A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 26th – Dec 29th
Hello there from the 2018 panto at the Oran Mor, Merry Christmas! Is there anything better than seeing a panto? Loudly planted on a tiny stage, the set looked very cute with lively colours and characters. This year’s show was sold out and the bustle of the crowd was loud as they took their seats and enjoyed their food. Four of those familiar panto characters were to take to the stage including the traditional man in a woman’s costume, Dame Beanie Bumpherton (Dave Anderson, Empress Evil-yin, the baddie (Maureen Carr), Handsome Jack, the hero (John Kielty) and Ravishing Rosie, the female heart throb (Hannah Howie) all of whom were up for making a huge joke of themselves, the plot and anything else that came to mind.
All the classics elements of panto were covered – “oh yes they were!” – with the cast enjoining us “Boys and Girls” to greater and greater efforts as, egged on by them, we cheered, booed and hissed our way through the performance. Whenever they burst into song, which was whenever they felt like it, served to further raise the room into something resembling a frenzy. The plot really came alive when Handsome Jack introduced the Empress and she tyrannically declared that singing would no longer be allowed and that there would be a prison sentence for anyone caught singing. As music and singing are basically the heart of panto, her subjects were not happy to say the least.
With the plot fondly set in Glasgow, author Morag Fullerton had managed to cram in plenty of local name drops and hilarious topical references, all in best panto tradition, with all of the cast taking the p*ss from a great height. In particular, I have to mention Dave Anderson as the Dame, who perfectly balanced his place in the plot with a sort of ongoing stand-up act which was performed as if he didn’t know he was a man dressed as a woman. The sharpness of wit – and rudeness of language – had a genuine appeal to the adult audience, which was something we could have expected from the sardonic title “The lying bitch and the wardrobe” – makes you smile, right?
The title was finally explained when it came to light that Empress Evil-yin had a dark secret hidden in there – a nemesis in the shape of the one song that would tear her powers asunder. The story unfolded and the plot thickened, with the people of the town afraid to sing a note for fear of what the wicked Empress might do to them. A few timely costume changes later, Handsome Jack and Ravishing Rosie finally broke into Evil-lyn’s house and discovered the one song hidden in the wardrobe, whereupon her power was destroyed and she was defeated, hooray!
In the end all was forgiven with the Empress even joined in the singing as the audience bade farewell to each character in turn. This turned into a big chaotic singalong that we repeated umpteen times till we got it just right. Then they left us with a big cheerio and a big cheer and applause from an audience full of smiling happy faces.
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 19th – Nov 24th
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The set caught our attention immediately, with two well-turned beds with tartan drapes hanging above each. There was a Christmas twist to the show, as the two protagonists stood singing a comedic song wearing red leotards and black frilly skirts. Sandy (Julie Coombe) and Rose (Libby McArthur), otherwise known as the Heatherbelles, were twins who worked as entertainers on cruise ships, singing and dancing their way around the globe, though for once about to spend Christmas on dry land.
Singing ‘Donald where’s your troosers’, a famous – and rather righteous – song in the eyes of Scottish culture, the two proudly proclaimed their right to be Scottish. In fact their verve for Scotland put other places down for not being Scottish and hinted at what really made a Scot. This worked later as a cornerstone of the play when information provided from DNA tests reveals that the two are in fact far from being from the singular culture of Scotland. For the moment, their Scottishness was emphasised by their strong, full-on Glaswegian accents, delivering the messages with gusto and pride. Having set the scene, they pulled the focus around and began to reminisce with each other as they put their dressing gowns on.
With a touch of panto, the girls plucked random items from their suitcase – old clothes, a packet of jaffa cakes – using them as props as they really got to grips with their introspections on life, great or small. Sometimes risque, sometimes moving and sometimes just plain funny, the dialogue developed with ever growing certainty, camaraderie and intimacy, touching the audience who were busy laughing at the plethora of jokes, intertwined with many touching moments. Songs such as Paul McCartney’s ‘Mull of Kintyre’ and ‘We are sailing’ by Rod Stewart illustrated the story, portraying pain, celebration and, crucially, to entertain. In the midst of this quick fire, wide ranging patter, they would repeatedly mention KD Lang whose fight for acceptance as a lesbian became a metaphor for other causes fighting for acceptance in the mainstream.
