Exile is at the heart of Heritage, Nicola McCartney’s tragedy set in 1920s Canada, in which Ulster emigres in search of some bright new tomorrow discover that the past isn’t easily left behind. Coming from Northern Ireland, McCartney’s roots as a writer were steeped in such themes when her play premièred at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh in 1998.
In an interview during the run-up to the play’s opening, the then twenty-something writer described herself as a ‘voluntary exile’, who had left Belfast to study English and Theatre Studies at Glasgow University. Heritage was the play McCartney said she said she’d never write, yet the love across the barricades story in Heritage proved irresistible, as the hand-me-down mythologies depicted in the play are romanticised to the characters’ terminally destructive downfall.
Written in a spare poetic demotic that was a key form for many of McCartney’s generation of writers, Heritage arrived in the thick of what now looks like a golden age for new playwriting. Peers such as David Greig, David Harrower and Stephen Greenhorn had already been championed by the Traverse under the new writing powerhouse’s then artistic director, Philip Howard. It was the time, as well, of so-called in-yer-face theatre, with the likes of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill sending shockwaves throughout London’s theatre-land.
While writers in Scotland appeared more lyrical, their questions about identity, belonging and nationhood were the same. With the UK in the first flush of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, devolution in Scotland still a year away and the end of the twentieth century looming, along with what some suggested was the end of history itself, the world was in a serious state of flux. Old political certainties had seemingly gone, and it was time to dig the new breed.
Heritage may have been McCartney’s main-stage debut as a playwright, but she was far from an ingénue. She trained as a director in Northern Ireland with the Charabanc company, and directed the first commercial tour of Harry Gibson’s staging of Irvine Welsh’s era-defining novel, Trainspotting. McCartney had also co-founded and was artistic director of lookOUT, with whom she had written and directed six plays prior to Heritage.
Twenty-one years on after it first appeared, Heritage is regarded as a modern classic, while McCartney has gone on to work extensively as a writer, dramaturge and academic. Her most recent play, Crazy Jane, was produced by Birds of Paradise in 2015, and she is under commission from several major theatres.
McCartney is currently Reader in Writing for Performance at the University of Edinburgh, where she leads the Masters programme in Playwriting. She has also become one of the driving forces behind Class Act, the Traverse’s flagship outreach programme, with a particular emphasis on working in Russia and Ukraine.
Here and elsewhere closer to home, arguments about identity, migration and nationhood are at a premium, with everyday suspicions of otherness ramped up by a mixture of misinformation and territorial tribalism that lingers like a festering sore. It is in the shadow of such a seismic social and political landscape that this overdue revival of Heritage suggests the play itself has come out of exile even as it has come of age.
Neil Cooper is a writer and critic on theatre, music and art, and is currently theatre critic of The Herald.