on an intimate scale, something that diminished the sense of occasion even as it allowed for intense, individual experiences. The 67,500 people who watched Scotland defeat England at a rugby match in Edinburgh easily eclipsed the estimated 10,000 welcoming the arrival of the NTS on the same day. Such is the nature of theater, however, and it was fascinating to see a national org being born without a hint of flag-waving bombast.
With extensive use of trains, buses, taxis and planes, this critic got to see five of the productions. The best two were Wils Wilson’s animation of the Northlink Ferry moored in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands and Alison Peebles’ reclamation of an abandoned housing project in Aberdeen.For Wilson’s show, the audience wore headphones and wandered the deck to the sound of Jackie Kay’s poetry and Hugh Nankivell’s music as “passengers” from the past and present milled around. In Aberdeen, a party of 20 audience members took a guided tour in whichwe came across youngsters squabbling over dinner, an oil worker out at sea, a fisherman eulogizing cod and a traveler returning home.
Both shows were spirited, poignant and beautiful. They were also direct responses to the local culture, which was equally true in Dundee, where Stewart Laing recreated a wartime dance hall; Edinburgh, where Anthony Neilson devised a surreal parody of the Scottish Parliament; and Glasgow, where John Tiffany cast Billy Boyd (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) in a high-tech multimedia chase through an 18-story tower block.
Each was entertaining in its way and, above all, left us with a sense of the open-ended possibilities to come for Scotland’s first national theater.
Already in rehearsal is “The Wolves in the Walls,” a musical adaptation of the children’s picture book by Neil Gaiman that will play in the U.K. beginning March 22, prior to a U.S. tour in spring 2007. NTS also intends to develop further site-specific presentations like “Home.”
Equally important to the org’s high-profile productions is its program of community theater, education and development of young directors. NTS will back small-scale tours to rural areas as well as headline-grabbing spectaculars with star names.