Key performances of the National Theatre of Scotland‘s Edinburgh Festival show, Caledonia, were almost sold out within two hours of the box office opening to the public yesterday. Alistair Beaton’s take on the 1698 credit crunch that preceded union with England promises to tell “the story of a small, poor country mistaking itself for a place that is both big and rich”.
Though nationalists may take issue with this portrayal of history, there is a clear appetite for the show directed by Anthony Neilson, whose Wonderful World of Dissocia was a previous hit for the controversial company.
Although Caledonia is a historical play, the decision to showcase yet another contemporary work has fuelled an increasingly angry debate about the National Theatre of Scotland’s lack of interest in past works by Scots playwrights. Critics claim the company is more interested in doing its own work than classic Scots plays.
A backlash from defenders – including playwright David Greig – paints the critics as racist “little Scotlanders” who object to the fact that most of the NTS senior management are English.
One of the most outspoken NTS critics, Paul Henderson Scott, said: “No one who knows me could say that I am anti-English. I admire the English. My complaint is that the people who are running our national theatre aren’t all that interested in the Scots language or in Scots plays. In fact, I think they rather look down upon it.”
Scott said he was disappointed that Vicky Featherstone, the artistic director of the NTS, has indicated she is not interested in reviving Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.
Professor Ian Brown, a former drama director of the British Arts Council, gave Scott partial support recently when he argued that NTS management places too much emphasis on contemporary “total theatre” which breaks down the traditional narrative of drama. “Of course, some of the earlier internationally important Scottish texts offer challenges, but any director of quality would want to take those on for a modern generation.”
The current debate was started by the commentator Alan Taylor who, in an essay, accused Featherstone of an attitude towards Scots drama that was “disrespectful, insensitive and crass”.
The head of the Scots Language Society, David Purves, weighed in, alleging that the NTS had been using government money to “undermine” the use of Scots.
In its defence, the NTS argues that it has staged performances of past work, including Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. It is currently rehearsing a new adaption of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan by David Greig.
Greig defended Featherstone, urging Scott and others to refrain from “cheap catcalling and daft criticism”.
Drama critics have also come to the defence. Scotland’s foremost critic, Joyce McMillan, said: “I’m at a loss. How people can say the NTS never does anything in Scots is beyond me. At least three-quarters of what they do has a strong Scottish voice.”