FROM climate chaos, to right-wing governments, to popular uprisings, the world is in ferment. Scottish theatre faces up to political reality in the year ahead, writes Mark Brown

Theatre, it is often asserted, is the most political of all of the art forms. Political artists in other fields, from grime star Stormzy, to comedian Bridget Christie and visual artist Banksy, might contest that, and with good reason.

However, the fact remains, there is something in the liveness of theatre, and in its concentration (more often than not) on the power of language, that gives it an undeniable immediacy and political potency.

Peruse the early programme announcements for Scottish theatre in 2020 and one senses the political imperative very strongly. This should hardly come as a surprise.

We live in turbulent and contradictory times. From the global, youth-led climate change movement, to mass uprisings in Chile, Lebanon, Sudan, Hong Kong and Catalonia, to mass strikes in France and hundreds of thousands taking to Scotland’s streets in the cause of independence, it often looks like the world is in revolt.

However, on the flip side, the right is on the rise in many places, taking power in a series of countries, including the US (Trump), Brazil (Blosonaro), India (Modi), Turkey (Erdogan), Russia (Putin) and Hungary (Orban); which is to say nothing of the rise of Salvini’s League in Italy and Abascal’s Vox within the Spanish state.

Here in Britain, newly elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on record denigrating Muslim women who wear the burqa as looking like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”. He has also referred to people of African descent as “piccaninnies” who wear “watermelon smiles” (not to mention his charming description of gay men as “bum boys”). Little wonder that on December 13, the day on which Johnson’s victory was confirmed, more than 2,000, mainly young people marched down Buchanan Street in Glasgow under the banner of the campaign group Stand Up to Racism.

It’s little surprise, either, that much of Scottish theatre’s programming in 2020 has a whiff of the highly-politicised 1970s about it. Back then the avowedly socialist companies 7:84 and Wildcat toured their radical brand of popular theatre around Scotland, while Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre staged many productions by the famous Marxist writer Bertolt Brecht.

There’s a direct echo of those times in the co-production by the Citizens, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and DOT Theatre of Istanbul of one of Brecht’s most famous plays. Elaine C Smith will take on the feminised lead role in Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti (Lyceum, Edinburgh, February 28 to March 21; Tramway, Glasgow, March 25 to April 11).

The play, in which wealthy landowner Puntila is trapped between her class interest (in marrying her daughter Eva off to an attaché) and her humanity (Eva is in love with Puntila’s servant, Matti), is one of Brecht’s most comic satires. Indeed, the great playwright proposed that the drama (in which Puntila is mean-spirited and autocratic when sober, and affable and affectionate when drunk) be played in the style of Italian commedia dell’Arte.

This new production uses a new adaptation by acclaimed writer Denise Mina and is staged by the superb Turkish director Murat Daltaban (who brought Scottish audiences the award-winning rendering of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in 2018). As a work of political comedy, the show takes Smith back to her theatrical roots; in 1985, for instance, she performed, alongside Andy Gray and Alan Cumming, in Borderline Theatre Company’s production of Italian satirist Dario Fo’s play Trumpets and Raspberries.

There’s a very deliberate evocation of the 1970s in the National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) revival of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (touring April through to June). Co-produced with Dundee Rep and Live Theatre. Director Joe Douglas reprises his 2015 Dundee Rep staging of the play which set the benchmark for Scottish political theatre in 1973.

Telling the story of the Highlands of Scotland, from the Clearances, through the iniquities of land ownership, to the discovery of oil, the piece combines ceilidh culture, music hall comedy and agitational propaganda. Although it is, in many ways, a play of its time, Douglas’s production proves that there’s political life left in this old dog of Scottish theatre.

There’s a revival of a far more recent drama with the return of Kieran Hurley’s Mouthpiece (Traverse, Edinburgh, February 7-15). Exploring the complexities of class and gender within theatre itself (a middle-class, female writer attempts to tell the story of a young, working-class man from an Edinburgh housing scheme) it articulates some very 21st-century political concerns.

There are important, and for many, no doubt, uncomfortable truths in two very distinct new works from the NTS. May Sumbwanyambe’s play Enough of Him (a co-production with Pitlochry Festival Theatre, touring October and November) is based upon the true story of Joseph Knight, an African man brought to Scotland by his Scottish slave owner, who later challenged his status as a slave in court.

In Adura Onashile’s Ghosts (Merchant City, Glasgow, November) multimedia techniques will be used to give audience members a historical tour of Glasgow in which they meet the ghosts of the city’s shameful role in the British Empire’s trade in African slaves.

Modernism and Scottish Theatre since 1969: A Revolution on Stage, by Mark Brown, available now from Palgrave Macmillan: