Shakespeare’s 450th



James Bridie, playwright (1888 – 1951)

This year marks the 450 anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.

When I established Scotland’s theatre for actors, writers, music performers and technicians I bemoaned the dearth of writers skilled in creating work for talented young actors. The policy of the company – still flourishing – was new talent tutored by top talent.

“I don’t want them to play Shakespeare at all, and certainly not in beard and wig.” Later I did commission a play from the Shakespearian canon but a musical, a version of “The Comedy of Errors,” generally well received, and one that got a young Gorbals hard man, David O’Hara, started – the mad Irishman in “Braveheart.”

In trying to avoid “school” level Shakespeare I articulated a preference for our writers and novelists to write stage plays for our own youthful performers in their own vernacular, and for the age they lived in, plays concerned with their lives and values. (I believe I managed it comprehensively with a film set in Dublin, the actors in it promoted to the movie, “The Commitments.” Enya composed the music, her first commission.) Anyhow, back came the Scotsman newspaper’s drama critic with the rejoinder, “Well, he’s [me] yet to stage a play as good as Shakespeare.” I had staged only two by that point. There’s no one quicker than a Scotsman to put you in your place.

We cannae be as gid as them yins doon sooth.

Back in the bad old days, before we realised were we really are a nation with skills as good as any, most playwrights went south to work, “Peter Pan’s” J. M. Barry is one, and James Bridie another, later co-founder of Glasgow’s Citizen’s Theatre. Bridie’s most renown play is “The Anatomist.” Scots scribblers knew that to be successful they had first to be successful in London theatres. Has anything changed?

Once successful in London an artiste could afford to indulge his fame by creating the odd production north of the border before taking it to London for a longer run. Scotland understood it was second-best. No one was insulted. In fact, we felt blessed.

I have an anecdote that serves to illustrate the imposed humility of a nation subservient to its neighbour yet keen to be seen as just as clever and smart.

The Citizen Theatre’s premier of “The Anatomist” was given a prolonged standing ovation.

From the back of the balcony came the cry, “Whaur’s yer Willie Shakespeare noo?!!”

Aye, where is he?

Did he really write all those plays and sonnets?

And who produces Scottish plays from our past these days?

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