IT was once staged before a Scottish king in the glorious surroundings of Linlithgow Palace. Now The Interlude, a play which helped bring about momentous change in 16th-century Scotland, is to be performed again in the same setting.
The Renaissance drama has not been presented since its only performance before James V more than 470 years ago.
Written by poet Sir David Lyndsay and performed in the Great Hall of the palace in 1540 to the Stuart court, it was a radical attack on the corruption of clergy, lords and burgh representatives, and a call to social reform.
It will now be performed in a version as close as possible to the orginal – starring actor Tam Dean Burn – from a script based on detailed documents written by members of the audience spying for England’s King Henry VIII. Lyndsay’s script has not survived.
The play’s director, Gregory Thompson, said the production aimed to take the play back to its roots: “What we try to do is reconstruct a play in the way it was done. Usually, when you put on a play you’re thinking ‘OK, what’s its relevance now, how do I make this modern?’ What we’re trying to do is ask ‘What was this play like in 1540?’ and putting it on its feet.”
He added: “It’s an incredible play and nothing of its kind was written for more than 100 years after. It’s part morality play, part a dramatic reconstruction of the reformation of the church, and part verbatim theatre. It’s just the most amazing piece of theatre.”
Dean Burn said: “It’s a huge challenge for all concerned, but that’s what is wonderful about it. The danger is it could be seen as a worthy but dreary struggle. When we first read it, we thought it was hard-going, hard to get a grip on and understand.
“But once we started looking at it more carefully, it all started to come to life and you saw all these incredible characters and rich, much more understandable language than Shakespeare. I really do think it can work and can be brought to life. There are great characters for actors.”
Historians suspect Lyndsay, the makar, or creative artist to the Stuart court, produced The Interlude partially on the instructions of the King, who, at the time, wanted to reform the all-powerful and wealthy Catholic Church in Scotland. It was later developed into a renowned morality play, Ane Pleasant Satyre Of The Thrie Estaitis (A Satire Of The Three Estates), also by Lyndsay, which was performed twice during the 1550s.
Academics have worked with Historic Scotland and the A&BC theatre production company over two years to present both pieces in original form.
Tom Betteridge, professor of theatre at Oxford Brookes University, and a lead academic on the project, said there was a detailed letter from William Eure, English ambassador to the court, which reported the plot of The Interlude back to Henry VIII, James’s uncle.
In it, Eure details James’s dramatic reaction at the end of the hour-long play, when he stood up and challenged the clergy to reform: “The King of Scots did call upon the Bishop of Glasgow, being Chancellor, and diverse other bishops, exhorting them to reform their factions and manners of living, saying that, unless they so did, he would send six of the proudest of them unto his uncle of England, and, as those were ordered, so he would order all the rest that would not amend.”
Betteridge said: “Clearly, what was included in The Interlude was expanded in the Satire. So what we are having to do is look at what is in the Satire, compare it with what’s in the letter to the English court, and say ‘right, these characters were in the Interlude, so we will have to include them’. It’s an act of dramatic recreation of the text.”
Eleanor Rycroft, research fellow at Edinburgh University specialising in staging and representing the Scottish Renaissance court, said one of the most radical aspects of the drama was its portrayal of the poor: “They aren’t funny, and don’t speak in a stupid voice. They are there to talk about social inequality; so more radical than the anti-clerical content is the representation of poverty, the idea that society is unequal and needs redressing.”
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Funding Council, The Interlude will be performed at the palace and restored Great Hall of Stirling Castle, while the Satire will be shown in its full five-hour form at Linlithgow Peel, with a cast of 40.
Betteridge said that it was the scale of Lyndsay’s ambition that made The Interlude work: “He has is an incredible sense of vision. He’s trying to stage Scottish society in its entirety, and that’s unique.”
Truth in art: a Renaissance view
Sir David Lyndsay was a Scottish Lord Lyon and poet of the 16th century, whose works have come to be the first literary expressions of the Renaissance in Scotland.
Although there is little known about his early years, it is believed he attended St Andrews University between 1508 and 1509 before becoming part of the Royal Court, first as an equerry, then as an usher to the future James V of Scotland.
Made a knight in 1529, he then became involved in the diplomatic dealings of the court with Netherlands and France.
As a writer and poet, Lyndsay achieved success during his lifetime, especially as a satirist, and enjoyed unparalleled freedom of speech to exercise his talents, chastising all classes from royalty and clergy down.
At the time, James was trying to reform the Catholic Church, and experts believe that The Interlude and the later Satire were done with the knowledge and approval of the king – almost as a form of policy statement on his behalf.
After the death of James in 1542, Lyndsay continued to sit in the Scottish Parliament as commissioner for Cupar, Fife, until his death around 1555.