Mayfesto to focus on Celtic nations for 2011
Playwrights David Harrower and David Ireland and director Leann O'Kasi share their views on the political theatre showcase
Last year’s inaugural Mayfesto – a theatre festival that aims to showcase politically-themed work at Glasgow’s Tron – took the problems of the Middle East as its overarching theme. This year, Artistic Director Andy Arnold has opted for a more local bent, focusing on the political and social issues affecting modern-day Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, just as these countries are gearing up for their own general elections.
The result promises to be a fascinating month of theatre, with a collection of plays and performances that offer snapshots of unique problems affecting communities in these Celtic nations but with an eye on their global relevance. One of these is A Slow Air, a new work from Knives in Hens and Blackbird playwright David Harrower, which will be one of two produced by the Tron at Mayfesto. Born in Edinburgh but now living in Glasgow, Harrower focuses in his play on Athol, a self-made Glasgow businessman, and his sister Morna, an Edinburgh cleaner, as their lives are reconnected after 14 years of estrangement. It’s not an overtly political setting for what’s ostensibly a politically-focused festival, but according to Harrower it offers an examination of Scotland’s place in the today’s world.
‘It’s a dramatic meditation on two people living in Scotland now,’ he says, ‘and the different pressures that are put on them by living in a small nation in Europe in the modern world. ‘So it’s maybe not political with a capital P, to use a cliché, but it does bring up the different difficulties and strains of living in the early 21st century. I’ve never been a shouty political writer in that sense. It’s a quieter and more meditative play but a lot goes on.’
Another play that looks at political and social issues through the lens of sibling communication is David Ireland’s Stormont-set Everything Between Us, in which two sisters come to blows on the first day of a fictional, South African-inspired Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Northern Ireland. For Harrower, family relationships offer ‘a familiar prison’ within which to look at these issues and Ireland, who is soon to be playwright-in-residence at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre, is in agreement.
‘Sam Shepard was asked why he always wrote about families,’ he says. ‘I think he replied “Well, what else is there to write about?” There’s drama in every family but my play is about the legacy of how you deal with violence in the past and that’s something that’s certainly affected a lot of families in Northern Ireland, many of whom didn’t talk about it or deal with it well.’
The play was greeted with positive reviews in Washington DC and Belfast last year, but the contrast between the sisters’ private discussion in Everything Between Us and the theatrical nature of truth and reconciliation along the South African model has inspired some of the most interesting political reactions. Ireland says, ‘In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was very public. In Northern Ireland, there does seem to be a process happening but it’s private. We did a one-off performance in Derry recently for a support group for victims of the Troubles and they said that a lot of this stuff is going on behind closed doors. So while the whole idea of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission lends itself to theatre, I think the idea of doing it publicly doesn’t sit easily with people in Northern Ireland from both sides.’
This domestic approach to political issues is further reflected in the Tron’s second production for the festival, Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco by Welsh writer Gary Owen. First presented by Paines Plough and Sgript Cymru in 2001 in a production directed by current National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Vicky Featherstone, the darkly comic play focuses on three young men trying to escape from small town life. This production is directed by the Tron’s artist in residence, Leann O’Kasi, who directed Betrayed at last year’s Mayfesto. Despite it’s 10-year age, O’Kasi feels that Owen’s play is still relevant today.
‘I suppose it’s more about personal politics and how issues are affecting a generation,’ she explains. ‘For me, one of its biggest political themes is the violence of children and teenagers and how that affects them and their community as a whole. It’s so current at the moment, we hear so many stories about children doing things that we question as adults and I think this play doesn’t hide any of that. It’s very emotionally frank in that way and very provocative.’
Mayfesto begins its 2011 stint on May 4 – the eve of election day – with It’s a Dead Liberty, a night of satirical cabaret that draws on the back catalogue of Scottish theatre companies Wildcat and 7:84. Other highlights include a revival of Iain Heggie’s King of Scotland, in which its long-term unemployed protagonist is forced into a new government training for work scheme, and Tara McKevitt’s Grenades, set in a Northern Irish prison. But while politics informs the content of Mayfesto, O’Kasi is adamant that politically-themed theatre shouldn’t be judged on different terms to any other kind of performance.
‘Theatre is a very sensory medium which can get to the heart of an issue quite quickly,’ she says. ‘Plays that deal with specific political themes are hugely important as they can open up people to new perspectives on local and global issues and can expose injustices - they put the audience on the jury, if you like. Most importantly, they can provoke a lot of debate. But I feel the same about political theatre as I do about all theatre: it should raise questions, but it should be entertaining as well.’
Harrower agrees: ‘I try not to preach because I hate being preached to myself. For me, there’s an art to writing, to attending to your craft and making a commitment to your characters. So I want my play to get people talking about what it’s like to have a brother or sister as much as what exactly is Scotland’s relationship with Britain and Europe in the modern information age that we’re living in.’
Mayfesto, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Wed 4–Sat 28 May.