I´ve just come back from a trip to Edinburgh with the NTLF, more than fifty Norwegian theatre managers and artistic directors (sadly, no other opera people), all on a study tour to explore Scotland´s theatre-making, new writing and the nitty-gritty of national arts policy. The excellent Mona Røhne, at the Norwegian Consulate in Edinburgh, had worked with me to put together a panel of mouthy, informed and passionate theatrical and cultural/political former colleagues from my old home town, whom we hoped could summarise the exceptionally vibrant present-day life of Scottish theatre, but also put it into a historical context, while taking a punt at the future.
Scotland´s theatre has always belonged to its people. The writing, long past, recent and of today is rooted in political and social issues: the brutal clashes between poverty and wealth, between the ’wee man’ and the State, between rural and urban. Performance has always brokered dialogue, been fearless about debate and been about fervent language, whether ’English’ English, vernacular Scots, or regional dialect. It is notable that when the great Black Watch, Gregory Burke´s fine play about the eponymous Scots regiment in Iraq, and an early triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland, went to the US, it had to be ’translated’ into English. (Do we ask for US companies to moderate their drawl for Europe?). And Scottish new writing is flourishing: fierce, lyrical, topical and brave. Later we discussed presentations by three feisty women leaders of Scottish venues in very different demographic areas, for whom new work is not merely an exercise in political or social correctness, but a direct means of building dynamic contact with the audience. Money, of course, featured strongly in the discourse. In the UK, the current recession has savaged arts funding – ”of course, you don´t know about that in Norway….” said SNP politician George Kerevan, with a sleek smile. But the venue leaders proved to be undaunted by the vicissitudes of present constraints, funding their arts initiatives with cash accrued from late-night clubbing, restaurant takings or rapacious project-based fund-raising.
The NTLF delegation listened with some absorption, but very quietly. It is not, for sure, in the Norwegian nature to launch into intense questioning on such occasions, but the reticence was frustrating. Finally, after some provocation – who is interested in innovation and artistic risk-taking on our side of the North Sea? – a proper conversation began about programming, co-production and touring. And, inevitably, funding.
Later at dinner in grand Prestonfield House, where peacocks preen in the grounds, and absurd swags of chintz cosset dining rooms twinkling with crystal, some of us wondered anew at the loosening impact of Cava on Nordic tongues. Noise levels grew as glasses drained and opinions whirled.
The following day, the delegation moved to Glasgow for meetings with major theatre leaders, then to choose between a whole welter of productions on offer both there and in Edinburgh. The Lyceum´s Ibsen? Matthew Bourne´s dance pastiche Highland Fling? Hector MacMillan´s classic The Sash?
Back in the capital´s pristine Norwegian Consulate, Mona and I talked about 2014, more collaboration – might Bergen National Opera´s plans for the 200th anniversary of Norway´s independence be relevant to Scotland´s own impending referendum on devolution? – and Hordaland Culture Department´s own recent Scottish trip and its highly impressive outcomes.