Traverse at 60

As Traverse Theatre celebrates six decades, Isobel McArthur, Kieran Hurley and Nat McCleary – playwrights that all exemplify the best of Scotland's new writing – speak to Fest about their new works

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 6 minutes
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Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic
Published 28 Jul 2023

Sixty years after it opened in old tenement room premises on the Lawnmarket as a club-based means of getting around official censorship of theatrical material, the Traverse Theatre has built a powerful reputation as Scotland and the Edinburgh Festival’s most celebrated new writing venue.

This year’s anniversary programme features a bumper crop of new works, including plays by some of Scotland’s leading playwrights. Here, three of those writers introduce their new work: Isobel McArthur, fresh from Olivier Award-winning success with Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of); Kieran Hurley, whose last Traverse play Mouthpiece tore into classism in the theatre industry and toured internationally; and Nat McCleary, a dancer and choreographer whose new play is a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland.

Isobel McArthur on The Grand Old Opera House Hotel

“The success of Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort of) opened doors I'd been chapping on for years. The Monday after the Sunday when you win an Olivier, you get messages going, ‘oh, I've just found all these emails from you and your agent…!’ In real world terms, it simply leads to another gig. We’re all trying to pay our bills, and success means just continuing to work in this industry.

The Grand Old Opera House Hotel is a magic realist farce with opera music, set in a budget hotel. A European hotel chain has bought a beautiful, crumbling old Victorian building, ripped its guts out and established a branch there. We see the first day of a room attendant called Aaron, who is 35 and doesn’t know his purpose. He's been sacked from almost every job he's ever worked, and he needs his first shift to go smoothly. But from the moment he arrives, strange things happen.

“It's about music and love, and the exploitation of minimum wage workers. It's also about the eerie loneliness of these buildings, and the life force that works to counteract that, given they're full of people, but separated from one another. In particular, it’s about the staggering resourcefulness of the human heart and how it finds love, hope, beauty and the things it needs in places and circumstances which seem devoid of those things, these contemporary spaces we seem to be trying to cover up with MDF and concrete, along with the notion any human being has ever been there before.”

The Grand Old Opera House rehearsal, photo by Lauren Scott

Kieran Hurley on Adults 

Mouthpiece opened in this wee Traverse 2 slot in December 2018, then picked up a transfer to Soho Theatre and was touring internationally until Covid. That play was me working through my own class confusion, it made me think more precisely about some of these issues and conclude it's absolutely necessary for writers to write beyond their own experience. The only issue – and this is what happens in the play – is when that becomes an abuse of power. The most important thing a writer can do when they write beyond their own experience is commit to it with empathy, compassion and dedication in research.

Adults is set in a flat used as a brothel, two of the characters are sex workers and one is a schoolteacher. He’s always tried to be society’s version of a good guy, being an inspiring teacher and sending the students off to make the world a better place. None of this has rewarded him in the way he believes the world promised, he's not happy in his work or his marriage, he's jaded and disappointed in younger people, and there's a part of himself he’s never quite explored, so he does something out of character.

“He’s welcomed into this space by a former student. He was her favourite teacher, he inspired her to go to university and she's got a bone to pick with him. She graduated with a degree in English Literature into a collapsing global economy and realised it’s not worth fuck all, that she has to scrape and hustle just to get by, which has led her into sex work. The play’s a meditation on some of those themes; on antipathy between the generations, on who is to blame for the state the world is in, on work. It’s about alienation, loneliness and – in spite of our desire to antagonise and blame each other – our ultimate need for one another.”

ADULTS rehearsal, photo by Serden Salih

Nat McCleary on Thrown

“I stumbled into the arts. I started out playing football and doing athletics, I loved team sports and competing, but got into dance when I decided to try something new. I did an evening class, and what I lacked in ability I certainly made up for in enthusiasm and commitment, eventually training as a professional. A theatre director offered me a wee acting part in a scratch night and I fell in love with that too, I'm interested in saying yes to anything that’s out of my comfort zone. Then I started writing over lockdown

“An amazing backhold wrestler called Heather Nielson told me about her family’s passion for the sport and how she's been a competitor since she was four years old. Backhold wrestling is an ancient martial art, its main function was to prepare Scottish soldiers for battle, to get their blood up before running down the hillside. The NTS generously offered me a few days in a room with actors and a director, and we discovered there was something to be explored in the metaphor of backhold wrestling and national and personal identity.

Thrown involves five women who decide to embark on a journey into backhold wrestling, touring Scottish Highland Games competing as a team. Fundamentally it’s about the question of how we form a team when there's real diversity, is it possible to be unified when we’re all so different? To me that spoke so clearly to where we are in Scotland at the moment. I feel like Scotland’s identity is in flux and that we have to recognise the way we present Scotland to satiate global appetites for Scottishness, with that very Celtic look, is not representative of our racial landscape.”