2007 - 2022

Theatre In Scotland: A Field of Dreams

FormattedWhat use is the professional critic? When arts pages are the first victims of relentless cuts in print journalism, when everyone is a critic invited to say their piece on social media, when long-form arts criticism is in danger of becoming merely a hobby for those who can afford the time, it’s surely worth asking.

In Oscar Wilde’s dialogue The Critic As Artist, Wilde, through his character of Gilbert, argues that the best criticism: “Occupies the same relation to creative work that creative work does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought.”

That is, as the title states, the critic is a kind of artist, illuminating and bringing to life the best of the works of others. He goes on to say that the best of these is a kind of interpreter, “always showing us the work of art in some new relation to our age… and reminding us that great works of art are living things – are, in fact, the only thing that live.”

No one else in Scotland currently embodies these ideas as much as Joyce McMillan, who, as drama critic for short-lived sister paper of The Herald, the Sunday Standard, the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and currently for The Scotsman, has been writing about theatre in the country for more than three decades.

Perhaps she absorbed this little book – published in 1888 and with the deliciously subversive subtitle of “Some remarks on the importance of doing nothing and discussing everything” – early in her writing career, but it’s just as likely her status as the country’s foremost critic is simply a result of her unfailing integrity. As an authority – arguably the authority on theatre in contemporary Scotland, she’s simply unrivalled.

As Philip Howard, the artistic director who selected the work for Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams from McMillan’s heaving cache of over 6,000 reviews, says in his extensive foreword: “she has an almost unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play”. There are early notices here for future classics such as David Harrower’s Knives In Hens and Harry Gibson’s Trainspotting, revived recently at the Citz by Gareth Nicholls and reviewed here at its 1994 debut in the theatre’s Circle Studio, and for game-changing playwrights such as David Greig (“a brilliant career ahead”) and Liz Lochhead. At the time of 1982’s Blood and Ice, the latter may not yet be “an accomplished playwright and [is] certainly not a tidy one,” Macmillan wrote, “but she possesses the tremendous, vital dramatic gift of going straight for the jugular”.

But more than her a laser eye for talent scouting, and what most shines through these pages is McMillan’s spirit: erudite, curious, generous and with a blood-pumping passion for democracy and the value of theatre. Her collected thoughts on productions spanning across Scotland, from the hubub of the Edinburgh Festival and the vibrancy of the central belt to the Highland and Islands and the Borders are presented here chronologically in three parts: 1982 to 1990, the year Glasgow was European Capital of Culture, the newfound confidence during the years 1991 to 2003 and the emergence of the National Theatre of Scotland between 2003 to 2015. Everyone is here, from all the notables of contemporary Scottish theatre to English greats from Shakespeare to Coward, as well as international works. Through such a span, it’s fascinating to read her views on successive productions of Sir David Lindsay’s satirical morality play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, almost as if she is having a dialogue, not simply with her readership, but herself, developing, as Wilde thought was necessary, the “intense personality” that comes through scholarship and reflection on the critic’s subject.

Because what is ostensibly a collection of reviews, is of course, so much more than that. Borne of her unfinished PhD on Ben Jonson’s tragedies, McMillan’s conviction is that theatre is a place where we explore power relationships, from the personal to the state to the international. As she notes in an attendant essay, three themes recur in her work: the Left’s initially floundering response to Thatcher’s ravaging of Scottish industry, the future of gender relations after the conscious-raising feminism of the 1970s and the story of Scotland’s re-awakening from the bruising defeat of the gerrymandered referendum of 1979.

Her longevity and present status as one of the country’s foremost thinkers is due to her ability to see the wider social and political implications of theatrical works, as well as her unfailing fairness. She can tell what went wrong and where, and if there’s something to commend in even a mediocre work, she does, resisting the easier option of a hatchet job. A constructive review is, after all, a more challenging task than a bad one. All reasons why, as Vicky Featherstone, founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, says in a opening quote: “hers was the review we all craved. Hers was the recommendation we took seriously. Hers was the opinion that mattered.”

Mattering, you see, is McMillan’s gold standard, however modest or imperfect the production. So Hamish Glen’s As You Like It is praised for making it relevant to Scotland in 1988, and the attempt of Jeremy Weller’s Grassmarket Productions (the company behind the extraordinary Doubting Thomas at this year’s Fringe) to invigorate theatre in the TV/screen age using untrained actors is afforded generous discussion. And though she is a serious writer, fully aware of the privilege and the responsibility of her job, her work is never less than enriching and entertaining. What would be the point, you can imagine her saying, if it weren’t?

