The National Library of Scotland aims to bring back memories of Scottish theatre with new exhibition - Curtain Up: 40 years of Scottish Theatre
We're standing in a storage room a few floors down in a secret corner of Edinburgh's National Library of Scotland. It's full of musty box files, metal shelving and neatly catalogued CDs. But that's not the whole story. In the middle of the low-ceilinged room, hanging from an empty shelf, there are two dresses in vibrant 1950s colours, and a regal off-white gown that could have been worn by Elizabeth I. There's even a ruff lying in a nearby plastic bag.
Just along the row, Sally Harrower, the library's manuscripts curator, is running her hand over a gold lamé kilt. "Alan Cumming," she says dreamily.
It is indeed the same gold lamé kilt sported by the Aberfeldy-born Hollywood and Broadway star when he appeared in the National Theatre of Scotland's production of The Bacchae in 2007. It was this very piece of fabric that flapped down provocatively to reveal the actor's bare buttocks as he made his entrance from above, head first, a particularly cheeky god descending from the heavens. Righting his matching gold lamé jacket, he paused, grinned to the stalls and said, "So Thebes, I'm back."
Today the outfit looks incongruous beneath the exposed pipes of the manuscript strongroom, but soon it will be united with a host of other such theatrical memorabilia from the library's archives in Curtain Up, an exhibition to celebrate 40 years of Scottish theatre. The nearby dresses are from the Traverse Theatre's 2003 revival of John Byrne's The Slab Boys, while the regal gown is the one worn by Siobhan Redmond playing Elizabeth in the National Theatre of Scotland's Mary Stuart in 2006. "Our strongrooms have never looked so glamorous," says Harrower.
They are all part of a display that will take us from the socialist rallying cry of 7:84's The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil to the world-conquering Iraq drama of Black Watch in 2006. In six "scenes" it tells a story of the plays, playwrights, actors and crew who have made Scottish theatre the formidable force it is today.
On the shelf behind Harrower is a collection of oddities: the gnarled wooden monster, half-baby, half-tree, of Vanishing Point's Little Otik; a designer's set model for Desire Under the Elms at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; a soldier's combat fatigues from Black Watch; and a wolf puppet from The Wolves in the Walls, both by the National Theatre of Scotland. Opening a folder of archive material, she discovers the perfect last-minute addition to the exhibition: a publicity photograph from a 1991 production of Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui featuring a fresh-faced David Tennant and an equally radiant Ashley Jensen mugging for the camera with their heads positioned among a sea of cauliflowers. "We could use that in scene six," says Andrew Martin, curator of modern Scottish collections and co-curator of the exhibition.
Harrower bends down and hands me a 7:84 badge from an envelope stuffed with the things. She has more than she knows what to do with. The National Library of Scotland is home to the company's official archive, which is why, as well as the publications and scripts you would expect to find in a library, Harrower is responsible for all manner of theatre ephemera. She shows me the company ledger from the 1973 tour of The Cheviot … with the names of director John McGrath and actors Bill Paterson, John Bett and Alex Norton neatly written in ink, all of them earning an egalitarian £20 a week although, because of some quirk in the tax law, the women paid a few pennies' less tax than the men.
Earlier this year she took the final delivery of material from 7:84, which called it a day after more than 30 years of left-wing flag-flying, having lost its funding from the Scottish Arts Council. "That was a really sad day for me," she says. "All these odds and ends came in, like a great bag of badges – because they were a very badgey company – and a marching banner."
An even less likely thing to find in a library's store is the original set for The Cheviot … which, unsurprisingly, does not fit on the bookshelves and causes raised eyebrows from other curators. Designed and painted by John Byrne – and kept in working order by stage manager-cum-fiddler Allan Ross – the set was made from strengthened cardboard and conceived as a giant pop-up book with new scenes emerging with each turn of the page. At 8ft x 10ft, it was the right size to squeeze onto the stages of village halls on its pioneering Highland tours. It will take pride of place in the exhibition after a spell with the library's conservation team.
"The Cheviot … was the major theatrical moment of my life," says Bill Paterson. "It made an impact on all our lives." For that reason, the play is the perfect place to begin the exhibition's survey of four decades of Scottish theatre, just as Gregory Burke's Black Watch is the perfect place to end it. The two plays were landmarks, not just in Scotland but around the world. Certainly, the influence of McGrath's play has been profound, both in its political content and artistic form. Described on the original posters as "a ceilidh play with scenes, songs and music of Highland history from the Clearances to the oil strike," it dramatised the history of capitalist exploitation in the Highlands, but it did so in a way that had more in common with music hall and folk traditions than with conventional theatre.
From there, Curtain Up takes us through a series of thematic stages, covering the playwrights, the major theatres, the representations of Scotland on stage, the country's international reach and the development of the National Theatre of Scotland. The library's second major theatrical archive comes from the Traverse, the Edinburgh institution that has been promoting new plays since 1963. Harrower is responsible not only for the produced scripts plus associated photographs and paraphernalia (such as the black bonnets worn by the actors in Sue Glover's 1991 international hit Bondagers and the old Traverse Theatre sign from its days in the Grassmarket), but also for the welter of unsolicited manuscripts that have come the theatre's way. In total, she has catalogued 3,000 scripts and reckons she still has as many again to work through.
One of the challenges facing Harrower and Martin has been to capture a sense of the theatre even though, as an artform, it is built to be ephemeral. The scripts, images, newspaper cuttings, ticket stubs, programmes and costumes evoke the activity of the stage, but they are merely echoes of the living and breathing actors whom, as Shakespeare said, are now "all spirits … melted into air".
The impact of the theatre is easier to capture, however. You can see it, for example, in the letters written by theatregoers to the 7:84 company after witnessing the energy, excitement and polemics of The Cheviot …. "I couldn't say a word of thanks to you yesterday, because I was afraid I should burst into tears," writes one correspondent. "I realised that feeling strongly about this situation, no matter how sincere you are, isn't enough and I wondered what kind of positive action I could take," asks another.
You can also see it in Scottish theatre's ability to reach out across the world. Theatregoers at home often have little sense of how well Scottish plays have travelled, but in the last few weeks alone, there has been a production of David Harrower's Knives in Hens in Dublin, another of his Blackbird in Pittsburgh, one of Liz Lochhead's Good Things in Texas and another of Anthony Neilson's The Wonderful World of Dissocia in Boston (the polar bear toy from the original Edinburgh International Festival production is on show here, as well as a copy of the script in Portuguese). "I don't think people realise that David Greig and David Harrower are names that mean something in London and beyond," says Martin.
As successes go, there has been none more high-profile than Black Watch, which stormed the Edinburgh Fringe of 2006 before a tour of duty that took in New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Wellington, Toronto and London. It put the National Theatre of Scotland on the map in its inaugural year and served as a vindication for all those who had campaigned for such a body since the early years of the 19th century. "We end with Black Watch as an example of a big success," says Martin. "The exhibition was a good opportunity to exploit Sally's archives. I think people will be surprised that we've got a lot of this material. It will look very eye-catching and dramatic."
Curtain Up: 40 years of Scottish theatre, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, 19 December - 3 May 2010.
© Mark Fisher 2009