As to the question of nationality, a realisation started to dawn that the platform of being Scottish relied upon the idea of having always lived in the place and may not have been as vivid as they had at first thought. Being on a boat at sea may have had something to do with this growing uncertainty and the story takes a twist where we are asked to join in and question ourselves in a special, at times painful way, all portrayed in a very light hearted manner. Rose repeatedly stated that their unknown father could in fact possibly be Prince Philip himself. It was rather sad to see her reason like that, but it was also a great joke.
There was a shout from the character Gordon (Mark McDonnell) who only graced the stage for a moment, acting as an anchor and a balance from the point of view of being outlandishly loud, ever complaining about his backside at sea. The tragically theatrical side of the play was confirmed with a recorded message about their mother that kept getting cut off. But we found out from Rose that they had in fact been let go from the cruise because she punched someone who was standing in her way, a fact that she was rather proud of.
In the end, Rose smartened herself up, coming clean that she didn’t really think that Prince Phillip could be her father, that she in was in fact a self-reflecting person, rather than a delusional one. And then, when the final devastating news comes through (I’m not going to spoil it for you by giving it away), the whole play culminates in the realisation at the heart of their story that sometimes the truth is too sore,
I found Lynn Ferguson’s play a wonderful, endearing examination of human strength in the face of potential heartache. There were insights into how to deal with sadness, portrayed through the tender care shared between two loving sisters. Plenty of twists and turns and a message that would break the heart of any onlooker, all masterly done in a cheerful, positive and sympathetic way.
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 12th – Nov 17th
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
A projection of the book ‘Oscar Slater – the trial that shamed a city’ served both as a surreal backdrop and an introduction to Stuart Hepburn’s production, telling the story of a shameful episode in the City’s history which saw Oscar Slater, a German Jew, found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. The story unfolds, narrated by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, played by the familiar actor Ron Donachie, and it becomes clear that Conan Doyle himself took a great interest in the case and had been instrumental in uncovering the injustice done to Slater, played by Kevin Lennon.
The dialogue sets out for us the grim facts of the case; how 83 year old Marion Gilchrist (played by Ashley Smith) was brutally murdered for a diamond brooch on 21 December 1908. The crime spelled disaster for Oscar who was quickly identified as the likely culprit on the flimsiest of evidence. The drama was intense and moving, but not without its moments of humour, as it portrayed the turmoil of the trial and Oscar’s death sentence, later commuted to hard labour. We were brought close to tears as the dead woman took to the stage and gave her testimony from the grave, she being the closest witness.
But Sir Arthur, our narrator, used his Sherlock-Holmes-like powers of deduction to show that the evidence of the detectives in the case did not stand up to scrutiny, and that the conviction was more to do with prejudice against the foreigner than any real evidence. As he listened to the conflicting accounts of detectives and so-called witnesses, he would feign tiredness, with sad music playing in the background, and echoing the feelings of Oscar, locked away in prison for all of 20 years with his hopes sometimes being raised only to be cruelly dashed again by yet another seemingly outlandish official obstacle.
This production leaves you with a feeling of abhorrence and shame. The moments of silence only heightening the sense of shame, taking us to a place where for one to be ashamed is for all to be ashamed. We have to ask ourselves who is ultimately responsible when it comes to questions of guilt and innocent. Who will accept responsibilities far beyond the call of duty in order for the truth to win through in the end.
Big ideas, big questions, sharp and careful reasoning, all on show at the Oran Mor. A play that faced you with something that really mattered and didn’t allow you to turn away.
Until Saturday 10th November
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Viewing this play was a first on two fronts – the first time I had seen a live radio play and the first time I had seen a piece of work addressing Indian Partition. I was wary that I may be in for a lecture and with the stage left to the bare bones set of microphones and a table with sound effects equipment there would be no-where to hide from it’s preachy tones. Yet I need not have feared for ‘Partition’ addressed complex issues with a light touch. As a play it emphasised the humour of its situation whilst not shying away from the historical horrors behind it.
