The Fringe has often been described as an annual invasion by London's performance scenes into Scotland, with the famous Shavers Weekly headline and The Onion's sardonic description of loud, middle-class English graduates occupying the city. Trainspotting – a book and film that expresses the difficulty of the relationship between the citizens and the visitors – also offers an enraged howl that explores a deeper anxiety.
'It's shite being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilization. Some hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers.'
Now there is a lot to unpack there, not least the tortured inferiority complex and male assumption of aggressive contempt, either debilitating self-loathing or violence. In Renton's rage, toxic masculinity seems inextricably bound up with Scotland's fatalistic victimhood narrative. Fortunately some major Scottish theatre at the Fringe has been working to change this narrative, moving towards a more optimistic vision of national identity at the cost of serious self-reflection.
Admittedly, these works come from white cis men – other perspectives are present in the Fringe but Scottish theatre does not have a solid track record for inclusivity. But White Scottish men have dominated the existing conversation, and it's telling that even they are willing to ask themselves some uncomfortable questions.
Gary McNair and Kieran Hurley's schoolyard drama, Square Go, (Paines Plough Roundabout) takes the playground as the cradle of this toxic chip on the collective shoulder. As 13 year olds, Max and Stevie, psyche themselves up in anticipation for a square go: much more than just a fight but a rite of passage. Their macho bravado fails to conceal their deep-rooted anxiety that they are in fact 'the lowest of the low' like Renton. Even the supposed 'baddie', the unseen school bully, is cut from the same cloth – the only difference being he's faked it till he made it to the top of the food chain. Though what separates Square Go from other tales of toxic masculinity (see Angry Alan or Daughter) is the fact that these boys break the cycle and, in doing so, stop being boys and start becoming men, men who will be the future of Scotland.
Though it falls short by never challenging our own involvement in Max and Stevie's ritualistic ridicule it takes the first of many steps in rejecting the inherited inferiority complex and paves the way for a proper conversation about what kind of country Scotland wants to be, a knotty conversation that First Snow/Première Neige doesn't shy away from.
First Snow/Première Neige / Sally Jubb
If Square Go rejects the current inherited identity, First Snow/Première Neige delves into how Scotland might redefine itself, distancing itself from an increasingly insular Brexit Britain and the standard well-made British (read: English) play, embracing distinctly European artistic and political ideals. The actual plot is quite unremarkable: Isabelle, the matriarch, has invited her family back to the family home where they discuss the future of their land, home, and family heirlooms – a fairly standard, pseudo-Chekhovian family drama that functions as a metaphor for the state of the nation. The form and style, on the other hand, rips up the British playwriting rulebook, criticises the production itself and turns the theatre into a space for genuine political debate about Scottish and Quebecois identity and independence.
Intercutting the 'proper plot' the actors argue and address the audience as themselves, bringing their own thoughts, experiences and personal histories to the mix to ask probing questions with uncomfortable answers that ensures theatre is anything but an echo chamber. It calls out the hypocrisy of a first world country, built on the back of slaves, trying to play the victim whilst also being a realistically hopeful rallying cry for the future.
It's a brilliant, bold statement of intent: the National Theatre of Scotland seems to have rejected the received wisdom that publicly funded art has a duty to be politically neutral, itself a fundamentally political belief that just reinforces the status quo. Square Go and First Snow/Première Neige are only two shows grappling with the complexities of Scottish identity (Cora Bisset's What Girls Are Made Of, Morna Young's Aye, Elvis and the Traverse's Youthquake series all promise further elaboration), but it's heartening to see such high-profile and 'establishment' work daring to ask genuinely difficult questions. Building alliances with international companies, and adapting Belgian or German theatre's dramaturgies to its own politics, Scottish theatre is forging a distinctive identity that is capable of addressing wider cultural concerns.
The fact that this is not merely a Fringe bubble is evident from the NTS's upcoming international collaborations with and for young people alongside the likes of CAMPO and Rimini Protokoll. These collaborations are arguably the most exciting thing in Scottish theatre at the moment, inspiring and sustaining an international outlook for a generation and forcing us to ask what kind of nation Scotland wants to be on the global stage. The work is just getting started . . .
National Theatre of Scotland, Théâtre PÀP and Hôtel-Motel
Isabelle summons her family back to their ancestral home in Québec. Despite their history, they come. Her right-wing brother Harry, daughter Mina, and Catherine, the rebellious baby of the family, who has her new Scottish boyfriend in tow. Then there's François…
By Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair. A Francesca Moody Production
Max is a normal-ish kid in a normal-ish town. He spends his days daydreaming and hanging out with his weird wee pal Stevie Nimmo. But when Max is called for his first Square Go, a fight by the school gates, it’s his own demons he must wrestle with first.