Talking to Vicky Featherstone (pictured), the first artistic director of the fledgling Scottish National Theatre, I am reminded of one of that country’s greatest writers and his finest work: Hugh MacDiarmid and his masterpiece, the epic poem “The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”. As part of this vast work (published in 1925), in which the narrator contemplates at great length and depth the nature of Scotland, MacDiarmid pulls in elements from the dozen dialects of the Scots language as well as reference points from all over contemporaneous Europe.

“I’d actually be much more excited about our work going to, say Paris and Berlin or America than the West End,” says Featherstone, taking time out from her packed schedule as she ends her tenure with the respected touring company, Paines Plough. “I think that would be much more beneficial for Scotland.”

It may have taken Scottish theatre nigh on 80 years to catch up with the ethos of one of her greatest literary talents, but the feeling is that the wait has been well worth it. Featherstone’s enthusiasm, while (perhaps mercifully) lacking the wilder passions of MacDiarmid, is palpable nonetheless. “There’s no doubt that the National Theatre of Scotland (NToS) will have the classics as part of its repertoire – whether they be European classics or British classics or Scottish classics. But it has to be about finding really exciting ways of putting these classics on stage so that they feel like they should be on stage now rather than just to satisfy other people.”

Dark Horse Pulls Ahead

Funding for the NToS – a reported £7.5 million per annum – was first proposed by the Scottish Executive back in 2000, but the project has been the stuff of theatre bar debates for many a year, dating back at least to the London model, which is sometimes erroneously perceived in Scotland as an English National Theatre. When the jostling began for the coveted top job, several leading Scottish directors threw their hats into the ring. Thirty candidates were reduced to a shortlist of six. But no one, outside the NToS’ board, seemed to see Vicky Featherstone coming. When her appointment was announced, The Scotsman ran the headline “Dark Horse Lands Top Theatre Job” (See News, 5 Aug 2004).

“I wasn’t surprised personally,” she laughs. “If you’re going for something and you want it, you feel that inside you’re right for it – in a positive way rather than an arrogant way. The appointment is about the board putting their money – and their faith – where their mouth is and saying ‘We really want the National Theatre of Scotland to be about new ways of working. To be about new audiences and regenerating theatre in Scotland and not about being stuck in a theatre of 20 years ago’.”

Does this mean that the new NToS will not have to rely, as the budget-bound Scottish repertories do, on reprising ‘greatest hits’ productions such as Tony Roper and Dave Anderson’s popular (and populist) 1950s-set Glasgow musical, The Steamie? A piece often held up by critics as evidence of Scottish Theatre’s backward-looking approach.

Featherstone will not be drawn into a scorched-earth policy debate. “The Steamie,” she insists, “is an amazing piece – for what it achieved at the time and then has achieved again and again. What I’m about is being able to create something equivalent for today which is still able to motivate audiences as much as that has, but is actually about a contemporary Scotland rather than a backward-looking Scotland.”

Abandoning Bricks & Mortar

The National Theatre project is very much a New Scotland affair, born out of the funding granted by a still relatively new Scottish Executive. But considering the stooshie (that’s the Scots word for fuss or controversy) over the building that houses the Scottish Executive itself, and the ever-increasing taxpayers’ millions that went into it, perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of the project is that the NToS will require no expensive new building of its own. “That, for me,” says Featherstone emphatically, “is one of the best things about it. The National Theatre can be lots of different things to different people, for example an education project in one area and a big show in another. And it is really important that it should be geographically inclusive of the whole of Scotland.

“As soon as you have a building, it creates an identity of its own, the bricks and mortar. And it’s very hard to shift that identity. If we had a building in one place, it would quickly become a place where people either came through the door or didn’t. And I think it’s important to develop not only new audiences but to develop the ones that are already there at the existing buildings.”

Featherstone views this nomadic approach as integral to the success of her National Theatre. “We will co-produce and collaborate with existing Scottish companies and buildings over time. We’ll create some work of our very own. And we’ll bring in international directors and companies to create not just a National Theatre but an international theatre – a prospect that I find very exciting.

“Theatre,” she continues, “is a very big umbrella and it excites me that we can create a piece of musical theatre that can play the King’s in Edinburgh and His Majesty’s in Aberdeen and all those places. But the National Theatre should also be allowed to do slightly weird two-handers that can go on in one of the studios at the Citz, as well as community projects. That’s what’s so special about the National Theatre for me: it will genuinely be about the diversity of Scotland.”

Diverse Jigsaw

That diversity is reflected as the jigsaw of the National Theatre of Scotland begins to take shape. At the end of last month, Featherstone made three high profile appointments to her creative team. Liz Lochhead, the respected writer and poet – and true national treasure – was first to join a group of advisory associate artists. Featherstone’s Paines Plough colleague and former literary director of the Traverse, John Tiffany, was appointed associate director in charge of new work and playwright David Greig will perform the role of dramaturg.

Both Lochhead and Greig are Scots while Huddersfield-born Tiffany has lived most of his adult life north of the border. Featherstone is also English but was raised in Scotland for the first five years of her life. This unique perspective makes her a safe pair of hands indeed when it comes to ensuring that the balance between the word ‘Scottish’ and the word ‘theatre’ doesn’t tip too far in either direction. When asked about transferring work to London, her passion for both those words is abundant.

On Scotland, she says: “Scotland has got so much to offer and I’ve got such a challenge to make it work in Scotland that London is very low down my agenda – but low down for all the right reasons.” Then within a breath she’s talking theatre again: “I’ve lived and worked in London for years, and it is so hard to make it work there that I don’t know why anybody would see it as some big light to move towards. The West End has completely lost its edge. If we were able to create some extraordinary musical that was going to make us thousands or millions of pounds by going to the West End and enrich our lives in Scotland, then it would go. But it mustn’t be the thing that decides the success of our company.”

To borrow from the aforementioned MacDiarmid, Featherstone is in a position in which she’ll always be where extremes meet. Balancing the weight of expectation in a country that’s 40 years behind London and an entire century behind Ireland in the National Theatre stakes, with the needs of 21st-century audiences, writers and performers. Now that the dust has cleared on the “surprise” appointment, theatregoers in Scotland can look forward to the work of a director described by the Guardian as “a major force… The more successful she is, the better and more daring she has become”. London’s loss is most definitely Scotland’s gain.

Vicky Featherstone’s production of The Small Things by Enda Walsh runs at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory London until 27 February 2005 as part of Paines Plough’s This Other England season.