How a bumper programme at the Traverse Theatre in 1985 changed Scottish culture
25 years of The List
1985 was a landmark year for The Traverse theatre. Peter Arnott, Chris Hannan and Jo Clifford recall working there to Mark Fisher
In the months running up to the launch of The List, Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre enjoyed one of its busiest and most acclaimed seasons. Directors Peter Lichtenfels, Jenny Killick and Stephen Unwin turned out eight in-house productions all with an outward-looking European sensibility. At the same time, they ushered in a generation of Scottish playwrights. White Rose by Peter Arnott, 23, was about a female Russian fighter pilot in World War Two; Elizabeth Gordon Quinn by Chris Hannan, 27, was about a woman who refuses to accept her working-class status during the Glasgow rent strike of 1919; and Losing Venice by Jo Clifford, 35, was about a Spanish attempt to colonise Venice in the 17th century. Big, bold and visionary, the plays changed the face of Scottish theatre.
Peter Arnott: White Rose, opened 22 May, 1985
‘All three plays were resisting the sense of limited possibility. They were a response to Scottish theatrical storytelling and saying, “This can do more than we thought.” There’s no reason a Scottish theatre can’t be about the world: White Rose is a Scottish play about Russia. Or if you’re writing about Scottish history, you can do what Elizabeth Gordon Quinn does and subvert the genre it looks like it’s part of. White Rose is über-Brecht, because that European tradition belongs to us too, like Losing Venice, which was a picaresque, epic, lunatic tale.
‘In 1985, it felt that, even if we were impotent politically, in the cultural sphere we could say, ‘More is possible.’ We had a sense we could write about anything and engage an audience. With Michael Boyd at the Tron, that sense of possibility spread out a bit and now, with the National Theatre of Scotland, there’s an assumption of grown-upness about Scottish theatre that wasn’t there in 1985. That season at the Traverse was the best of the way Scottish theatre has developed since – that way of doing things became the way we’re still doing things.’
Chris Hannan: Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, opened 27 June, 1985
‘In part it was the directors saying, “We want to put on big epic plays.” They put on Elizabeth Gordon Quinn in a broader European context – the manner of the production was Brechtian. I was looking to models like Georg Kaiser and German expressionism and taking Scottish tradition – tenements and all that – and trying to see it in a bigger context.
‘What I was aware of was these really good actors being around: Ken Stott, Tilda Swinton, Kate Duchêne. There were all the European plays going on, so there was a bigger picture than just us three. What was confidence-building was that we fitted in with these other plays. We had a Scottish angle on a European tradition.
‘Since then, things have got better for playwrights – they’re paid better, writers such as David Greig, David Harrower and Gregory Burke are much more confident about their place in Europe, and also we no longer have the idea that a new play could not be put on in any of the big theatres in Scotland. That has changed radically and it feels permanent. We have been lucky in that we are, by and large, going to be the first generation of Scottish playwrights to have a full career – a youth, a middle age and even an old age.’
Jo Clifford: Losing Venice, opened 1 August, 1985
‘I’m amazed at the risk the Traverse took. Not only did they schedule the play before I’d written it, but they scheduled it to be in the festival in their main house. It was the hugest act of trust in me. I remember sitting in rehearsals feeling totally terrified because the actors were having a lot of difficulty with the script, not because it was a bad script (which is what I assumed), but because it demanded they perform in a way that was different. Even when it was a huge success and people were queuing all the way down the stairs of the old Traverse for returns, I couldn’t quite believe it.
‘There was an incredible air of activity and so much creative energy in the building. I feel very proud of what we all achieved. It put Scotland on the map. You can see the legacy of it today in the National Theatre of Scotland, the massive international success of Black Watch and now, when there is a hit, the structures are in place for it to go abroad and get the kind of exposure it needs to establish itself in the repertoire.’