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A thorn in theatre through the ages

PERHAPS the most depressing aspect of the stushie over The Pitiless Storm and the decision by Argyll and Bute Council not to afford it the oxygen of publicity, is its predictability.

Written by Chris Dolan and performed by David Hayman, the play is purportedly pro-independence, as are its writer and performer. This, it would appear, has upset Stalinist panjandrums in the council who would rather ignore its existence than tell anyone to go and see it.

Mr Hayman is not amused, claiming that he is a victim of political interference and censorship. He may well be right; certainly, given some of the roles he has played, I would not be inclined to argue with him. In an increasingly febrile atmosphere, there are those who may be tempted to wield whatever power they possess in the hope of ensuring that the vote on September 18 goes their way.

Theatre is particularly vulnerable to such skulduggery, given its over-dependence on municipal venues and public subsidy. It is an art that requires a space in which an audience can be accommodated safely and comfortably and in which actors may perform to the best of their ability. In this regard, local authorities are disproportionately important. Often, they own the premises and the essential equipment and they have the staff on tap to do whatever is necessary to make proceedings run smoothly.

Outwith the main population centres, where suitable places to put on plays are few and far between, they are even more crucial. The reasons for this are complex and involve factors, such as health and safety, which have nothing to do with a play's content. The days when 7:84 could tour the country with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, playing in village halls in the back of beyond, seem as distant as those when Harry Lauder wowed crowds with I Love a Lassie.

Thus theatre has become less edgy and less essential. The apotheosis of this came with the founding of the National Theatre of Scotland. State-funded, it can't help but steer a middle course, offering productions which may be entertaining and, to a degree challenging, but which, inevitably, dare not upset anyone whose hands might hold its purse-strings. Imagine, for example, it proposed staging a play in which the SNP was infiltrated by terrorists intent on blowing up Balmoral and kidnapping the royals. Or, say, one in which members of Better Together gathered at a Highland shooting lodge to plot the assassination of a Linlithgow man who is determined to break up Britain and deny them access to the grouse moors.

It could never happen, and not just because the ideas are dire. Theatre that is beholden to the state and politicians is always going to be compromised, sometimes subtly, occasionally overtly. The early decades of the Edinburgh Festival were marked by philistine councillors who would go into shock at the mere mention of the word sex. Nudity, then, was the great no-no. Whenever an actor disrobed you could always be sure that there would be someone at the end of the line in the City Chambers eager to say how sickened she was by it though she herself had not actually witnessed it.

In a way, it was refreshing and rather energising, for it proved that theatre, which at its most sublime has the ability to transport us to another reality and make us reassess who we are and what we believe, has the potential to effect change. Where a play is put on is thus of considerably less consequence than what it says and how it's said. Writers such as Brecht and Lorca were nothing if not consummate improvisers. The latter's company, La Barraca, performed wherever it could, in fields and squares, taking its show to wherever there might be audiences. There was nothing precious about it.

It is an example which Edinburgh during the festival epitomises. Theatres spring up everywhere, be it in a telephone box or the back of a van. Earlier this week I visited a company from Macao which had taken up residence in a rank room in the Old Town. After a piano had been installed there was seating for just 40 people. No-one, least of all the performers, bothered about the surroundings. For, as I recall someone once said, the play's the thing.

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