The play started with a collage of crackly recorded voices from the past as politicians, activists and royalty spoke of the fateful date when the Indian subcontinent was split in two and divided into India and Pakistan. Underneath the mix was the ghostly echo of a news bulletin unfurling the events. Then we were upended by a crying woman calling out to someone – her boyfriend, husband, father. It was all far from clear. The play started out in this rather jumpy way which felt initially quite jarring. I struggled to tell who the characters were or how they related to each other. This wasn’t helped by the novelty – to myself at least – of having different characters in the same costume playing multiple characters in quick succession, and with no stage props or scene changes to help guide me. Soon however the play seemed to settle into itself and I became accustomed to the nature of the radio play set up.
In fact the nature of how the play was staged often emphasised the skills of the actors involved. The actors were able to convey their different characters through acts as simple as taking off a hat or adjusting a scarf and at times seemed to physically embody their differing roles beautifully. All the actors were worthy of praise in this regard but special credit should go to Sushil Chudasama whose performances of both the energetic and playful Rajpal and his reserved Grandfather, Ranjit contrasted beautifully.
At first I was initially put off slightly by the central couple who I found a bit too ordinary to be compelling. The supporting cast of characters seemed bolder and more intriguing and yet I gradually I began to see that the strength of the play was in its every day setting and its gentle humour which rooted it in a provincial Northern landscape which felt both familiar and safe. The cosiness of this setting lent both tension and power to the moments when darker undercurrents were revealed.
The use of sound throughout the play was superb and added a great deal to the piece helping the audience to evoke changes not only in space and time but also in mood. With clever use of sound effects and music we were one minute in the cavernous magnificence of the town hall, the next in a bustling cafe. I found the judicious use of silence also highly effective lending power to moments of already heightened emotion such as the monologues.
Once we learnt of the struggles of the two lovers to bring together their families for their special day the play began to explore the darker undercurrents of the subject and the reasons for these divisions. These moments in which we found out the real life brutalities partition was responsible for were handled with a marked subtlety. In lesser hands these shocking and emotional truths – they are based on real life testimonials – could have jarred badly with the overall tone of the play but here they almost snuck up upon the audience making them all the more moving. We learn not only how events of real life horror can change individuals beyond recognition but how the fear and anger associated with them can be passed down the generations and have repercussions decades later and thousands of miles away from their ground zero.
I found Partition to be both an enjoyable drama full of lively characters and also a very effective tool for the historical and cultural lessons it clearly wished to teach. It’s light touch and affection for the people and places it evoked was its real strength and in this way made the darkness underneath seem all the more potent than any number of more bleak and worthy works could have been.
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Nov 5th – Nov 10th
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
As we walked to the downstairs venue at Glasgow’s Oran Mor, the room opened on a stage where written in large red letters was the word LIVE. The guitars and podium were standing by and the room had that very special atmosphere that promised that the hour would indeed be ‘Live’. As a title, ‘We interrupt this programme’ worked in so many ways, as the play swiftly moved from scene to scene. It seemed The DM (Danger Mouse) Collective couldn’t help but make jokes and use sarcasm to deliver their dangerous message.
No topic was off limits; racism, politics, alcoholism: all were thrown at the wall to see what would stick. The interplay between the actors, such as a dialogue ridiculing skin tone segregation, enhanced and sharpening the issues, seeking to make some sense of the seemingly overwhelming concerns that these days stretch over the globe. Not to mention the way we are manipulated by live TV and the media. Everything was challenged with close scrutiny, without fear.
They used many characters to show us that it is only when each voice is heard that meaningful progress can happen. Props and costumes; music and songs were all used with great purpose to build up the pictures and tell the stories. Strong writing, grabbing us by the proverbials with punchy, lively action that confronted us with something that bordered on liberation for the masses…
The scenes worked so well that we forgot that the stage had only one set. And the sense of purpose grew stronger and more focused as the jokes flew by. It was as if they were employing every theatrical device known to man in order to make their point – the only thing missing was a trapeze act or a gorilla suit. Just the use of simple things like the wearing of a certain hat or a bathrobe or a business suit, helped to empty our minds of things that might just be irrelevant, of no real use, and offer instead the bright opinion that our minds matter, despite the ubiquitous machinations of the multimedia.
As I write this review, I am not only writing about the play as a piece of drama, but as a response to the challenges it set me. The company has created a piece of work which encourages the audience to look and really see what’s in front of them, to dig deep for understanding and truth. This drama mastered everything in its path in a way that made us view their subjects both in pieces and as a whole. Power to the people
New company Ja?Theatre are bringing /SYLVIA\ to this year’s border-busting Voila European Theatre Festival for the first time. Witness a historical portrait painting session in 1920s Berlin Etcetera Theatre, Camden; 13/16/18 Nov. We spoke to Dutch director Anne Mulleners……
Hello Anne, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Anne: Hello Mumble. I’m originally from the Netherlands, a town called Nijmegen, which is near the German border on the east side, & now I’m living in Lewisham, South London.
