‘Finely-honed, finely-tuned productions … You’ll have to go twice – because the twenty short plays are split into two groups of ten, performed on alternate days.’
A National Theatre of Scotland production.
Dear Scotland provokes some complex responses, but the concept underpinning it is a wonderfully simple one. As you’re led round the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, you’ll find actors stationed in front of portraits – each of them cast as the man or woman portrayed in the work of art. Each actor delivers a script penned by a different playwright, in the form of a letter addressed to the nation. So you might hear, for example, the unmistakeable voice of Liz Lochhead … but spoken by a man, in the persona of Robert Burns.
The actors are paired with portraits without reference to their looks, or (hilariously) even to their gender. Colin McCredie as the Queen is a particular highlight; in some ways, he better captures our image of the monarch than the unflattering portrait hanging behind him. Such an overt mismatch avoids some moral issues, too. Playwright Johnny McKnight isn’t putting words in Her Majesty’s mouth, but offering an alternative Queen – one who tells us things the real Elizabeth would never be so gauche as to say.
Another piece, written by Peter Arnott, pulls the same trick the other way around; this time, he has Walter Scott lay bare the things we think, but don’t dare to mention. A gender inversion again works well, with Lesley Hart offering a memorable performance as a thoroughly modern Sir Walter. But to see both the pieces I’ve mentioned, you’ll have to go twice – because the twenty short plays are split into two groups of ten, performed on alternate days.
It’s worth a second visit, since seeing the same actors re-cast in different roles presents some intriguing juxtapositions and parallels. The scenes explore a fine range of the gallery’s exhibits too, from an exalted king to a nameless woman and from photographs through paintings to sculpture. There’s even, bizarrely, a monologue delivered by a dancer’s knee (though mercifully it’s played over loudspeakers).
So the individual pieces are often compelling, but does the whole show hang together? Overall, yes; the itineraries are finely-honed, finely-tuned productions. The actors’ dress and poses subtly echo the portraits – enough for you to notice, but not so much that it starts to feel mechanistic or trite. And the logistics are impeccable too, with an array of assistants escorting the audience through the gallery, in groups which feel like they move at their own pace yet somehow never collide.
But inevitably perhaps, for a work built from so many different pieces, there’s a clumsy repetitiveness to some of the themes. “Tour B” in particular shoe-horns a discussion of independence into each and every vignette – as though the whole of Scottish consciousness can be reduced to a “yes” or a “no”. “Tour A” explores a wider view of society, and feels much more subtle and thoughtful as a result.
Across both nights, the most striking scenes were those which challenged our complacent assumptions – dared to suggest that some of our nation’s faults might originate from within. Zinnie Harris’ script for a chorus of forgotten women will linger in the memory, touching a type of pain that lives inside us all. And Nicola McCartney’s complex, riddling monologue, spoken by a bystander, opens with a welcome yet carries a bitter sting in its tail.
At the end, you’re invited to write your own note to the nation – so here is mine: ‘Dear Scotland, let’s remember how to have this conversation; not just till September, but onward, into whichever future we choose. Let’s carry on learning about our past, and speculating about our present; because, with this elegant production, the National Theatre of Scotland shows just how entertaining that thought-provoking dialogue can be.’
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (26 & 28 April)
Visit Dear Scotland homepage here.