Joyce McMillan: CATS Awards point to a bright future for Scottish theatre

After a disastrous year for the performing arts, the 2020 Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland suggest there is light at the end of the tunnel, writes Joyce McMillan

Tom McGovern, winner of Best Male Performance at this year's CATS for his role in The Signalman, by Peter Arnott.
Tom McGovern, winner of Best Male Performance at this year's CATS for his role in The Signalman, by Peter Arnott.

It was a rich old week in Scottish theatre, the week of 9 March 2020; the one before the Prime Minister warned people in Britain against going to places of public entertainment, and Scotland’s playhouses closed their doors indefinitely. That week there were two major press nights at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, of Theatre Gu Leor’s memorable call to arms Maim, about the need to resist growing threats to the landscape and language of Scotland’s Western Isles, and of Vanishing Point Theatre’s wonderful 2020 version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Then on Saturday 14th, I travelled to Pitlochry, for what turned out to be a farewell evening, watching the Pitlochry-Lyceum co-production of Barefoot In The Park, starring Clare Grogan and Jessica Hardwick, that should have toured on to Edinburgh in April.

And it was because of this kind of richness of experience, running through the whole theatre year between May 2019 and March 2020, that the critics who form the judging panel of the annual CATS Awards (Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland) finally decided – after much debate, and despite the depth of the Covid crisis facing Scotland’s theatre-makers – not to abandon that year to history, but to carry on with the 2020 awards; to go through an online judging process, and eventually, when it was absolutely clear that there could be no live CATS Awards ceremony this year, to announce the shortlists and winners to the press and social media, as we did last week.

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The variety of shortlisted shows and winners which emerged from the judging process is, as usual, astonishing. The shows range in scale from the massive logistical achievement of Tony Roper’s own stadium-scale Christmas staging of his Glasgow classic The Steamie at the Hydro, to the absolute monologue simplicity of The Signalman, a beautifully-staged Play, Pie And Pint production in association with the Traverse, directed by Ken Alexander, that won the Best New Play award for the playwright Peter Arnott, the Best Male Performance award for actor and co-creator Tom McGovern, and the overall award for Best Production of the Year.

In mood, the shows range from the robust and hugely inventive physical theatre of Neil Bettles’s staging of Dritan Kastrati’s refugee story How Not To Drown, co-written with Nicola McCartney and seen at the Traverse during the 2019 Fringe, to the quiet, meditative beauty of last autumn’s Pitlochry production of Brian Friel’s great triple monologue Faith Healer, which gained four CATS nominations, and netted the Best Director award for Pitlochry boss Elizabeth Newman. And in subject matter, the nominated shows include both the straightforward popular appeal of Dundee Rep’s theatrical biography of football manager Jim McLean, Smile, which won a Best Male Performance nomination for Barrie Hunter, and the extravagantly vivid artistic navel-gazing of Shona Reppe’s brilliant Atlantis Banal, which takes the question “what counts as art?” and makes it work as an extraordinary piece of installation theatre for everyone from eight to 80.

The big winners also include the Lyceum Theatre’s powerful version of the science fiction classic Solaris, and Claire Cunningham’s National Theatre of Scotland / Manchester International Festival show Thank You Very Much, about the world of Elvis impersonators, and Jenni Fagan’s stage version of her own brilliant novel The Panopticon, staged by the National Theatre of Scotland at the Traverse, inspired an award-winning Best Female Performance, as the heroine Anais, from superb newcomer Anna Russell-Martin.

So what can we learn from this year’s CATS winners and shortlistees, about how Scottish theatre might best survive the pandemic? In the first place, the sheer variety of the 24 shows featured on these lists – and of the dozens of others that could easily also have made it – suggests a theatre scene that will be able, given the right support, to find a way back as soon as people are able to gather again; if only because its very diversity guarantees its resilience, and its ability to find fresh ways of working to match new circumstances.

Secondly, it seems that theatre makers are learning valuable lessons every day, during the pandemic, about all the potential audience members, in their communities and beyond, who find it difficult to be physically present at theatre performances, and therefore could never even have glimpsed any of these shows. Whatever happens after the Covid crisis, the theatre companies of the future need to build various forms of online access into their ways of working, as a vital part of their effort to improve their reach into their communities, and to spread the word about the vital stories they tell.

And finally, there is the constant ache of awareness that for those who love live performance, nothing else can ever match the intensity of the moment when we pack ourselves into a room with dozens – or thousands – of other living, breathing human beings, and prepare to share the live experience. “At this time in particular,” wrote Claire Cunningham, one of Britain’s leading artists with disability, in response to her nominations for Thank You Very Much, “when none of us knows when we will be close with audiences again, it feels particularly touching to know that our presence burned vividly in the memories of those who shared space with us, during these shows.” All 24 of the shortlisted shows, and dozens of others over the year, burn vividly in the memory of the CATS critics during these lockdown times; and like theatre-lovers everywhere, we can hardly wait for the moment when the artists who made them can once again burn brightly in reality, in the shared space where their work thrives best.

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