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
Anne: To be honest I mainly developed a love for the theatre when I moved to England to study a degree in English Literature at the University of Greenwich. In my first year I began to see quite a few theatre pieces through my course, & as a result of seeing these I switched my course in the second year to Drama & English. From that moment it has just developed more & more.
Can you tell us about your training?
Anne: After I graduated I went on to do a masters in Theatre Criticism & Dramaturgy at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama. From there I’ve been mainly freelancing in assisting & stage management work – to do as much practical work as possible.
Can you tell us about Ja? Theatre?
Anne: Well, we all did the same MA at Central. I found the play – Sylvia – when I was in Paris with our course. I grew interested in putting it on, or at least translating or adapting it. I spoke to Melissa Syverson about this & we began to develop it. At some point we thought why don’t we create a company to put it on as we were both interested in making work & then, after this current configuration of roles, we would like to continue making work which perhaps someone else would direct.
The company seems to have a specific theatrical MO- which is described as ‘overcoming the ever-present dichotomy between British New Writing and ‘European’ Regie theater.’ What is the backstory?
Anne: During our MA we read an article in the Guardian by David Hare which highlighted a Germanic form of theatre in which the director leads a protest & has more powers than maybe the writer. David Hare describes how he finds that this kind of theatre is infesting Britain. We had a discussion about this article & how it was received, & because Melissa is from Norway, & we have both have worked in Europe, & since the article we became struck with both the differences & the similarities, but definitely by the fact that people tend to always separate these things. We became intrigued by making theatre here in Britain that would bridge the gap, utilising & engaging with both traditions.
Do you socialise with the ladies outwith your professional relationship?
Anne: We meet up all the time – & we do try sometimes to do other things & not talk about the company, which proves difficult!
Find out More about Ja? Theatre
You are directing for the company for the first time with /SYLVIA\ /a woman becomes a painting\, at this year’s VOILA festival, can you tell us about the play?
Anne: Its basically a play in which you see the main character being painted in 1920s Berlin. She is a real person, Sylvia Von Harden. You see this painting session & while she narrates her life, she more & more becomes this portrait. It engages with themes of gender, about LGBTQ representation, & its mainly about how we see people – how people can at first be a subject & then become an object.
That is indeed an obscure corner of history – what drew the company to it?
Anne: When I saw the play, I found it a very nice text, on the page its black & red, its a bilingual piece, I never mentioned that, its very niche. The main draw to it was the way the language went from French to German & then German to French – & the colouring was altered with the switch & I thought it a really interesting way of dealing with print. Then it also turned out to be a monologue, & then to be about this fascinating woman in 1920s Berlin, so it all just kept adding & becoming more & more interesting.
How is directing Sylvia coming to you – is it natural or a struggle?
Anne: I would say I’ve obviously had some training & had some ideas to go off – but I did find the first few rehearsals to be really difficult having not done it as much, especially practically. But the more & more I’ve been doing it in rehearsals, & seen what works & what doesn’t, & also with the person in the room & how that goes, I’ve come to understand it & to also enjoy it, which is the main part. Yes, its definitely a struggle, but something that definitely pays off the more I do it.
Thank you Anne, one more question. Have you prepared Sylvia especially for the pan-European Voila Festival?
Anne: No. We were already developing it last year & we even went to the Voila Festival last year & we were like, this is a really great festival, we should apply to this. So we applied this year & were happily accepted. In that sense it wasn’t specifically developed for Voila, but its definitely a really good match. We are interested in the European theatre aspect of our work, & it fits really well with their overall program.
The Etcetera Theatre, Camden
A Play, a Pie and a Pint
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Oct 29th – Nov 3rd
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
The house announcer waited for the crowd to hush before telling us that the Play, Pie and Pint at the Oran Mor, Glasgow, would soon be celebrating its 500th play. There was an air of excitement in the room, a plush, adaptable space, as, fed and watered, everyone readied themselves for the show, “Biscuit” to begin. The small stage space at the back was lit up and the action started with a well-dressed man and woman in conversation, and a third, male, figure lying on the floor. The three were in a panic room, with the assumption that something had gone very wrong in the world outside.
