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'I'm drawn to the whimsical, surreal and the absurd...'

There is a line in Liz Lochhead's play, Edwin Morgan's Dreams and Other Nightmares, in which Scotland's first Makar is asked by his biographer what he thinks of fellow poet Seamus Heaney's adaptation of Beowulf, which Morgan had done a version of some years before.

MAKAR: Scotland's first national poet in modern times, Edwin Morgan, has had a play written about him by his successor Liz Lochhead.
MAKAR: Scotland's first national poet in modern times, Edwin Morgan, has had a play written about him by his successor Liz Lochhead.

Morgan's response in the play is that he considered Heaney's version to be "too Irish."

The line penned by Morgan's successor as Makar for a show first seen at the Glasgay! festival three years ago became the key for its director, Andy Arnold, to stage this month's Home Nations Festival 2014 at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, where he is artistic director. This mini season of four pieces of poetic drama from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales has been programmed to coincide with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and its accompanying Culture 2014 arts strand.

Opening with a big community production of Dylan Thomas' masterpiece, Under Milk Wood, artistic director of Irish company Rough Magic, Lynne Parker, then oversees a dramatic reading of Seamus Heaney's take on Beowulf. This is followed by Britain's Glasgow-born poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's version of Grimm Tales, which is directed by Kevin Lewis, currently artistic director of Welsh theatre company, Theatre Iolo. Arnold will revisit Lochhead's look at the life, work and imaginings of Morgan to complete the quartet.

"It made sense," says Arnold. "Liz Lochhead's Edwin Morgan play seemed to work with audiences, and I wanted to do it again, and the Commonwealth Games seemed a good time to do it, because the play's very much about Glasgow as well. Then I thought it would be good to put on work by some of the other iconic poets from the other home nations."

Under Milk Wood and Heaney's take on Beowulf were no-brainers, while Duffy's cross-border roots seemed an equally perfect fit. Regardless of where the writers and directors of the season are from, however, it is great writing that matters to Arnold.

"I really like adapting poems for the stage," he says, "and, in a way, it's an indulgence on my part, to have a festival where, through theatre, you celebrate poets, either through their lives or their work."

Poetic and literary-based drama has always been at the heart of Arnold's work. Since he took over as artistic director of the Tron, this interest culminated in a mighty staging of James Joyce's novel Ulysses while during his previous tenure running the Arches, Arnold himself directed productions of both Under Milk Wood and Beowulf.

Arnold has also staged Robert Burns's Tam O' Shanter, while, as part of this year's Mayfesto season at the Tron, he presented a staged reading of Caribbean writer Aime Cesaire's Return To My Native Land.

"It was so powerful it made people cry," says Arnold of the event. "It was just two women performing it, but every young writer should listen to it because every single line is full of visual imagery and music, and that's something you get more in poems than in plays."

Arnold's fascination with the poetic form dates right back to The Noise and Smoky Breath Show, a cabaret-style compendium of performances of works taken from a seminal collection of Scottish poetry published by the old Third Eye Centre, which is now out of print. The Noise and Smoky Breath Show was first performed to tie in with a mooted second edition of the book that never happened, but which then became the first show Arnold directed for what became the Arches Theatre Company. A poster for the show hangs on Arnold's office wall.

"It was The Noise and Smoky Breath which first introduced me to the poems of Edwin Morgan," Arnold recalls of the show that toured to the Tron during Michael Boyd's tenure there, and which seems to have been pivotal in Arnold's career. Boyd himself staged a memorable interpretation of Ted Hughes's poem Crow, with actors Peter Mullan and Douglas Henshall.

Arnold followed The Noise and Smoky Breath Show with a production of V, Tony Harrison's epic poem about visiting his parents' graffiti-strewn grave in Leeds. Written during the Miners' Strike, V first appeared in 1985, the same year that Bill Bryden directed Harrison's version of The Mysteries at the National Theatre. V became controversial when Channel 4 broadcast a television version of the poem complete with four-letter words that caused consternation in the House of Commons. Working with a community cast of long-term unemployed volunteers, Arnold faced a similar reaction to Harrison's visceral text.

"I remember when we did the first reading of it," he says, "and one of the performers couldn't deal with the language and walked out." With a new generation of poets such as Kate Tempest tackling the dramatic form, as she did last year in the Herald Angel-winning Brand New Ancients, Arnold may be on to something. Brand New Ancients' mix of hip hop rhythms and South London patois, after all, also had a heroic narrative that owed much to both Dylan Thomas and Tony Harrison.

Such lively poetic activity will be reflected in a series of events going on throughout the Tron's building beyond the Home Nations Festival's four main shows. These will include readings by Lochhead, who is also the season's poet-in-residence, a slam poetry competition hosted by Edinburgh-based spoken word night Rally & Broad and a rehearsed reading of a new play by Jackie Kay.

"All of this goes back to Shakespeare," Arnold points out. "Taking the musicality of poetry, but applying it to drama, and trying to find a way of acting out every line. Epic poems particularly lend themselves to that. What I value more than anything is the power of the spoken word, and none more so than through the vehicle of theatre. I'm always drawn to the whimsical, the surreal and the absurd, and you can make that as extreme as you like, but everything starts with the spoken word."

Home Nations Festival 2014 takes place at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow; Under Milk Wood, July 17-19; Edwin Morgan's Dreams & Other Nightmares, July 24-Aug 2; Beowulf, A Dramatic Reading, July 24-Aug 2; Grimm Tales, July 27-Aug 1. (www.tron.co.uk)

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