I am embarrassed to admit that before it showed up at the Luminato Festival in Toronto this month with a powerful historical trilogy entitled The James Plays, I had never heard of the National Theatre of Scotland. Perhaps my ignorance can be explained by the company’s youth: It is only 10 years old, and doesn’t inhabit some venerable venue in Glasgow or Edinburgh but simply tours its shows to a wide variety of traditional and improvised performance spaces in Scotland, the rest of Britain, and the world. In its first years, it brought Black Watch, a show about that regiment and the Iraq war, to Toronto’s Varsity Arena, again for Luminato; this year, it is playing another large-scale piece about Scottish warriors at the Hearn Generating Station.
To judge from its many positive reviews and a performance of James I this week, the company is doing things wonderfully right. The James Plays are a contemporary Scottish answer to Shakespeare’s Henry plays, a vivid encounter with medieval politics that manages to be both emotionally engaging and historically convincing thanks to a brisk modern text by scriptwriter Rona Munro, a strong cast, and sharp direction from Laurie Sansom. At a time when many in the arts bemoan shrinking audiences, wonder whether live performance is losing social relevance and even predict the death of theatre, here is a new institution vigorously engaging local and global audiences through national drama. It’s enough to make you ask, why doesn’t Canada have a national theatre?
That’s not a question that you hear much these days – it probably evaporated in the 2000s – but Scotland’s interesting example makes it worth considering anew. Our closest thing would be the National Arts Centre, an institution that, on the English theatre side, has made great progress in the last 15 years reimagining itself as a national stage by collaborating more with companies from across the country. Next winter, for example, it is mounting a stage adaptation of the Wayne Johnston novel The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, about Newfoundland premier Joey Smallwood, with the St. John’s company Artistic Fraud.
Shows such as that are also seen in their originating cities but still, the NAC is located outside of Canada’s cultural metropolises and largest population centres and its work is often performed for a select Ottawa crowd. It is currently spending millions updating its Ottawa home – that’s a necessary reno but it’s interesting to note that the National Theatre of Scotland, which is now building a centre with rehearsal halls and workshops in Glasgow, has no plans for an auditorium. In a much smaller country than Canada, it travels to its audience.
Over the years, many Canadian arts lovers have also wafted the mantle of national theatre over the shoulders of the Stratford Festival, demanding of that institution both lofty artistic standards and more Canadian plays. Those are expectations that ignored Canadian regionalism – since Stratford never tours in Canada, most people outside Ontario know its work only by reputation – and the festival’s commercial imperatives. Stratford is a creature of the box office; it earns only 5 per cent or 6 per cent of its $60-million budget from government grants. The Scottish National Theatre, meanwhile, gets about 60 per cent, on a budget worth the equivalent of $15-million, directly from the Scottish government.
The first government-subsidized theatre in the English-speaking world was Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, founded in the first decade of the 20th century by literary nationalists who wanted it to become a repository for the work of Irish playwrights. It had a checkered history in those early years but thrives today producing contemporary Irish plays and the Irish classics: It is coming to Canada for the first time in 26 years in September with a production of Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at Toronto’s Canadian Stage.
Of course, it helps if you have a national literary canon on which to build a national theatre – the way France’s Comédie Française performs Molière and Racine or Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, which predates the National Theatre of Great Britain by decades, is devoted to that playwright. I have met Quebeckers bemused by the idea that English Canada’s two largest theatre festivals are devoted to “foreign” playwrights. But leaving Bernard Shaw aside, Shakespeare is a foreign playwright in rather the same way Sophocles is – both being hard at work centuries before Confederation – and he is probably the most widely produced playwright in Quebec. Meanwhile, the only Canadian playwright to whom I can imagine anyone devoting a festival would be Quebec’s Michel Tremblay.
Without an obvious national bard at our disposal, the National Theatre of Scotland looks even more relevant since it also has no pre-existing canon or literary hero on which to hang its hat. Indeed, it is the vivacity of its resolutely contemporary work and the nimbleness of its touring model that make it seem like a theatre worth emulating.