‘Dramatising Scotland’s Past’ at Scotland’s History Festival 2014

Actor and Gaelic singer Dolina Maclennan began this event at Scotland's History Festival 'Previously...' with a reading from her recently published book, ‘Dolina: An Island Girl’s Journey’. http://www.theislandsbooktrust.com/store/books/dolina-an-island-girls-journey/

Maclennan read a passage about her memories of touring the Highlands and Islands in 1973 with the huge theatrical success of that time ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’ , a play about the Highland clearances, and land rights. Dolina recalled the audience member who rose to her feet to deliver a Gaelic curse to the actor playing land agent Patrick Sellar; rolling up the gaffa tape on a pencil to use it again; travelling with pots and pans and taking £5 from the cast each Thursday to feed them for the week. She linked the tumultous reception the play received in its tour across Scotland to a surge of nationalism which sent 11 SNP MPs to Westminster a year later.
James McArdle and Gordon Kennedy. Photo: Manuel Harlan

History? James McArdle (James I) and Gordon Kennedy (Murdac Stewart). Photo: Manuel Harlan
Dramatising Scotland’s Past:  free event at Scotland’s History Festival, ‘Previously...’ Adam House on November 19, 2014.

Next the Stage’s Scotland correspondent Thom Dibdin who also runs the website All Edinburgh Theatre read from the work of an ancestor James C Dibdin. James Dibdin wrote “The Annals of the Edinburgh Stage (with an account of the Rise and Progress of Dramatic Writing in Scotland) ” – published in 1888. The audience heard an account of  the Culloden Riot of April 17, 1749, at the Taylor’s Hall in the Cowgate, from Dibdin’s novel “The Cleekim Inn (a novel of the ’45)”. The account featured a bust-up in the theatre after the orchestra struck up a Jacobite air in place of the national anthem.

 The account also refers to the stratagems that had to be utilised in the 18th century to get around licensing restrictions which at that time forbade all productions by professional actors except for those by licensed London theatres companies. Dibdin also discussed another riot involving servants who were allowed at one time to watch theatre productions for free.

The Scotsman’s theatre critic Joyce McMillan then talked about what a rich resource the theatre is for building and deepening an understanding of Scottish history. Most of the plays she had reviewed recently she said drew on Scottish history; in fact it was harder to find plays with no historical dimension than those with one particularly if you include those which have important historical events as a backdrop to a fictional story, such as Sunset Song, or Bondagers,

McMillan mentioned that recent theatrical productions have successfully highlighted the experience of Scotland’s Italian community and Scotland’s travelling community. She referred to many other plays including: Union, Black Watch, Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, the James Plays, Tally’s Blood, Yellow on the Broom, Mrs Barbour’s daughters, Hardie and Baird, Thomas Muir,  Men Should Weep, Black Watch, Flooers o Edinburgh, Jamie the Saxt, Hard Man, the Slab Boys, In Time o Strife, and the Three Estates.

She ended by saying that all drama is contemporary drama, and that the reason the Three Estates is a great play is because David Lindsay was dealing with issues of his time, he was listening to what was around and reflecting on it.

Professor Greg Walker of Edinburgh University, an expert in 16th century drama then spoke about The Three Estates and a staging that was done of the entire text last year, although five hours long, he said it was gripping and engaging. Walker described the Three Estates as a great play which Scots seemed to rediscover and then forget about in each generation. If the play was an English play, he considered, it would be better studied and recognised. He felt that the play stands out as remarkable in its time for the voice of the poor man, who seems to ask the radical question: “Why am I poor”, and engages in cultured and informed debate about the history that lay behind the issues of that day, referring back to the reign of David 1. Walker said that in Shakespeare  when a poor man comes on stage the audience knows that before long they will have to laugh at him, but this was not the case in Lindsay’s work.

Simon Sharkey then recalled his own part in the Three Estates when it travelled to Poland in the 1980s.

He moved on to discuss NTS productions with a historical background, mentioning ‘Mary Queen of Scots Had Her Head Chopped Off’. He also spoke about a production of Macbeth in Elgin Cathedral by the NTS which involved members of the community and interspersed the Shakespeare text with references to the real historical story. He had been surprised by the knowledge of local people of the history which lies behind the Macbeth story and how it differs from the play. In the production, they added in references to the real life story, which included the fact that Lady Macbeth’s real life counterpart did not in fact die.

The character of the real life Lady Macbeth was partly the inspiration for the David Greig play ‘Dunsinane’ which he also mentioned.

There followed a lively discussion. Jackie Kemp (event organiser and the writer of this report) asked if there was room for historical accuracy or intellectual rigour in history plays. Prof Walker said there was not, because “the trouble with history is it’s just one thing after another” and that to create meaning and narrative from history required storytelling.

Audience members made interesting contributions to the discussion; one saying that she preferred plays which engaged the emotions and made a connection with people in the past such as Mrs Barbour’s daughters;

Another said that passion was the important things; one said however that Scottish theatre had not ‘moved much beyond agit prop.’

Responding to this, Joyce McMillan said that was not a true reflection of the work she had seen and gave the examples of  ‘Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off’, and ‘Dunsinane’. Simon Sharkey spoke about ‘Black Watch’ about Scottish soldiers engagement in the Iraq war and a scene in which the actors mime the soldiers receiving their letters from home.

Dolina Maclennan spoke about a play she had been in, based on a real life story of the life of John Murray, in which she played a mother forced to choose which of her two sons the recruiting agents could take. Each night on stage she cried as she selected the younger son, so that she could keep the land they lived on. In real life the family was reunited when the younger son met his nephew in Canada many years later.

 Jackie Kemp asked if Scots understanding of their nation’s past was at times sentimental and partial. An audience member said that it was not sentimental but passionate and that Scotland had been in danger of losing its own culture and theatre until a revival of interest in the 20th century.

Thom Dibdin said that the theatre in Scotland had been dominated by companies coming up from London with bowdlerised Shakespeare. He said that although there had been a revival of interest it has not yet gone far enough. He called for a greater ambition in Scottish theatre to put on productions that reached the same level of popularity as the current tour of the musical Wicked.

Ian Harrower of the History Festival asked if Scots theatre was doing enough to engage ordinary people.

Simon Sharkey said that the NTS was constantly engaged in trying to encourage more people to come to the theatre, through touring, site specific theatre and community theatre. But he conceded that the audience for many of the NTS productions was not dissimilar to other theatre audiences.

Dolina Maclennan recalled a play she was in about the Jesuit martyr John Ogilvy. The play although it had been written before, came out around the time that John Ogilvy was canonised in 1976. There were Catholic nuns in the audience and Pastor Jack Glass was picketing outside. The tour was all planned and the cast heard that the funding was not going to be available. Dolina and three others went to the Arts Council office and sat outside refusing to move until they had their funding. “We had it by lunchtime”.

The event wound up at 9pm, after a 90 minute wide-ranging discussion of some of the key productions of Scottish theatre across the last century and beyond.