The hot young things of Scottish theatre
Scottish theatre is not just in rude health, but demanding more and more of its audiences. Kirstin Innes meets the new generation of theatre-makers who are shaking things up on the home front
Who: Hannah Donaldson, 23, who graduated this year from RSAMD
What: Will be playing the lead role in the Tron’s production of Antigone, directed by David Levine, and can also be seen in the upcoming series of Rebus.
Sunny, pretty and immediately likeable – Hannah Donaldson is one of those people you just warm to. She’s also about as far as you can get from the traditional idea of Antigone, Sophocles’ rebellious, war-weary heroine, but that’s exactly what veteran Israeli director David Levine saw in her.
‘David likes to employ people, not actors,’ she says. ‘My first meeting with him wasn’t an audition; he sat me down and asked me all these probing, really quite personal questions. He wanted to see how I’d react instinctively, and apparently he could tell who was and wasn’t right for the roles, just from their reactions. I think that’s why I’m looking forward to working with him so much. I haven’t worked with anyone like that at all. I’ve never met anyone like that!’
Donaldson talks about Antigone with a wide, excited grin. It’s almost completely unheard of for a large professional theatre to cast an actor straight out of drama school in the central role of its major production of the year – Donaldson graduated in June – but it typifies Levine’s approach to the text.
‘David knew exactly what he wanted – to cast three very young-looking, inexperienced actors in the lead roles [Antigone, her sister Ismene and fiancé Haemon]. He’s taking a huge risk but he told me that what he wanted was that rawness, the energy you get from young actors who are dying to make their mark. But there was a condition to me getting the role – I’ve got to cut all my hair off. David wants me to cut it myself, just go at it with the scissors. It’s supposed to be a defiant gesture – a young woman chucking away her femininity.’
Donaldson, who looks much younger than her 23 years, has previously always been cast as the ingénue. Her very well-received Miranda in RSAMD’s recent Shakespeare in the City production of The Tempest first brought her to critical notice, but she’s now enjoying an unprecedented level of work for a recent graduate.
She plays pesky girl reporter Jean Monroe in the upcoming series of Rebus, and after Antigone she’s moving up to Dundee Rep for a year, having won its annual graduate place.
‘Dundee Rep means so much to me, too,’ she says. ‘That was the first time I went to the theatre, on a school trip to the panto at Dundee Rep when I was six. The first thing I’m going to be involved with there is the pantomime, too, which just feels really nice.’
But for now, her thoughts are with Antigone and she can’t stop that grin. ‘It’s such a fantastic role. She’s strong willed; she stands up against everything. I was stunned, when I heard – I went, “You want me to play that?” It’s unbelievable. It’s just brilliant.’
Antigone is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from Wed 10–Sat 27 Oct. Rebus: The First Stone is set to air on STV in October.
Who: Davey Anderson, 27, left, is the outgoing National Theatre of Scotland director in residence. His murky and hugely acclaimed tower block-set thriller Snuff won the 2005 Arches Award for Stage Directors.
Brian Ferguson, also 27, left, is an actor best known for his central role of Cammy in Black Watch.
What: Currently collaborating on a new play, Rupture, which Anderson wrote and directed, at the Traverse. Ferguson is also playing the lead role in They Make These Noises by James Kelman, at the Arches.
Davey Anderson and Brian Ferguson are not a double act, although it would be amusing to get them on stage together: Anderson careening excitedly between ideas, talking nine to the dozen; Ferguson the straight man, pausing and deliberating precisely over his choice of words. However, the upcoming Rupture is the third finished production the pair have worked on together – they met when Ferguson auditioned for the role of vicious, paranoid loner Kevin in Anderson’s 2005 play Snuff – and both have started to see their working relationship as part of a grander scheme, a long-term artistic project.
‘We’re good friends, we have good arguments, we’re excited about the same things – and both our dads are socialists,’ says Ferguson, ‘which has left me, certainly, determined not to slot into some pre-existing mechanism, and I think it influences the work we want to make, too.’