Her wrath is reserved for those theatre-makers who’ve failed in their responsibility, are intellectually lazy, or – to use a modern phrase – fail to check their privilege. When it comes, it’s wickedly barbed and often very funny. Tom Stoppard is slated for his self-referential shallowness, his 1996 adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s Hungarian comedy Rough Crossing 1996 branded as: “a sad little joke of show that sprays messages of class and cultural exclusion around the auditorium like some kind of theatrical bird-scarer.” Her strongest criticism is for Leftist theatre which offers little beyond angry fireworks such as the “straightforward pro-NHS propaganda” of Wildcat’s Bedpan Alley from 1984, the bluster of a company lacking the “application and intellectual energy to go looking for anything as big, disturbing and complex as the truth”.

There are plenty of moments of purer joy here for the reader, such as her stymied attempt to see Hill, Tam Dean Burn’s and Process Ten-28’s response to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Performed at Cathkin Braes in Glasgow’s Castlemilk, she walks for miles uphill but can’t find it, and instead winningly recasts her review as a tongue-in-cheek part homage to Joyce. Her descriptions of impressario Richard Demarco will chime with those who’ve had the privilege to work with him (“probably the most remarkable and unpredictable arts promoter in the world, 80 per cent infuriating, 20 per cent pure genius”) and it’s a review of his Macbeth on the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth in 1989 which could provide the sole recommendation for this wonderful book. Part alternative history, part adventure into genuine theatrical heroics, her 800-odd word Guardian review is hilarious, evocative and a masterclass in excellent writing. Elsewhere her prose can be almost punky, her review of Jock Tamson’s Bairns, Lochhead and Gerry Mulgrew’s 1990 exploration of the Scottish psyche reading almost like the visceral Romantics of Patti Smith:

“Basted, piped in, orated over and then slashed open like the archetypal haggis, the poor drunk sees his lurid tartan entrails pulled out, mulled over and used as raw materials for a nightmare rerun of his unattractive life, featuring grunting alienation in the parental home, regimentation at school, loveless teenage sex.”

Though her writing style becomes increasingly refined over the years, she seems incapable of being haughty or inaccessible. There are none too of the repeated allusions that that others rely on, though the word “sensual” is a McMillan favourite. That’s refreshing; too often reviewers, their minds on deadlines, can forget the intimate, sweaty, experience of theatre. As too is her feminist sensibility, seeing the glaring lack of women’s voices in the ‘in-yer-face’ and hyper-priapic supposed irony of much of 1990s theatre, as well as an insight into Othello as “one of the most profound plays abut sexual politics ever written.”

Returning to Wilde for a moment; just as he believed it was “only by intensifying his own personality that the critic can interpret the personality and work of others”, it is “only by contact with the art of foreign nations that the art of a country gains that individual and separate life that we call nationality”. And the story of the recent past of theatre in Scotland is part of its national story too, Joyce exploring the resonances in a feature essay for the Tramway in 1991, three years after Peter Brook’s gargantuan Mahabharata was brought to Glasgow for a stinging £350,000. “A magnificent turning point,” she wrote of the production in 1988, and “living proof that a spirit of a city can survive the worst ravages and humiliations of the post-industrial age”.

It was seeing John Byrne’s Slab Boys in 1978 that convinced McMillan of the power of theatre to inspire its audiences, and that reviewing was, to use her word from a recent interview, her “vocation”. There was power in the sheer brassneck of Byrne to think his Paisley factory could be a locus of truth and credibility. It provoked a profound change in the young woman who felt, “for the first time in [her] life, the truth that it was possible to be both absolutely Scottish and absolutely modern.” “My sense of Scottishness as an old-fashioned, dying thing left me for good.”

Without a drop of patience for jingoism, coothie deference or kailyard nostalgia, Scotland-as-re-awakening-nation is explored in the likes of the 1982 production of Men Should Weep, Giles Havergal’s take on the lives of woking-class women in 1930s Glasgow, Lochhead’s genuinely iconoclastic 1987 Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and the National Theatre of Scotland’s conquering Black Watch, searingly relevant as it told a part of Scotland’s story hitherto “filtered mainly through the institutions of the British state.”

