For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a ghost light is lit by the last person to leave a theatre and extinguished by the first to arrive there the following day. In this new work from the National Theatre of Scotland, the ghost light becomes a poignant metaphor for theatre, live performance and the arts while theatres remain closed.
Knitted together from extracts of previous NTS productions and other originally scheduled for the future, Ghost Light is a brilliant showreel from the self-titled theatre without walls. In some ways, it’s a strange irony that this self-same company is now weaving their wonderful magic in and around the corridors and cavernous spaces of Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre (though where else would they celebrate Edinburgh’s International Festival?)
The brief for My Light Shines On was simple: to create work that sees artists returning to performance venues across the country and celebrating the enduring, inspiring spirit of the arts. Yet, Ghost Light is much more than an NTS showreel. Hope Dickson Leach has made something truly special by telling stories in the nooks and crannies that make up the fabric of the Festival Theatre – a side of the theatre few get to see. The breathtakingly beautiful opening has a fierce, ethereal figure flitting across the stage in the gloaming, in pursuit of a fairy. The chase takes David Greig’s Peter Pan (Afton Moran) backstage, where we encounter a series of characters from past and future productions in the changing rooms, wings and corridors of the theatre. In and among them, we see stage hands, set builders, costume designers, lighting technicians and the backstage conductor of the metaphorical orchestra: the stage manager, as a reminder that this is a truly collective endeavour.
The NTS indulge us with extracts from some of their most memorable past productions, including Rona Munro’s James Plays, Jenni Fagan’s Panopticon and John McGrath’s classic The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil (to name only a few). We also see new work from May Sumbwanyambe, Ellie Stewart and Vlad Butucea, which hopefully serve as a promise of theatre still to come.
Siobhan Redmond, in a dress by Robert Innes-Hopkins that’s somehow classic and perfectly contemporary, delivers a memorising performance of Jackie Kay’s homage to the “this hallowed space”. Here, Kay takes on the question of the theatre’s contribution to life. What are we missing while theatres are dark? We’re missing our chance to shape the future according to what we can learn from the past. And yet, right now, we’re in a holding pattern: “I never thought I could see so far back when I can’t see far forward.” As the whole industry holds its breath to see what will happen next, Redmond’s pause is beautifully eloquent.
The only extract that jars slightly in the piece is the contribution from the Kirktoon Players, billed as Scotland’s leading amateur theatrical group. Included presumably for comic effect – and perhaps as a (blatant) statement about diversity and inclusion – it feels more like a series of in-jokes than a celebration of Scotland’s world-class artistry.
As Ghost Light demonstrates, theatre is a whole lot more than the people who strut and fret under the spotlights, and so make sure to stay for the credits. Beyond the glorious imagination of Hope Dickson Leach, particular credit is due to Kate Reid, Director of Photography, and lighting gaffer Arthur Donnelly for their artful rendering of the ghostly light, and Patricia Panther for the gloriously atmospheric and optimistic musical score.
This is a magnificent celebration of the power of stories and the unique opportunity theatre has to tell them. So, for now, theatre lovers and theatre makers everywhere wait with baited breath. “I believe in you, Tink, can you hear me?”