In debates about Scottish independence a theory is regularly put forward that Scotland more resembles a Scandinavian country than an Anglo-Saxon one. The political implications of this aren't high up on John Tiffany's list of considerations in regard to his new play, an adaptation of the hit Swedish vampire novel and film Let The Right One In, but the cultural connection certainly resonates.
"The playwright George Gunn says that Caithness and Sutherland have got more in common with Scandinavia than they do with the Central Belt (Edinburgh, Glasgow and their surroundings)," says Tiffany, whose Tony awards for the Broadway musical Once have further entrenched his status as one of the most important theatre-makers in the world. "You get the Viking influence there, churches called St Mungo's and St Olaf's, and there's something about the climate, the geology and the environment that leads to a particular outlook on life."
"Even thinking about the Scottish as a community," adds Tiffany's long-time friend, choreographer and collaborator Steven Hoggett, "I've spent quite a bit of time in the past in Corby, which is just a fistful of Glaswegians dropped in the middle of England, and even there all the road names are Danish and Viking. It feels like an intrinsic understanding of themselves, a kind of linking."
The pair, who were born within a month of each other in 1971 ("A month is significant in anyone's book," laughs Tiffany, the elder) are speaking during a lunch break from rehearsals of Let The Right One In, an adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel and film about a young boy, Oskar, and his touching romance with a bloodthirsty female vampire, Eli. We're in Glasgow's Film City, the old Govan Town Hall, where the pair rehearsed their breakthrough hit Black Watch, another National Theatre of Scotland production. They've known each other since the age of 15, when they were schoolboys in Huddersfield.
"The question of when we started working together..." says Tiffany, "We could talk about the first show we made together, but to be honest, in terms of understanding the world, it started from the very beginning. It was about MTV, music, headphones, Kate Bush. The process of creating work together and the shorthand we've got now is as much about those hours watching The Chart Show, playing tapes and swapping CDs. We wanted to be pop stars, we really did."
"I always wanted to be in Massive Attack," says Hoggett.
"I wanted to be a combination of Liz Fraser, Tracey Thorn and Shara Nelson," comes back Tiffany. "All three of them. Can I sing? In my head, yeah." He says that each of their works develops its own imaginary soundtrack which helps them make sense of its tone and mood. His ideal soundtrack would be Kate Bush's song cycle The Ninth Wave, but for this project the pair have engaged Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds.
"He was a really early choice for us," says Hoggett. "There's something about that spaciousness, it's very precise music but it's got a kind of openness, it's really cinematic but it's intimate as well." "Cinematic" is a word that he uses about the adapted script by Jack Thorne, a playwright-turned-screenwriter whose credits include Skins and Shane Meadows' This Is England '88. "It's incredibly quick. The scenes are very fast, but if you look at the script there's hardly anything that you would call extended dialogue, it's all very sparse, it's lean, pared right back. We honour text, and the text we've got now is just so precise."
"It's a great story," says Tiffany. "There's a physicality about Eli as a vampire, and there's something Beckettian about the relationship between Oskar and Eli. There's little said between them, the script's very short but it's full of space. It's on a reservoir of emotion and connection and development, and that feels very theatrical."
"You get a sense of what happens to a community when this event lands in the middle of it," says Hoggett. "There's this incredible strident love story, but what fascinated us was how horrific it is for the people, and we've worked quite hard on that, to create the sense of a community who are impacted on. In the film you get a sense of how blindsided they are, how confused and distraught and frightened." Tiffany says this ties in with his experience of small communities on Scotland's east coast; Tentsmuir Forest on the northern tip of Fife was a visual inspiration.
He excitedly leads me through to show off the trees that have been delivered for the set and a fine coating of snow made of shredded plastic film –the scene of a stark, cold forest at night coming together. Commissioned by then-outgoing NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone, who one-time NTS associate director Tiffany followed out of the door last year when she moved to the Royal Court (he'll work on two shows for her there this year), Let The Right One In has backing from two major West End producers in Marla Rubin and Bill Kenwright. Yet if Dundee is as far as it goes the pair will be content.
"We've made a very pure piece of theatre," says Hoggett. "We've both taken risks on this that we wouldn't normally. We haven't looked at it from a commercial point of view because that's not what we're paid to do and it's not how we think." For Tiffany, this show has the unmistakable sense of an era ending: he has lived in Scotland for 23 years, moving from Glasgow University to Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre to the NTS, and will shortly move to London.
Meanwhile, Black Watch is still running (it opened in San Francisco a few nights before we spoke), his one-man Macbeth with Alan Cumming is wowing Broadway and Once won five-star reviews when it opened in the West End earlier this year. Elsewhere his version of The Glass Menagerie, starring Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) hits Broadway in September and auditions will shortly be underway for the Australian version of Once.
"It's a surprise to me as much as anyone," he laughs about the success of his shows. "I've come to the commercial sector quite late and I think I'm old enough and ugly enough to take it with the pinch of salt it needs, as well as enjoying the benefits it brings and the opportunities it affords. Besides, Steven and I are from a town that's always been quite out of the middle. We feel very at home in places that remind us of that."
Let the Right One In, Dundee Rep Theatre (0141 221 0970; nationaltheatrescotland.com), 5 to 29 JuneReuse content