oh, and let me tell you that i love you
The last time the National Theatre of Scotland was on an Edinburgh International Festival stage they told, in 365, small, beautiful half-stories about teenagers, played by unknown actors – living in the forgotten corners of public life. That was in 2008. Then the world shifted.
At the time of going to press, the Scottish Government had just announced that Scotland’s national arts companies should prepare for cuts of at least 10% to their annual budget. As the debate about public spending has been cleverly reframed in terms of ‘necessary’ cuts, arts organisations across the UK are suddenly under pressure from forum-trolling Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wellses to defend their very right to exist. And yet it’s been an oddly toothless August in Edinburgh: even that trusty radical Stewart Lee seems more concerned with infighting in the ever-insular comedy community.
That’s about to change, though. Last year, whether by serendipity, deliberate intention to push the debate, or a bit of both, the NTS hired Britain’s foremost political satirist to pen their 2010 flagship production. Caledonia opens this week.
‘They got in touch and said “We’d like you to write a play for us”,’ says Alistair Beaton, founder member of Not the Nine O’Clock News and former Spitting Image writer, currently best known for the Channel 4 satires A Very Social Secretary and The Trial of Tony Blair. ‘I came away from that meeting expecting to write a contemporary play, about banking and Scottish nationalism.’
Caledonia, written by Beaton and directed by Anthony Neilson, both Scots now living in London, is both a play about banking and Scottish nationalism; just not in the way that any of the parties involved originally intended. A chance mention in a newspaper alerted Beaton to the story of Darien, Scotland’s fated attempt to form a new colony on Panama in 1698 and turn the country into an imperial power, an attempt that cost us half our national wealth and created the defeated, broken nation prepared to sign the 1707 Act of Union.
‘This was it, I thought,’ says Beaton ‘And it was clear it was going to be a political play. This event, which involved such courage and vision on the one hand, and hubristic arrogance on the other, which cost 2000 lives and brought about the end of Scotland as an independent nation: this was all happening at the beginning of the modern system of capitalism we still exist under today. I thought, if we can go back to the very beginning, perhaps we can work out what went wrong. Perhaps we can start to learn.’
In that way that those who do not remember the past are often condemned to repeat it, the Darien story struck Beaton so powerfully because of its contemporary resonances. Scotland was propelled to Panama by the vision and forceful charisma of one man, William Paterson, the Scot who had recently founded the Bank of England. Oh yes, a banker.
‘I didn’t necessarily set out to create an allegorical piece: I didn’t want to bin the essence of that story in order to force a modern metaphor,’ he says. ‘But the parallels just leap out at you. This sense of a country that thought it had been offered a road to riches. That kind of national euphoria, that hysteria that swept the country: it reminded me of the early years of this century, when the property market was booming and everyone seemed to think that we had discovered new, improved tools for making money. That there is some way to easy riches is the Eldorado that we all want to believe in.’
There are other parallels too. Caledonia centres around Paterson, played by Paul Higgins, best known as Jamie, Malcolm Tucker’s whirring rottweiler of an enforcer, from The Thick Of It. While Beaton is clear that his Paterson, created from painstaking research, is very much the historical figure, rumour has it that he had a particular contemporary character in mind while writing the play. Was this version of Paterson in any way based on Sir Fred Goodwin?
Beaton laughs. ‘Yeees. He was a bit, I have to say. The one thing everyone knows about Fred Goodwin is that he went off with a very fat pension. And, as thanks for his work bringing about the Act of Union, William Paterson was paid off heartily by the English Government. So, in the 17th century, the very rich screwed everyone else over and prospered themselves. And it’s just happened again.’
Theatre that’s ready to make these statements? To proclaim them, loudly from the huge platform of the Edinburgh International Festival? This, right here and now, Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells; in the current climate, this is why independent, publically-funded arts are necessary.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, 21–26 Aug, times vary, £12–£27.