Interview: Mark Thomson – 'The work of an artistic director is like a dating agency'

The Lyceum's outgoing artistic director on Homer, Godot and Victoriana

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Interview: Mark Thomson – 'The work of an artistic director is like a dating agency'

credit: Alan McCredie

Thirteen years, says Mark Thomson, is a long time to be in charge of a big theatre company like the Edinburgh one he leaves next summer. His final two seasons of Royal Lyceum shows have already been programmed – starting with a new version of Waiting for Godot directed by Thomson himself and starring Brian Cox and Bill Paterson – and now he’s allowing himself time to reflect.

‘I’m very privileged to have worked with the Lyceum,’ he says, having been appointed from his old job at the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh as replacement for Kenny Ireland. ‘It’s a special place and company. You could say the work of an artistic director is like a dating agency, joining up creative people with other creative people and then bringing together work and audiences.’ He told himself that if he ever programmed a predictable season then he’d failed, and so the work of theatre makers like Matthew Lenton, Vox Motus and Amanda Gaughan sat alongside ‘the Millers and Shakespeares’.

There’s a way to go before he’s done with it all, though, and some of the most exciting Scottish theatre productions of the next 12 months will happen on the Lyceum’s proscenium arch. ‘I have four actors in the room right now, all of whom have had a keen relationship with that stage for more than 40 years,’ says Thomson, deep in Godot rehearsals. ‘Having Brian Cox and Bill Paterson as the central duet means we have two of our finest actors working on Beckett’s great play for my audience and that’s a thrill. It feels like a brilliant 50th anniversary present for the Lyceum, but it’s not nostalgia. They are only here because they want to create a unique Godot for Edinburgh and Scotland.’

His excitement is tangible as he lists some more highlights. ‘Our co-production with the Lyric Hammersmith has two of the UK’s most exciting theatre artists in Lyndsey Turner and Laura Wade adapting Tipping the Velvet, which is a wonderful Victorian story of sexual and political discovery, very human and theatrical in our Victorian theatre. John Dove has made several excellent Millers and his production of The Crucible is a fitting finale in that series. Liz Lochhead has been writing for the Lyceum since her Dracula in the 80s and both she and Tony Cownie have a long history of creating Scottish Molières, so Thon Man Molière about the man himself promises to be vibrant, funny and revealing.’

Thomson’s last production as artistic director of the Lyceum will be Homer’s The Iliad. ‘It’s always fascinated me how certain types of work or writers suddenly become very present,’ he says. ‘I commissioned Chris Hannan to adapt The Iliad when it hadn’t been done for many years, and suddenly within the last two years, The Globe, Liverpool and Derby are all creating Homer adaptations. I think that means we realise something has gone wrong in our thinking, and that going back to the Greeks – who talk of the nature of basic human drives and being alongside social and political thinking – might offer perspective for our times.’ It sounds like some way to go out.

The Iliad

The classic Homeric epic about the wrath that rages in Achilles after Paris has carried away the beautiful Helen of Troy. Directed by Lyceum artistic director Mark Thomson.

Thon Man Molière (or Whit got him intae aw that bother … )

Liz Lochhead's play directed by Lyceum associate artist Tony Cownie.

The Crucible

Arthur Miller's penetrating drama about the Salem witch trials that took place at the end of the 17th century. Directed by Lyceum associate artist John Dove.

Waiting For Godot

  • Directed by: Mark Thomson
  • Written by: Samuel Beckett

Brian Cox and Bill Paterson star as Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett's masterly black comedy.

Tipping the Velvet

  • Directed by: Lyndsey Turner
  • Written by: Sarah Waters (book)

Laura Wade adapts Sarah Waters' bestselling novel to the stage, directed by Lyndsey Turner.

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