Without a drop of patience for jingoism, coothie deference or kailyard nostalgia, Scotland-as-re-awakening-nation is explored in the likes of the 1982 production of Men Should Weep, Giles Havergal’s take on the lives of woking-class women in 1930s Glasgow, Lochhead’s genuinely iconoclastic 1987 Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and the National Theatre of Scotland’s conquering Black Watch, searingly relevant as it told a part of Scotland’s story hitherto “filtered mainly through the institutions of the British state.”

That sense of momentum, however, should not be assumed to mean an ever-progressing sense of actualisation. Scotland as self-governing nation-state is for McMillan, no inevitability, however much many want that to be true. She warns of Scotland’s cyclical tendency of “dawning cultural awareness followed by failure and forgetting” and in her review of the NTS’s James Plays in August 2014 foretells the No vote a month later.

“If you want to understand why Scotland is likely to vote No on 18 September, then all you need to do is listen to the obliging laughter with which the Festival audience responds to every one of these old chestnuts, and to Queen Margaret’s amazing final assertion that Scotland is a nation with ‘fuck all except attitude’. Scotland, it seems, is a nation still willing to see itself mainly through the eyes of contemptuous others, and for all its ambition, and the sheer brilliance of its staging, the James trilogy never achieves the levels of vision and coherence that might begin to change that.”

There are hopeful post-indyref1 triumphs, notably Joe Douglas’s excellent revival of 7:84’s 1973 masterpiece The Cheviot The Stag and The Black Black Oil for Dundee Rep, which is currently on tour, and David Greig and Graham Eatough’s Lanark, a four-hour presentation of Alasdair Gray’s contemporary epic. With that book being first published in 1981, Gray and McMillan share both a time-frame and a belief in the necessity of the arts to a healthy democracy, and in the importance of ideas. Just as Gray’s dog and bone poster for indyref1 proclaimed the nation-as-idea (“Is Scotland a possible nation? Yes – Make it!”), so McMillan writes in that Theatre and Nationhood essay, written in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled: “Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they exist as long as we believe in them.”

That belief in the relationship of drama to democracy, of the ability of peoples sharing a border to examine themselves through the exchange of ideas and the art of dreaming, is perhaps partly why creative makers, more used to imagining different possibilities, were generally more in favour of a Yes vote.

It’s hopefully clear that those who may otherwise overlook a collection of theatre criticism would do well to resist that urge: this is a work of historical, sociological and political as well as artistic relevance, and is also one which is hugely enjoyable; a collection for the arts student to examine in-depth, or the much-loved bathtime book that becomes more dog-eared and smeared with the passing months. There’s much to revisit here. But so too is it testimony to the value of theatre as the place where ideas as literally make flesh and are tested in front of a live audience; an interface between reality and the possible that can “change us a little, for good.”

It is also a reminder of the value of longer-form writing. At a time of great uncertainty, that our preferred mode of communication is social media is just as troubling as it is exciting and immediate. Subtle, complex arguments require discussion inputs of longer than 140 characters from individuals typing alone in their livingrooms and on the bus. Social media hasn’t necessarily intensified debate, it’s intensified division and made stars of narcissists and terrorists. The debasement of public debate to a shouting match, to what Bonnie Greer calls a culture of “I’m right and you’re evil” couldn’t be further than what’s needed in this all-too-interesting era. Instead, it’s voices like those of McMillan: considered and learned, the sharpness of her bullshit radar matched by a fundamental sense of fun, empathy and egalitarianism.

When asked to provide guidance to new critics in a recent interview, her advice was reassuringly unadorned: “Take water and oatcakes. I always have a packet with me”.

Theatre In Scotland: A Field of Dreams by Joyce McMillan is published by Nick Hern Books www.nickhernbooks.co.uk


Comments (4)

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  1. Marcia Blaine says:

    Have always been surprised that Joyce didn’t go into politics as an independent.

  2. Peter says:

    Opinions are a bit like singing voices – we all have them but there are very few we’d consider paying to hear. The much vaunted ‘social media conversation’ that was supposed to replace the elitism of the critic has failed to appear, leaving something of a void, into which no one has of yet stepped.

    One problem with criticism is that it has always relied on institutional authority, either academic or as here, large press bodies.

  3. George Gunn says:

    The train and bus timetable North of Perth is a mystery to this woman

  4. Graeme Purves says:

    The thing I find most entertaining about this book is Macmillan’s enduring belief that it is the role of the critic to tell playwrights what they should be writing about.

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