As part of its contribution to the many debates in Scotland during 2014—sparked into life, of course, by this September’s independence referendum—new National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Laurie Sansom and his team invited 20 of Scotland’s leading novelists, playwrights and poets to pick a single portrait from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s dazzling choice of subjects and to give them a voice, through a monologue delivered by an actor.
There was a genuine sense of travelling, of walking through both geography and time.
Divided into two tours, performed on alternate nights by a cast of nine actors (with additional audios performed by the chosen subjects themselves), the audience is led around the gallery in small groups. This wasn’t always easy for some of the older, frailer audience members–arguably more thought should have been put into using the Gallery’s lifts. Also, for some, the Gallery offered too many other distractions for some stragglers; for the most part, though, there was a genuine sense of travelling, of walking through both geography and time.
The chosen portraits ranged from Mary Queen of Scots to Queen Elizabeth II, from Robert Burns to trade unionist Jimmy Reid; the writers from A L Kennedy and Louise Welsh to David Greig and Hardeep Singh Kohli. Some of the authors, clearly fans of their selected subjects, offered nuanced impersonations; others kept their own voices. Some spoke of the choices the peoples of Scotland face in the widest terms—A L Kennedy’s Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, asks us to “Indulge wrongs less and see them more.”Others directly addressed the yes/no choice facing Scottish voters in September with both wit and passion: from Peter Arnott’s almost apoplectic Sir Walter Scott (“Whisper it. Without the Union, there is no Scotland”) to Liz Lochead’s angry nationalist Robert Burns (“Look to the future! Show her what trust is: Gie Her a Yes Vote!”).
By its very nature, the venue—like any portrait gallery—is defined by its intrinsic focus on the portraits of individuals: kings and queens, generals and soldiers, politicians and campaigners. Yet, arguably the most thought-provoking of the monologues in this eclectic “pic ’n’mix”were those which focused on the people almost edited out of the bigger picture: such as Jo Clifford’s brazen and bold soliloquy for the naked, faceless woman in the background of Alexander Moffat’s famous painting, Poets’Pub.
A dizzying experience, all told: not least getting your head around the idea of the actress Maureen Beattie speaking the words playwright Rona Munro has put in the mouth of the poet Jackie Kay, as sculpted by the artist Michael Snowden. On occasions, the actors appear to be deliberately “cast”against type, in terms of both gender and race; but these choices, by co-directors Catrin Evans and Joe Douglas, are in keeping with the overall diversity and richness of the piece and are a positive reminder of the many, many lives that have contributed to Scotland in 2014 and will continue to contribute for many years to come.