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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 September, 2003, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Curtain rises on national theatre
By Pauline McLean
BBC Scotland arts correspondent

This week, one of Scotland's youngest and most acclaimed theatre companies, Theatre Babel, arrives in Taiwan.

Robbie Coltrane in From Hell
Robbie Coltrane is a product of Scottish theatre
Its play, Thebans, a reworking of the Greek legends of Oedipus, Jokasta and Antigone by playwright Liz Lochhead, was one of the big hits of this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Now it's the centrepiece of the first Scottish Festival in Taipei.

This isn't a rare excursion. Earlier in the year, Dundee Rep became the first British company to take a production to Iran; Pauline Goldsmith's one woman show Bright Colours Only has been seen on tour around Brazil. Around the world, Scottish theatre has been popping up in the most unlikely places.

But here at home, it's another matter. Most companies would love to tour their work more widely. But a lack of resources, and a lack of political will, mean it's easier to take your work to Taiwan than to Tain.

And perish the thought, you might want to take a Scottish show to London! Which is the main thrust of the campaign for a national theatre of Scotland.

The talent is already there. Not just actors but writers, designers, technicians, are all already working with companies across the country.

'Chronic underfunding'

There are vintage Scottish plays which have been long forgotten, but there are also new works like Gargarin Way, the Straits and San Diego. Playwrights like Douglas Maxwell, David Greig and Gregory Burke, not to mention the aforementioned Liz Lochhead whose drama is in both Scots and English.

Theatre in Scotland has been chronically underfunded for almost a decade. Individual theatres like the Citizens in Glasgow have suffered from local authority cutbacks and touring companies have found the pot of available funding dwindling over the years.

Amazing, then, that in the midst of this, the industry still pushes talent through.

Trainspotting began in a Glasgow theatre
Robbie Coltrane, Robert Carlisle and Shirley Henderson all performed in Scottish theatre before moving onto the big and small screen. Trainspotting only became a film hit after it was staged in a studio theatre at the Citizens.

But the danger is that the talent simply passes through and moves on to better places.

Two years ago, on the recommendation of the Boyden report, which recognised chronic underfunding in English regional theatre, Westminster made the most significant investment in years.

Twenty five million pounds helped not just to shore up the infrastructure and allow theatres to commission new work, but to resolve the crisis of a new settlement for theatre employees which was forcing running costs higher and higher.

Financial problems

Here in Scotland, there was no similar settlement, although it was decided that the first 1m payment towards a national theatre company, should be invested in the theatre companies already in existence.

It helped, but none of those existing theatres, which will be expected to play their part in a national theatre of Scotland, can confidently say their financial problems are over.

Their greatest fear is that the national theatre will put additional pressures on their already overstretched resources.

While most in the theatre community welcome today's cash - it has after all, been a campaign issue since the 1950s - they hope it's a long term commitment, and not just a high profile excuse to spend a little spare cash.

Ring Cycle
Scottish Opera recently staged Wagner's Ring Cycle
Aside from the 2.5m needed to set up the theatre - to appoint an artistic director, a small administration staff and start commissioning new work - the national theatre of Scotland will need funding to keep it up and running.

That's expected to require at least 1m a year. And the long running troubles of existing national companies like Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet show that a good reputation, a few critically acclaimed shows and a grant which barely rises in line with inflation, isn't enough to sustain a national company.

So cautiously, after 50 odd years of rehearsing the arguments, the curtain is about to be raised on Scotland's first national theatre.

Don't book your seats just yet. It'll be at least a year until the company is even planning its tour schedules. First things first, they have to find a chairman, a board and some high profile patrons.

Then comes the hard bit - finding an artistic director to get the whole show on the road.

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