Anderson adds: ‘Ach, no matter how much you try to rebel against your parents, you’re always going to turn into some weird amalgam of them. (Anderson’s father is Dave Anderson, founder of Wildcat Theatre, and responsible for hard-hitting, large-scale pieces like Border Warfare and John Brown’s Body, which defined Scottish theatre in the 1980s.) ‘What matters to my parents, in terms of in society, [are] the stories of a city’s life and its communities – I found that I cared about the same things. It’s a brilliant feeling, when you realise that instead of just watching the same mind-numbing entertainment, the same old accepted versions of things, you can be involved in making new stories.’
With their loose ensemble of regular collaborators, including designer Will Holt and musician Ross Ramsay, Ferguson and Anderson are poster boys for the generational shift that seems to be happening in Scottish theatre just now.
The sort of work they want to make – sprawling, devised and often site-specific pieces that break down the traditional audience experience – are influenced as much by international companies like New Yorkers TEAM as older Scottish institutions.
‘The best work that’s coming out of New York just now isn’t new writing – you’re not just going in there and handing the actors a finished script – it’s collaborative; everybody is involved in the creative process,’ Anderson explains. ‘We’re trying to replicate that on Rupture and I’m constantly being surprised in the rehearsal room by the kind of work that the performers and the other artists are generating. It’s a kind of risky, experimental, brave way of working. It might fall on its arse, it might fly. I dunno. The main thing is that it’s a way of starting a different kind of conversation and getting people excited.
‘It feels like a really good time to be making theatre in Scotland. Suddenly the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) has come along, and they’re working with so many companies; it’s almost been like a shot in the arm. And people are getting out there, they’re getting much more involved all of a sudden.’
Ferguson adds: ‘Right now, companies like Vanishing Point, Poorboy and the NTS are making new, challenging work, and it’s assured. It’s not inward-looking; we seem to have got past that horrible Scottish underdog mentality that can sometimes run through all of our art, not just theatre. There’s an exciting vibe happening in this country.’
That new confidence is certainly evident in the NTS juggernaut Black Watch, and Ferguson was nominated for Best Actor in the Stage Awards for his wise-arse narrator Cammy. Black Watch is moving to London and Broadway during the next year – a fantastic opportunity for any actor – but Ferguson has left the cast. He doesn’t expressly state it, but he appears to have been motivated by a desire to make smaller-scale work, where he’s directly involved in the devising process.
‘Life as a jobbing actor, it sometimes doesn’t feel that creative,’ he says. ‘You turn up, you read the lines for somebody else, and you’re often cutting quite a bit of yourself off in order to do that. I love acting, but I’m also interested in everything else to do with the plays I’m in; helping create the piece and watching it grow around you.’
While he might have less creative input in the Arches’ upcoming James Kelman season, he obviously makes an exception for director Andy Arnold.
‘I love going back to the Arches, and, of course, it’s the premiere of a new James Kelman play, which is really exciting. It’s a love story between two people lost in the big city, and it’s lovely.’
Two hours and two interviews in, though, and I still haven’t managed to get a straight answer from either of them about what actually happens in Rupture.
‘Oh, it’s a surprise,’ Anderson says, eyes wide. ‘I want to shove a stick of dynamite under the audience. I don’t want to make the sort of theatre that people just take in, then go to the bar and say, ‘So, what do you think of my shoes?’ Naw. What’s the point of that? I want them to go away and argue afterwards, about things they didn’t even realise that they cared about! I want their reactions to be ruptured, shook up and changed.’
Ferguson adds: ‘It’s going to be brilliant, and that’s all I’m saying. What links the characters in Rupture is that they’re all chasing something, looking for that missing element that will make them feel the way they think they’re supposed to. All those things that people start lusting after, when life isn’t enough. Everything’s so quick these days. Collaborating with people over a period of years, when the collaboration itself becomes your main focus, is an antidote to that. It’s like settling, maybe. Coming home.’
Rupture, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Sat 22 Sep-Sat 6 Oct. These Noises They Make, Arches, Glasgow, Thu 8-Fri 16 Nov.