The National Theatre of Scotland: Open for business

It may have flung open its doors, but why has it rejected a permanent home? Sarah Jones investigates
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The Independent Culture

After a hundred-odd years of debate, the most anticipated event in the history of Scottish theatre has taken place as the curtain is hoisted on Home, the first production of the National Theatre of Scotland (NToS).

Given the tortuous gestation, it was an event historic enough in itself. But what really set Scotland's new theatrical venture apart is that this was and is the first national theatre not to have a landmark building in which to base itself. This is the first national theatre to be homeless by choice.

Not having a theatre building is an innovative step, if one that seems peculiarly Scottish. Scotland has had her fill of high-profile, tax-draining new builds, as Enrico Miralles's parliament building attests.

But it also results from a political climate in which every national arts company is under pressure to realise their national remit by journeying regularly to the furthest corners of Scotland, no mean feat. Without the anchor of a building, the rationale is that NToS, unlike London's National, will be truly national, able to produce all over Scotland and beyond. And with £4m annual funding until 2007, this seems a uniquely achievable task.

"We're able to say, wouldn't it be brilliant to do something like this? And we can just do it," says Vicky Featherstone, NToS artistic director, formerly of the touring theatre company Paines Plough, pointing out that Home - which is 10 different theatre productions around the same theme opening simultaneously in 10 locations around Scotland - might well have been the largest site-specific event in theatre history. No financial provisos. No practical constraints. "We're just not used to that in the arts."

But will a National Theatre without a home be too nebulous for the public to grasp? Many already assume that the administrative office, in Glasgow's Easterhouse, is the National Theatre. "Because of the way that we need to know where something like this exists to understand it, it's a greater challenge to establish the National Theatre," admits Featherstone. "I am really aware that until we put work on, the public won't know who we are."

The opening programme, ambitious and broad-ranging, is exciting. For any country, the controversial notion of a national theatre provides not only a world platform for theatre, but a focus, artistically and politically, for national pride.

Like Nicholas Hytner, director of the UK National, who has subtly questioned national identity, Featherstone sees the NToS's position in terms of a responsibility to Scotland rather than any jingoistic notion of national identity. An English director, her respected background outside Scotland coupled with her commitment to Scottish theatre pleased those Scots who thought they might have ended up with an insular, ponderous national institution.

And it also showed that the new NToS will concentrate heavily on imaginative productions of new writing, including luminaries such as Liz Lochhead, John Byrne, David Greig, Gregory Burke and Zinnie Harris.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that the team behind NToS includes Lochhead, associate director (new writing) John Tiffany, formerly of the Traverse and Paines Plough, and the increasingly sought-after dramaturge David Greig, writer of Outlying Islands.

This new breed of writers is also strongly evident in a programme that ranges from a new play, Black Watch, by Gregory Burke, writer of the controversial Gagarin Way, to a new version of Schiller's Mary Stuart by David Harrower, author of Blackbird, currently running at London's Albery Theatre. Box office is catered for with a theatre production of John Byrne's 1980s TV hit Tutti Frutti.

Featherstone aims to work with all of Scotland's theatres, concentrating on boosting developmental art forms and the creative talents of Scotland's existing theatre practitioners - including those backstage - while bringing in international artists and exporting Scotland's own. No existing company could provide such an all- inclusive programme, and it will allow many companies to do work which would have been impossible without the NToS's clout.

Featherstone will direct at least two productions a year, principally this month's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's graphic novel, The Wolves in the Walls, with London-based Improbable Theatre, which last year created Theatre of Blood at the NT. Opening at Glasgow's Tramway Theatre, it will tour to London and America. It is the kind of high-profile work Featherstone believes will help place Scottish theatre more firmly on the international stage.

"At heart I am a theatre director," says Featherstone. "I said I can only do the job if directing is part of it. But Scotland is a broad church and I don't want NToS to only have my imprint on it. I have to keep thinking that we're communicating to people, not just for a year, but for the long term."

Looking to the long term is difficult in a country whose arts policies have a habit of throwing up nasty surprises. While the National Theatre in London was borne of the gusto of Peter Hall and the omnipotence of Laurence Olivier, Scotland's has arisen almost as the last gasp of a theatre scene that has been progressively choked since devolution in 1999.

An event that should have been a natural catalyst for a National Theatre has provoked the near-destruction of Scottish Opera, two cultural policy reviews, and six arts ministers in as many years. It would be truer to say that Scotland has acquired a National Theatre despite devolution. Today Scotland's theatres are producing less than half the work they produced 15 years ago.

"My understanding beforehand was of a much more confident funding picture," admits Featherstone. "Unless the situation radically changes, there's no point in having a National Theatre."

But she is upbeat. A representative from Arts Minister Patricia Ferguson's office reveals that there is "no question" of not continuing to fund the National Theatre. "We just have to prove that we should increase that initial £4m," says Featherstone. "If good theatre happens, you create a bigger demand for it and that can only benefit everyone in Scotland."

'The Wolves in the Walls' previews at The Tramway, Glasgow from 22 March, before touring (see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com for details)

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