Tough times, old friend. You are closed and silent in the capital while I am in lockdown in Atomic City, staring out at the Atlantic. It’s not meant to be like this. It’s as if there is a big space opening up, some kind of tectonic parting, the effects of which will not be apparent for some time to come. I am reminded of my dear co-conspirator and collaborator, Icelandic composer Askell Masson who, after rehearsals and a pint or two, delighted in telling anyone who would listen, “My little Iceland will become the biggest country in the world… eventually!”. Your doors will open again, old friend. Eagerly and hopefully the people will fill your seats, and hungrily devour the stage traffic that passes before their eyes. But right now that seems more dream than desire. As I think of you I can hear Tennessee Williams after his noon wine, laughing along Grindlay Street and whispering these lines from “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”,
“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”
The fire we have to deal with now is a deadly virus. What it burns is the way we have known everything to be. But you and I, we imagine another way to be. We owe it to ourselves and to the future generations who will come and see plays and marvel at the beauty of life that you, the Lyceum, enable.
The last time I saw you was in Summer, during the Festival. I was standing outside your glassy foyer in Grindlay Street with David Greig. We both looked up above the steel and the polish to your rather flaky white brickwork brow and noticed a small tree growing out of a drain, a thin dirty fissure in the paint running up from it like the map of a lost river. Leonard Cohen fans both, one of us - I can’t remember which - quipped “There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” We both then looked down at our feet, crossed the road, drank coffee and talked about a play we planned to put on your stage. Now, as I watch the seabirds returning daily from the deep ocean, I am still thinking about that play.
The first public reading of my very first staged play was in your now long demolished sister, the “Little Lyceum”, where The Traverse now stands. It had become, by the early 1980’s, a rather unlovely red brick barn, but to me it was a magical pleasure dome. That was where I learned about actors, the voice and movement. It was where I discovered theatre and my place in it. In that scruffy old annexe I pledged my loyalty. I grew nostalgic for the future.
To be nostalgic is not to be sentimental. As Einstein has shown us, time does bend as it passes through space. One night after a performance on your stage – I think it was the Catalan actor Núria Espert’s dynamic production of Lorca’s “Yerma” in 1986 – the late great architect and Geddesite, Ian Begg, gently explained to me the difference between what he did and I did: “I am an architect and I enclose space. You are a playwright and you fill space.” I will never forget that conversation. So as we stand in this Lockdown Spring - which for our trade will mean Lockdown Summer and no-doubt Lockdown Winter as well - your space sits silently enclosed by architecture until who knows when I, or any other playwright, can fill it?
On the cliffs and sandstone ledges of Dunnet Head, there are colonies of fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills and that Dario Fo of the seabird world, the puffin. As they breed, squawk, cawk and go about their incessant rituals of flight, feeding, bonding and nesting, it’s a good place to consider the malleability of space. The play I have written for you has the grey sweeping water of Loch More in it, the granite peaks of the Scarabens and Morven which join Caithness to Sutherland and the vast rolling peatbog of the Flow Country stretching out from their rock strewn glacial feet to the edges of Wester Ross and the Minch beyond. A lot of space. From this, the most Northerly perch on mainland Scotland, shaman-like, I try to transport this epic landscape onto your specific stage-floor. I imagine the characters speaking, moving and living in it. This liminal space of mountain, bog, headland and firth which constantly surrounds me I internalise somehow, to externalise it sometime in the future, within your walls so that it can, by the magic of theatre, enter into the head and heart of each member of the audience.
Time spent within your walls, for both performers and audience, is sacred and suspended time, brought in from the wilderness, from beyond the boundaries of the settled community. Your space, like my perch, is also a liminal space where everything can be challenged and changed, where we can succeed or fail and re-enter the world with a new sense of the value of freedom and with a fresh energy to create new ways to live our life.
When we meet up again we will have to make theatre in a different way. Throughout history theatre has responded to crises of many sorts. It cannot be resistant to this particular one. There are processes of decay and they are necessary but there are also processes of metamorphosis and adaptation which we will have to embrace. We are compelled to change, to move forward, yet we are unclear, ambivalent about it, troubled by it.
You, old friend, embody the poetry of stone and space: I have inherited and exercise the poetry of people in a landscape. We two are one. To live, we must adapt and change.