Monday, 21 March 2011

What next for Edinburgh's Traverse theatre?

Should it be run by writers? Take over the King's? With director Dominic Hill heading for Glasgow, now is the time for the Traverse to get experimental once again

The rumours were right. Dominic Hill, the most widely tipped candidate in the theatre bars of Scotland, has landed the job of artistic director of Glasgow's Citizens theatre. He will move to Gorbals Street in October after directing Philip Massinger's The City Madam at the RSC in May, and overseeing his final Edinburgh fringe season as artistic director of the Traverse in August.

The first indication of his plans for the Citz comes in an interview with the Herald, in which he proposes to reinvent the theatre and put classical work on the main stage: "I want to draw on the history of the building," he tells the newspaper, "and what that stage is brilliant at doing ? theatre that is both epic and intimate, with a dynamic, almost rough quality to it that is both exciting to be part of and to see."

For the Citizens, it is an opportunity to reclaim the reputation it once had under the long-serving directorial triumvirate of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and the late Robert David MacDonald who, in the early 1970s, established the company as an outpost of exotic European style. It was a tough act to follow and Jeremy Raison, who stepped down as artistic director in October after seven years, cannot be blamed if he did not live up to it.

Hill may fare better. His accolades at the critics' awards for theatre in Scotland say it all. First at Dundee Rep then at the Traverse, he has picked up the best production award three times ? for Scenes from an Execution (2004), Peer Gynt (2008) and The Dark Things (2010). In two of those years he was fending off competition from his own productions.

Where, though, does that leave the Traverse, Scotland's self-styled home of new writing? Hill's departure has come round sooner than the Cambridge Street theatre would have liked, but he has made his mark both in the productions themselves (other highlights include Edward Albee's The Goat and Chris Hannan's The Three Musketeers and the Princess of Spain) and in the general level of activity in the building. Having brought Manipulate, the adult puppetry festival, with him from Dundee, he introduced a cross-disciplinary autumn festival and supported a raft of music and script-reading nights, helping create more of a buzz at the venue, even if the famous bar is not the social fulcrum it once was. It would not be a disaster if his replacement simply offered more of the same. Directors who might want to consider the job and have strong new-writing credentials include John Tiffany, of the National Theatre of Scotland, Roxana Silbert, ex-Paines Plough and now with the RSC, and former Traverse associate director Lorne Campbell.

But what more radical possibilities are there? What could happen to make the Traverse not merely good but essential? One option would be to remember the theatre's core function and hand it over to the playwrights. That British theatres tend to be run by directors is not an inevitability. There was a time in the 1980s, for example, when the Liverpool Playhouse was run by Alan Bleasdale, Chris Bond, Bill Morrison and Willy Russell. And Alan Ayckbourn set a powerful precedent in Scarborough. Put in a call to the Scottish Society of Playwrights and a very different vision of how the theatre should be run might emerge.

Or maybe it's time for the Traverse to catch up with performance art again. The theatre's origins lie in the experimental work of the 1960s, but today's Edinburgh audiences have to venture to Glasgow, and venues such as the Arches and the Tramway, for their avant garde fix (although, to be fair, Glasgow audiences often have to venture to Edinburgh for a decent play).

Third suggestion: what about exploiting the close proximity of the Traverse, the Royal Lyceum and the King's (which, after all, is struggling to make ends meet) and putting them all under a single heavy-hitting artistic management? A big-name international director might not be enticed by the Traverse on its own, but might relish the flexibility of working on four different-sized stages and developing a dynamic relationship between them. It'd be a big organisational shift, but perhaps it could change the list of candidates from the usual suspects to the truly inspirational. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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