John Linklater outlines the success achieved by Fifth Estate, a

company that may be attracted to director posts in two Scottish


IF the team that runs Fifth Estate is to be tempted to either of the

available artistic director jobs at Perth Theatre or the Royal Lyceum,

Edinburgh, it will have to be on their own terms. Their remarkable

success story, in only the second year of their existence, has confirmed

a firm belief in their own way of going about things.

There is too much experience between the actor-directors Sandy Neilson

and Allan Sharpe, shared with production manager Sean Miller and

designer Paul Ambrose Wright, to be easily deflected from their aim of

demonstrating the hunger of Scottish audiences for plays of substance

and literary quality in productions which attest the solid values of

good acting and direction. Peculiarly, those values had been considered

unfashionable to a degree that allows Fifth Estate a radical stance in

re-asserting them.

They completed their first full year at the Netherbow Theatre,

Edinburgh, playing to audiences of 78%, winning several awards for their

Edinburgh Fringe production of George Rosie's Carluccio And The Queen Of

Hearts and touring that and other productions to Hampstead, Perth

Festival, Dundee Repertory and the Tron. This Edinburgh Festival sees

them splitting resources to present C. P. Taylor's The Ballachulish

Beat, on an Edinburgh Festival commission, and Robert Forrest's Kepler,

on a scholarship of excellence award from the Hamada Edinburgh Festival


All of this has been achieved by a company which is forced to operate

on a profit-share basis, having received only a single project fund of

#30,000 from the Scottish Arts Council to tour the first revival of

Donald Campbell's The Jesuit to Perth. It was one of eight productions

announced for this year by the company.

The only threat to the resolve of Fifth Estate, therefore, is a

success which has thrust full-time jobs upon the founding team of four,

yet rewards them with piecemeal wages. The comparative security of the

vacant posts at Perth and the Lyceum might begin to appear attractive,

but the team's firm position is that they will only consider them if

there is a guarantee that their work with Fifth Estate is allowed to


This is not an impossible condition. Fifth Estate were strong

front-runners for the Perth job before the board persuaded Joan Knight

to remain for a final season to give continuity to the company during a

phase when it was extending rehearsal periods and production runs.

When a short-leet of three candidates is drawn up in the next few

weeks for Knight's successor, it is likely that the Fifth Estate team

will again be prominent. In its previous interview the team stressed the

proviso that they would want to continue their work with Fifth Estate,

as another arm of the running of Perth, as a catalyst to themselves and

other Scottish theatres, and as a crucible for the development of new

writing and acting talents.

They also put forward a plan to re-open the studio space at Perth as

necessary to the long-term building of a new audience. This might have

seemed an impertinent suggestion to the board of a theatre boasting an

average 90% audience over the past few seasons, but they would be

foolish to ignore it. Perth might be approaching saturation audience

level at the moment, but the age profile of its current patrons cannot

allow the assumption that present box office levels could be maintained

indefinitely. The blunt analysis from Fifth Estate was that in 10 years

time that audience could be halved. In 10 years it could be dead.

Adding urgency to the Perth board's decision is the announcement of

Ian Wooldridge's departure from the Royal Lyceum. His job as artistic

director will be advertised after the Edinburgh Festival, and while

there is some wild speculation about luminaries like Brian Cox or Kenny

Ireland being tempted to apply, and some suggestions that Michael Boyd

of the Tron might be a target for the Lyceum board, there are many who

see the Fifth Estate team as natural candidates for the Lyceum.

They have all worked at the company, Sandy Neilson and Allan Sharpe as

actors, Sean Miller for seven years as a stage manager and production

manager, and Paul Ambrose Wright as a stage carpenter early in his

career. Neilson was on a short-leet of three for the job when Leslie

Lawton was appointed. They all have an insight into Edinburgh audiences,

particularly that sector that has deserted the Lyceum in recent years

and whose renewed support will be necessary if the company is to pick up

from the current level of 57%.

The BBC Scotland radio producer, Patrick Rayner, who came in as

assistant director for Kepler, says of the company: ''I think they are

one of the best things to happen in Scottish theatre in the past few

years, partly because of the texts they use -- the kind of plays I like.

And they encourage the kind of acting I like to come and see as well.

They go about their business with a kind of integrity that is not always

elsewhere.'' Rayner, an influential member of the Lyceum board, chair of

its artistic policy committee, hopes that Fifth Estate will not apply

for the job at the Lyceum because he believes the weight of its

administrative and financial problems (with an outstanding #1.2m debt

and a current #300,000 deficit) might sap their creative energies.

Sandy Neilson remains equivocal about the job. He says: ''The Lyceum

is the most important theatre in Scotland. There is no way we can remain

uninterested in that fact. We'd be very confident that we could take on

the Lyceum and do something with it under our own terms.

''But I fear the conditions under which the next artistic director

would be appointed might be very stringent indeed. It is a poisoned

chalice in many ways, and will remain so for the next four years or so.

It comes with a host of problems. We would only be interested in the

Lyceum if the terms were right and were not going to absorb all our

energies in having to run around to raise #1.5m in order to pay off

their debts. I'm not an accountant or a fund-raiser, I'm a theatre

director and an actor.''

Nevertheless, the very artistic success of Fifth Estate could be

regarded as a direct comment on what has too often been lacking at the

Lyceum, a strong and easily defined ethos, a commitment to a consistent

quality of writing and performance, that breeds confidence in audiences.

With each production Fifth Estate have minimised the risk in taking on

ambitious projects because their audiences have begun to trust their


No exception will be Robert Forrest's Kepler, a bold and sweeping

examination of the life of the sixteenth-century German mathematician

and astronomer, Johannes Kepler, a challenging work which contrasts the

perfection that he sees in the harmony of orbits and spheres in the

heavens and the chaos that he suffers in a hell on earth of war, plague

and disruption.

It is also a familiar story for a Fifth Estate production, a play that

has unaccountably slipped through the nets of several theatres before

the team at The Netherbow rescued it from oblivion. Rayner produced a

highly acclaimed radio production of the play in 1987 and then worked

with Forrest on a stage version. For three years they offered it to

theatres without success. Three weeks after it was passed to Allan

Sharpe the response from Fifth Estate was that they would be doing it.

Sandy Neilson, who directs the production, explains why. He says: ''It

is a major piece of dramatic literature, not just in the style of the

writing and in Forrest's ability as a writer, but in the themes, the

scope of the themes that he is tackling, which are universal in the

truest sense of the word. In terms of Scottish theatre writing I think

this is a huge leap forward.''