Joyce McMillan: Scottish Theatre's Remarkable Journey

Edinburgh International Book Festival

On 16 August 2016

Review by David Chadderton

Joyce McMillan is probably the most respected theatre critic in Scotland, who currently writes on theatre and politics in The Scotsman but who has also written for The Herald and The Guardian.

This year, she released a book that brings together a selection of her reviews from 1982 to 2015, together with some essays to put them into theatrical, political and social context. The book, Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams, was edited by former Traverse Theatre artistic director Philip Howard.

She said Howard came to her with the idea, which originally came from Irish writer and director Nicola McCartney.

Howard and McMillan worked closely together over a long time to find and filter the reviews. She said she had to buy an old Amstrad computer over the Internet to read some of her older floppy disks. Some reviews were lost as the Scottish editions of The Guardian were not archived along with other editions and she had not kept her own paper copies.

There were furious arguments between them about what to include. The book includes just 200 reviews out of around 6,000 that she has written over the last 35 years. They were first sorted to pick out the reviews that were well-written and said something important. From those, the reviews of the most significant productions were chosen.

What she was looking for back in 1982 was a Scottish voice, as she didn't think the Scottish taxpayer should be funding something that could be seen in London. Too much new work, she said, was a bit boring.

The 1980s, she said, was exciting for the Scottish voice, and the Glasgow City of Culture was tremendously important. By the 1990s, Scottish plays were being performed all over Europe, and so the excuse for not starting a Scottish national theatre because there wasn't a Scottish repertoire had gone. In 2004, National Theatre of Scotland began with Vicky Featherstone at the helm.

She said that, looking back, the productions that made a big impression on her at the time she remembers as though she saw them yesterday, whereas for the ones that didn't make an impression it is as though she never saw them at all.

Some companies, she said, have lapsed back to RP accents and only servants with Scottish accents; there is less made of the Scottish voice and Scottish language now than she heard twenty years ago from the likes of Liz Lochhead and Iain Heggie.

The event at the Book Festival was superbly chaired by Scottish playwright Davig Greig (now artistic director of Edinburgh's Lyceum Theatre), whose own knowledge of Scottish theatre made a very valuable input into the discussion.

Theatre in Scotland is published by Nick Hern Books.