The dialogue soon had the audience roaring with laughter. The unconscious man comes to and turns out to be a Glaswegian, a cleaner employed by the Prime Minister, providing a comic contrast to the well spoken couple who are indeed the British Prime Minister and his wife. The conversation centres around the state of Britain today, swirling around in a 3-way dialogue. The Glaswegian’s perspective is that he didn’t vote, they make fun of him for it, he appeals to the audience and they bond with him, feeling that we all know what’s going on in our world today.
The characters discover – via a stray phone signal- that there has been a massive chemical attack in the outside world; terrifying news for the three stuck in the panic room. The PM starts to deteriorate while the other two find ways to stay calm, as if they know that things would somehow work out. The PM verbally attacks the Glaswegian cleaner in a sort of tantrum as he demands “could you negotiate an international trade deal?” But for each thing he asks, the Glaswegian responds in kind until the frustrated PM is reduced to saying “you have an answer for everything.” As he tries to cut the conversation dead.
As the play progresses, the clothing worn by the characters starts to take on extra significance as we notice the suit worn by the well-to-do PM start to contrast more and more with the red t-shirt and red training shoes worn by the cleaner. The PM remarks that quality should outweigh fashion sense but the cleaner retorts that he simply “…likes his trainers.” The dialogue conveys to us a sense of growing tension with the PM showing his true colours in his fear of dying, heightened when the Glaswegian announces that he is in fact a terrorist.
The shocking turn-around leaves the PM cowering behind his wife, on his knees begging for his life. The wife betrays him, choosing the stronger character and we see the Glaswegian take command of the situation. The arguments and commotion become ever more intense, typified by the exchange where the Glaswegian PMs suit “…cost more than a car.”, and the PM shows his true colours when he declares that it’s not about the cost of his suit, but about successfully “managing the rabble”.
Then with no warning, the door suddenly opens and the three escape together with a feeling that no one was any the wiser. And neither are we. If you have an hour to spare at lunchtime, come along to Oran Mor for a Play, a Pie and a Pint. You never know what you’re going to get, but it will certainly give you food for thought, as well as, well, food!
About ten days ago or so, I was in Rome. Twenty years ago I had visited the city for the first time &, being a busker, I was both amazed & delighted to find myself the benficiary of the hospitality of the Forte Prenestino. This old Italian military base was taken over by the avant-garde youth of Rome three decades ago, & has grown from strenth to strength. I always love to go back, feed myself on the cheap but tasty vegan fare & see what arts are on offer. On the occasion of my most recent visit – with my brother-in-law & occasional Mumbler in tow – I had the good fortune to witness an unusual, yet addictive piece of European theatre.
Its name is Orange Double, the duo of which are two flamboyant female actresses – AudeRrose and Nikky – as moody as the Papin sisters of Mans, who skittle about stage to the eerie accompaniment of strange & surreal sounds bellowing & willowing from gonzo instruments. Some they produce themselves, but the majority come from the arcane musicianship of the gentleman that completes the Teatro Forte! troupe. Other important ingredients of Orange Double include the kaleidoscopic, petri-dish visualities either projected from the front of the stage, or onto a sheet from behind; & the suitcase full of contraptions which are regularly shaken into the action.
During this swirl of shapes, sounds, shades, colours & monolithic movement, I found it all rather David Lynch really – a wonder without words that has you completely hooked from the off like a fascinated toddler, tho’ it is very much a case of choose your own narrative. For a good, good while we are just floating in the cosmic bubble of Orange Double‘s dreamscape, but then somehow they manage to up the tempo, change costumes, slide onto a chaise lounge & provide a suitable ending. After tripping out for a good half an hour down the K-Hole that is Double Trouble, I wasn’t expecting such a lift at all – but it was great, & a perfect way to conclude this whirlwind ride where sound & movement are synergised without any seeming effort, creating audiovisual theatre at its very, very best.
A unique & one-off evening of theater & music is heading to Edinburgh. The Mumble caught a wee blether with one of its creators, Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray…
Hello Hannah-Rose, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hannah-Rose: It’s great to be able to talk with you! I’m Dr. Hannah-Rose Murray, a historian based at the University of Nottingham. My research covers transatlantic slavery, abolition, and the Black Atlantic.
