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The Scottish Plays: A Deep Dive into Scotland’s Theatrical History

Theatre, in its myriad forms, has been around for millennia. Sanskrit dramas, Ancient Greek comedies, and Shakespearean tragedies have entertained audiences throughout much of human history. It’s a wonderful way to encapsulate a period of time, as well as the culture of the place in which it was written. Scotland has been the backdrop of a wealth of fantastic theatre productions, many of which capture our country’s grit and dry humour like nothing else.

One of the oldest—and potentially most famous—plays about Scotland is Shakespeare’s Macbeth. So strong is its association to our country, it is often referred to as ‘the Scottish play’, since, according to superstition, to utter ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre would be bad luck. Proceed with caution in the Byre then.

First performed in the early 17th century, Macbeth is a fictionalised tragedy about a Scottish general, Macbeth, his journey into power as king and subsequent fall from glory. The locations of Inverness and Dunsinane (the latter of which is 40 kilometres from St Andrews!) mentioned in Macbeth set the scene for an interesting depiction of medieval Scotland. Macbeth has spurred countless subsequent productions and satirical renditions in the four centuries since; while my first introduction to the Scottish play was as a wean watching The Simpsons, it has also been consistently performed in theatres worldwide, serving to introduce audiences globally to Scotland via Shakespeare’s writing.

Jumping forward in time, another incredible (though less renowned) Scottish play is Ena Stewart Lamont’s Men Should Weep. My fellow Scottish readers who studied this for Higher English will know the craic. Written in 1947, Men Should Weep is a bleak depiction of a family’s life in the Glaswegian slums during the 1930s – certainly worlds apart from Macbeth’s 11th-century regal life.

The central theme of Men Should Weep is poverty, and the play interweaves many different facets of living on the breadline; the family’s son has tuberculosis due to the damp in the crowded flat, and the lack of clothing and belongings in the family household leads to conflict, with the father blaming the “dirty rotten buggers in Parliament” for their living conditions. The audience’s heart breaks for the family as they become further entrenched in the deep cycle of poverty, an experience prevalent in Scotland, particularly in the 1930s. For a real, gritty depiction of working-class life, Men Should Weep is an incredible play to see.

One of the most beloved Scottish TV sitcoms of this century is Still Game, again set in Glasgow, which follows the lives of Jack and Victor, two pensioners living in a highrise flat. What some may not know, however, is that Still Game began its life as a stage play in 1999 with an identical premise to the eventual TV series. The play enjoyed success as it toured Scotland, England, Ireland and Canada, being commended by reviewers for its realistic depiction of life in Glasgow as well as its biting ‘old fella’ humour which was a hit with audiences. If this sounds up your alley, I’d highly recommend checking out the TV series on Netflix to have a look at how successfully the stage play was adapted for television.

Thinking more locally, the theatre scene in St Andrews is brimming with activity, driven by the existence of spaces such as the Byre Theatre. Founded in 1933, the Byre has been part of the University since 2014 and (in normal years) hosts over 800 events, from film viewings and slam poetry nights to dance and opera. With performances still being held almost daily at the moment, it’s highly worth a visit to enjoy all the culture St Andrews has to offer.

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