The problem for English directors of the Scottish National Theatre

Plus: Some on-message re-branding for the British Council and Undress for Opera, possibly taken a little too literally

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The Independent Online

Should the manager of the England football team be English? It was a debate that occurred a little while ago, and the overwhelming consensus was that he should.

Should the director of the National Theatre of Scotland be Scottish? That seems to me a similarly reasonable debate to have. However, it has provoked accusations of bullying, and veiled hints of racism. How decorous and civilised football seems compared to the arts all of a sudden.

The debate is thrown into focus by two key movements in theatre happening for the new year. Vicky Featherstone (English) has left her post as founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) to take over the Royal Court in London. Laurie Sansom (also English) is taking her place at Scotland's National Theatre.

Ms Featherstone was extremely successful at the NTS, putting it on the map and staging such groundbreaking plays as Black Watch (pictured), about British soldiers in Iraq. But, she now reveals, it was not all roses.

She claims she was "bullied" because she was English and for a short period this left her "paralysed." She says that critics who disliked her programming choices and complained she was not staging older Scottish plays tended to refer to her English background.

"It really upset me,"she told The Herald, "because, as with all kinds of bullying, you don't have a voice. If people had criticised the programme, I could have defended it, but when people are criticising the programme because I am English, that is indefensible. What it did, for a short period, was paralyse me from being able to make artistic decisions and I felt defensive."

Enter stage south Laurie Sansom as her successor. He has been successful running the Royal and Derngate theatre in Northampton. But... that's two Sassenachs out of two for the NTS. Mr Sansom counters this bravely by saying: "Edinburgh is almost like a second home, as it is for most people who work in the theatre but, yes, I will in some ways be coming to it with fresh eyes, which will have advantages and disadvantages. It will mean lots of conversations. And lots of travelling to different parts of the country." Well, I like Edinburgh too. But I'm not sure that affection for the capital city will win over the nationalists. Nor am I sure that Vicky Featherstone was really a victim of "bullying". Artistic directors should be made of sterner stuff.

There's a legitimate debate to be had over whether a relatively new institution like the National Theatre of Scotland would benefit artistically and politically from having a Scottish director. The nationalists have a case that needs to be addressed publicly. It's not bullying to ask searching and pertinent questions. It's artistic engagement.

It's all in a name for the British Council

At the start of a year in which, sadly, the arts world is going to have to make its case to Government in a variety of ways to keep cuts to a minimum, I anticipate that we will be hearing a lot of both of the traditional arguments for the arts, their economic impact with the influence on jobs, regeneration and exports, and also the less tangible but undoubtedly true need for the arts to help us know ourselves and society better.

With both arguments in mind, I rather like the way that the British Council has taken to describing its large and important international arts operation. The British Council's arts department is one of the few arts operations that have actually seen their budget rise. Perhaps that too is partly a result of it now officially describing itself as an "entrepreneurial public service".

The naked truth of a new opera initiative

I hear that the estimable John Berry, artistic director of the English National Opera (ENO), has had one unexpected reaction to his "Undress for Opera" initiative, encouraging new operagoers to come to the ENO in casual clothes and at cheap prices. He has been contacted by one group keen to take the sentiment literally, the British Naturist Association, which fancies seeing La Traviata in the style to which members are accustomed. It says "Undress for Opera" on the label, and "Undress for Opera" is what they would like to do. Will the Coliseum soon be hosting a night to remember?