What is your doctorate in?
Hannah-Rose: American and Canadian Studies, although I focused on African American transatlantic journeys to Britain during the nineteenth century. Hundreds of formerly enslaved African Americans travelled to the British Isles to lecture against U.S. slavery, educate the public about its horrors, write slave narratives, raise money to free enslaved family members, or settle permanently in Britain and Ireland. Their lectures reached nearly every corner of the British Isles – I’ve mapped some of their locations, and some even reached the rural counties of Cornwall and Wales, and even the Scottish Highlands! You can view the maps at my website, http://www.frederickdouglassinbritain.com but the extraordinary thing is that these lectures only represent a fraction of the total number. Throughout the c19th, millions of British people went to hear African Americans speak.
You are bringing a play to Edinburgh next month, can you tell us about it?
Hannah-Rose: Myself and my colleague Dr. Arun Sood (University of Plymouth) have organised a performance celebrating Frederick Douglass’ activism in Scotland. Born enslaved (1818-1895), Douglass was the most renowned African American during the nineteenth century, campaigning for abolition, female suffrage, social justice and equality on both sides of the Atlantic. He visited Britain three times, and his first trip in 1845-1847 led to dramatic changes in his self-fashioning and forever altered his future career. His lectures in Scotland were particularly popular after he challenged the Free Church of Scotland’s decision to accept slaveholder’s money for the establishment of their new church.
The performance focuses on a momentous speech Douglass and fellow abolitionist George Thompson gave in Edinburgh in 1846. Our script uses part of an Edinburgh speech verbatim, testimony that will not have been spoken aloud for over 170 years, and therefore offers a unique and exciting opportunity to highlight Douglass’ legacy in Scotland. At the height of his fame, Douglass inspired the creation of songs and poetry, and encouraged the local community to cry ‘Send Back the Money’ in the streets. Our play revives a central part of Edinburgh’s history, focusing on Douglass’ fiery rhetoric and his impact on the Scottish people: a ballad will by sung at the play’s end to highlight his enduring legacy from 1846 to 2018, and Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier (University of Edinburgh) will close the evening by discussing Douglass’ journey in further detail. The play will be held at the Jam House on Queen Street, the exact location where Douglass spoke in 1846.
The play also ties into the wonderful project that Professor Bernier has organised, ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’, There is an exhibition about Douglass and his family at the National Library of Scotland until February 2019, so please do visit that as well.
Has this grown from your research?
Hannah-Rose: I have organised performances like this before. I worked with the British Library in 2016 and organised a black history walking tour around London; at the end of the walk, I hired two actors to re-create an antislavery meeting. This was incredibly successful, and the feedback from it was so positive I created another performance the following year in Nottingham, this time focusing on formerly enslaved African American Josiah Henson and his interracial friendship with white abolitionist Samuel Morley. This play was about 45 minutes long, and was performed at BACKLIT Art Gallery in Nottingham city centre, in a beautiful c19th warehouse building once owned by Morley. Both men reflected on their activism, Henson in particular recounting some of the key moments in his life (including his visits to Britain). Because of Professor Bernier’s incredible project with Douglass, and the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland, it seemed fitting to bring a play about Douglass to Edinburgh and raise awareness of Douglass’ extraordinary impact on the Scottish landscape. 2018 marks the bicentenary of Douglass’ birth, marking a pertinent time to reconsider the legacy of his Scottish speeches and to raise awareness of an American icon in Britain.
What has compelled you to tell the story of such an American legend theatrically to a Scottish audience?
Hannah-Rose: I think Douglass’ incredible oratory really brings the antislavery movement, and his effect on Scotland, to life. We wanted to try and recreate what it would have felt like to be in an abolitionist meeting. Antislavery meetings were theatrical anyway, with white and black abolitionists on a platform speaking to hundreds and often thousands of people. Occasionally, they were shouted down or interrupted: we include a real-life scene in the play, where Douglass was interrupted by someone in the audience. A man shouted out, “what is the price of a slave?” Douglass responded as quick as lightening, with “the price of a slave in Louisiana is regulated by the price of cotton in Manchester.” These fantastic exchanges happened quite frequently, and Victorian newspapers give us brilliant accounts of meetings: in one coverage, I read that people were so desperate to hear Douglass speak in a local church that they crammed the seats and aisles to breaking point, hundreds were turned away from lack of space, and a small crowd gathered outside underneath an open window to hear him. You can’t get more dramatic than that!
