The Brave and the Foolish

Reporter: Peter Lathan

Dateline: 1st August, 2004

No one could describe the decision to appoint Vicky Featherstone as the first director of the National Theatre of Scotland as anything other than brave. She is not a Scot (although she spent a few childhood years in Scotland) and her name was never even considered by the vast majority of Scottish theatre practitioners, who focused, inevitably, on Scottish theatre "names": Kenny Ireland, Ian McDiarmid, Richard Wilson, Brian Cox and many another of impeccably Scottish background.

There have been words of welcome, ranging from the fulsome to the more cautious, from major figures in Scottish theatre. Philip Howard, artistic diector of the Travers, told The Scorsman, "She’s one of the best directors of new writing around - and has a golden touch. I don’t think she would have taken on the job if she didn’t know she could make a success of it."

Muriel Romanes of Stellar Quines derscribed the appointment as "wonderful" and added, "Everyone at Stellar Quines applauds this appointment." Neil Murray, director the Tron in Glasgow, echoed her comments, calling it "a bold and exciting appointment".

However Eddie Jackson, chair of the Federation of Scottish Theatre, was a little more lukewarm. "Well done for getting the job," he told The Scotsman." But there will be a sense of disappointment that they weren’t able to appoint from within the existing Scottish theatre community or from the Scottish diaspora."

Featherstone has, in fact, worked extensively in Scotland, and a lot of Paines Plough's best work has been done with Scottish writers, so she is well-known in the theatre community there. What may cause some problems is that she is not generally known beyond that community.

What is sure, however, is that she has an impeccable pedigree as a director and as a fierce supporter of new writing. A brave appointment, certainly, but one which will, I am sure, have enormous benefits for theatre in Scotland.

So what about the foolish? Nothing to do with this appointment, surely?

No. Wales again, I'm afraid. The Welsh arts scene - theatre included - seems to be set on the path to self-destruction. Over a period of many years, since the setting up of the Arts Council of Great Britain as it used to be known, it has been generally agreed by artists and politicians that public funding is best distributed at arms-length. In other words, decisions about who gets what should be made, not by politicians, but by a group of people with expertise in and knowledege of the arts. Decisions about the actual amount of cash to be distributed have always remained with the government but it has - very wisely - left value judgements about the work of individual artists and companies to, first ACGB, and, more recently ACE (England), ACW (Wales), SAC (Scotland) and ACNI (Northern Irelnd).

It would be ridiculous to expect that any kind of mechanism for distributing government money to the arts would be uncontroversial, but the arms-length principle has been, for a long time, accepted by artists and politicans alike (even by the most centralist of governments), as being the best solution to a difficult (even, occasionally, intractable) problem.

Now it would appear that the Welsh Assembly is seriously considering demolishing ACW and making those decisions itself. It's already made a start: one of the most unpopular funding moves of recent months has been the money given to Clwyd Theatr Cymru's Mobile Theatre, and that decision was made by the Assembly (or, more accurately, the culture minister). In spite of the outcry which followed this - or, perhaps, because of it? - now the Assembly may well take all arts funding under its control, totally abandoning the arms-length principle.

Which would be an immensely foolish decision. ACW, for all its faults (and there has been considerable friction between the organisation and the Welsh theatre establishment) has some credibility as a judge of artistic worth and has the knowledge and understanding to make strategic decisions about arts development in Wales: to have such decisions made by politicans will inevitably bring about accusations of cronyism (which has already happened in regard to the CTC Mobile decision) and of philistinism.

As we have said on numerous occasions, Welsh theatre is riven by disagreements and bitter in-fighting. This decision, should the Assembly decide to go ahead with it, will only make matters worse. The contrast with Scotland (for all its problems with Scottish Opera and the Parliament) could not be more stark.