Theatre: ‘A space for society to dream itself’

Lorne Campbell, curator of The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, talks about the sorry state of political debate and how theatre can enrich it.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

Flitting from show to show at the Edinburgh Fringe, you’d be forgiven for forgetting you were in Scotland at all. Indeed, of the umpteen shows I’ve seen this year, I can count the number of Scottish performers on one hand. Perhaps it’s just a mark of the Fringe’s success. A festival with such an incredible reputation brings great artists from all corners of the globe in the spirit of intercontinental, international and, going on some of the more wacky acts, interplanetary cultural exchange – so it’s natural that Scottish acts can get lost in the throng.

Still, with Scotland only a year away from a referendum that could completely redefine its very political project, both on these isles and beyond, it seems odd so few Scottish voices are being brought to the fore.

‘I was here last year directing a show’, says Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell as we chatted over a cup of tea on the sunny veranda outside the St Stephen’s Centre. ‘It was very strange being at a venue in Edinburgh with no Scottish artists in it!’

This year, he set out to change that. Bringing together a bunch of artists from both Scotland and England at St Stephen’s, he is curator and master of ceremonies of The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, a late-night cabaret show mixing performance poetry and traditional song, aiming to enrich the debate around Scottish independence.

Working and living in Newcastle, but born and bred in Edinburgh, Campbell is, like many of us, perplexed by the current poses being thrown between Westminster and Holyrood, and insists the onus is on the populace to create a more productive dialogue: ‘If we are dissatisfied with the nature and the quality of the debate which is being offered to us, essentially between the Tories and the SNP, let’s make it better.’

While the content changes with each nightly performance, as contributing players come and go, one piece stuck with me from the night I came along. Young Scot Kieran Hurley, introducing himself as a pro-independence, launched into his piece – an imagined dialogue between himself and an offstage voice representing his English friends – sounding-off shallowly about the ‘genocidal’ British and the ‘dying days of capitalism’ like a north-of-the-border Owen Jones. At each turn, the consummate friend, off-stage, plays foil, provoking him with little-Englander jibes, until he stops, breaks the fourth-wall and chastises Kieran for creating this character purely so he can knock-in open goals.

A remarkable moment, deftly undercutting the sort of shallow posturing which Alex Salmond and David Cameron have made an artform on this issue. But beyond pointing out the sorrowful state of the conversation, what exactly can the arts bring to what is a complex political debate? ‘The theatre is a civic moment, it’s a space for a society to dream itself, to reflect upon itself, to tell itself its story, to refine its telling of its own story’, suggests Lorne. ‘In a moment like this, that becomes increasingly acute. The next year is going to change Scotland’s sense of itself, whatever happens.’

Indeed, the main event of the evening has a host of performers doing just that. Over the course of its 19-night run at the Fringe, Campbell and friends are constructing their own border ballad – in keeping with a folk-song tradition straddling both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. But rather than recounting the Anglo-Scottish battles of the past, this addition to the canon is set in an imagined future, telling the story of a baby set in a basket and floated, like Moses, down the river Tweed on the night Scottish independence is declared. Every night, an artist, actor or poet adds a new verse, advancing the story five years. As ‘the foundling’ grows up, along with the burgeoning new nation, many contributors paint a picture of a liberated Scotland transformed into an eco-friendly utopia, thriving on wind power and localist smugness.

Being the pro-production, pro-growth sort, averse to the growing left-wing obsession with such bucolic communalism, I scoffed. Still, the optimism and sense of possibility of the contributions was refreshing, especially as what has most been missing in the past year is any forward-thinking discussion about what kind of society we want to live in and whether our two nations share in any of the same vision.

After the fractious Thatcher years and the ongoing alienation of left-leaning Scots under Lib-Con coalition austerity, this seems increasingly unlikely. All the same, I was struck by the inclusive spirit of the evening, and as the audience were encouraged to sing the ballad’s refrain along with the performers and join them down the pub after, I was reminded of all that we still share – including, but not confined to – our musical tradition and love of a ruddy good knees-up.

Before rushing back to make preparations for the evening’s show, Lorne tells me he plans to stage one final performance of the finished Border Ballad back at the Northern Stage HQ in Newcastle, before looking to tackle the subject again next year at the Fringe in a more ambiguous form: ‘I want to be making something which is about independence in the same way that The Crucible was about McCarthyism. I think at this point next year, it will be time for metaphor.’

Whether the arts alone can kick-start a debate that has become so listless and opportunistic remains to be seen. But certainly, The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project does well to inject some nuance and optimism into the currently hollow conversation. Cameron and Salmond, take note.

Tom Slater is culture editor at spiked.

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