How do you think it will resonate with them?
Hannah-Rose: I think it’s always fascinating to learn about local history. The fact that Douglass, the most famous African American of the nineteenth century, not only visited Edinburgh but gave numerous speeches there and its environs is fascinating! Local people came to support Douglass, the antislavery cause, as well as challenging the Free Church for accepting slaveholder’s money. I think the ‘Send Back the Money’ campaign is a really brilliant story, and presents an interesting moral question: should the Church have sent back the money? Why didn’t they in the end? Douglass’ electrifying oratory also proves he was a virtuoso of the antislavery movement. As a formerly enslaved person himself, he could paint the vivid horrors of slavery like no other. Just to give you an example, Douglass said in 1846, “under the drippings of the American sanctuary slavery has its existence. Whips, chains, gags, blood-hounds, thumb-screws, and all the bloody paraphernalia of slavery lie right under the drippings of the sanctuary, and instead of being corroded and rusted by its influence, they are kept in a state of preservation. Ministers of religion defend slavery from the Bible – ministers of religion own any number of slaves – bishops trade in human flesh – churches may be said to be literally built up in human skulls, and their very walls cemented with human blood – women are sold at the public block to support a minister, to support a church – human beings sold to buy sacramental services, and all, of course, with the sanction of the religion of the land.” It’s incredibly powerful.
I have read recently that the great emancipator, Abe Lincoln, was not as anti-slavery as is celebrated – what are your own thoughts on the matter?
Hannah-Rose: Lincoln gets a lot of press because of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is still regarded as a key turning point during the American Civil War. Lincoln defined himself as an antislavery man, but crucially, he was not above compromise during the Civil War. He wrote in 1862: “my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” As ever, I’ll defer to what Frederick Douglass thought of Lincoln. The two men had a friendship of sorts, as Lincoln valued Douglass’ opinion about arming African Americans during the war. Understandably, Douglass was incensed that black soldiers did not receive the same wages and rations as their fellow white soldiers, and criticised Lincoln for this, declaring he would recruit no more black soldiers for the Union until this had been corrected. Lincoln could afford to compromise about this issue and about slavery; Douglass as a formerly enslaved person, could not. While Douglass looked upon his friendship with Lincoln with great fondness for the rest of his life, he also accepted Lincoln’s faults. In 1876, Douglass was asked to speak at a memorial dedication to Lincoln, and in his speech, recognised that Lincoln was neither perfect nor an abolitionist hero: “it must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”
How did you get involved with Arun Sood?
Hannah-Rose: A friend introduced us via email, and we had some wonderful conversations about Frederick Douglass – both of us have written about Douglass’ experience in Britain. I mentioned the previous work I have done in terms of performances, and we both thought it would be a wonderful idea to create a play together.
What do you hope an audience member will take away from watching the play?
Hannah-Rose: Hopefully many things! The play is designed to raise awareness of Frederick Douglass, and his extraordinary impact on Edinburgh and other neighbouring towns. The Scottish people really embraced him and his mission. Our play resurrects Douglass’ speeches from the 1840s, and audiences will be blown away by his powerful oratory, his ability to hammer home the nature of white supremacy and the violence of slavery, and his skill at exposing the hypocrisy of an American nation (and a ‘Free’ Scottish church) who would accept money from Southern slaveholders. I also hope that audiences will come away thinking about the legacy of slavery on transatlantic society, that we are still living with its consequences, and Douglass as a figure is now more important than ever.
What will you be doing with the project following your performance in Edinburgh?
Hannah-Rose: Hopefully we will be able to get some follow-on funding, and take the play on tour. Douglass spoke in numerous locations including Nottingham, Bristol, Sheffield, Newcastle, Birmingham, London, Exeter, Leeds…it would be great to choose one of these locations, and adapt the script slightly to include extracts of Douglass’ speech from that location. I’ve spent years finding and transcribing Douglass’ speeches from the Victorian press, so we have a lot of material to work with. It just depends on funding!
The Jam House, Edinburgh
November 9th (19.30)