Scotsman 200: From theatre fires to stage favourites

Black Watch at the Edinburgh University Drill Hall. Picture: Callum Bennetts
Black Watch at the Edinburgh University Drill Hall. Picture: Callum Bennetts
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To mark the 200th anniversary of The Scotsman, we are dipping into our archives to bring you a selection of some of the biggest stories of the last two centuries. This month we have recalled Scotland’s arts scene, reproducing The Scotsman’s original coverage of many of the most memorable events from the stage and screen to exhibitions, concerts and Edinburgh’s festivals. Today we’re looking back at some of the most famous plays to grace Scotland’s stages, as well as at the high jinks reported at the 1963 International Drama Conference and the tragedies that struck theatres when costumes and construction materials were flimsy and flammable.

Saturday, 14 January, 1865

Total destruction by fire of the Theatre Royal

LOSS OF SEVERAL LIVES

Partial destruction of St Mary’s Catholic chapel

For very many years, no fire so terrible in its incidents and in its results as that which yesterday totally destroyed the Theatre-Royal, has occurred in Edinburgh – whether as regards the swiftness, extent, and completeness of the catastrophe, or the deplorable consequences to human life with which it has been attended.

Buildings devoted to theatrical purposes are so liable to destruction by the element with which those who conduct them are constrained to produce their most popular effects, that, when a theatre is burned, the feeling is less one of surprise than of thankfulness that the calamity did not fall upon a house crowded with happy hundreds.

The fire broke out shortly before four o’clock. Being the pantomime season, when rehearsals are light, and there is little to be done in the theatre beyond adjusting the scenery and preparing the stage for the evening’s performance, there was nobody in the building but a few of the ordinary artificers, whose duty it is to see the house “lighted up”.

The fire is said to have originated in the following manner: – Cassey, a gas-man connected with the establishment, proceeded, in the discharge of his ordinary afternoon duty, to light up the rows of gas-jets which run along what are called the “borders,” or little strips of painted canvas which are stretched across the tops of the scenes, to hide the machinery behind.

These “border” lights, are intended to cast a powerful reflection on the stage.

He had lit up the second row of border lights all right, and was lighting up the first, when the border accidentally caught fire – an occurrence which is said to have happened on former occasions without serious consequences, the border having been torn away in time to prevent the fire spreading.

On this occasion, however, the flames spread so rapidly that the man was unable to get the border down in time, and he rushed along the “flies” or wooden stages upon which the men walk when regulating the scenery, and called to his assistance the head carpenter, Stewart, an assistant named Glen, and Syme, the fireman.

The men at once ran to use every possible means, by cutting down the borders and hacking away the side scenes, to prevent the fire gaining too great a mastery in the “flies,” which had become ignited.

Mr Wyndham, the lessee of the theatre, was yesterday in London. Mrs Wyndham had left the Theatre, a few minutes before the fire broke out, and proceeded to Ainslie Place to visit her daughter there.

Messrs Edward and Richard Saker, brothers of Mrs Wyndham, found the theatre impossible to enter and, as it was too evident that the fire would prove destructive, they lost no time in organising measures with the view of saving as much property as time would allow.

Procuring a ladder, they ascended to the wardrobe-room, which was situated at the front of the theatre facing Broughton Street, and immediately above the shop of Mr M Donald, spirit-dealer. A very large quantity of valuable silk, velvet, satin, and other dresses, besides “properties” of various descriptions was stored in this room, and to save these they vigorously applied themselves, aided by a number of the spectators.

Dresses and costumes of every description, quality, and colour, were hastily bundled through the broken windows, and placed in vans, which had been procured for the purpose.

The fire had spread beyond all hope of subjugation before intelligence of the event had been communicated to the city.

So sudden had been the calamity, so inflammable the materials that long ere the people of the immediate vicinity had become even aware of the fact, the whole interior of the building was wrapped in flames.

At four o’clock there was no appearance of fire visible from the outside; by half-past four the roof was in a blaze, and the flames were rising fierce and high overhead, attracting attention far and wide by the reflection they cast upon the evening sky.

Wednesday, 25 August, 1948

The Festival

SATIRE AND PAGEANTRY

“The Three Estates” Lives for a New Generation

By Our Drama Critic

The last production of Sir David Lindsay’s “Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaits” was in 1554. After that the springs of drama ceased in Scotland, and only began to flow again when a Scottish minister, Home by name, produced a play and, to the scandalising of the Kirk, had it staged. Both those occasions were historic, but so, too, was last night’s revival of Lindsay’s play.

To choose as the Scottish contribution to the dramatic side of the Festival a 400-year-old entertainment, which is not in the modern sense a play, needed courage. Failure to make a success of it might so easily have been construed as a sign that Scotland had no offering to make Festival visitors in drama. If any foresaw a debacle, last night in the Assembly Hall proved them wrong.

The decision to stage “The Three Estates” was not made without opposition on the part of some of the repertory companies from which the cast of it has been so ably recruited.

The length of it, its antiquated look in the more scholarly editions were deterrents. On the other hand, it was a play which had procured, or helped to procure, great effects when staged. Could it be made to tell as a drama after it had served its contemporary purpose? Last night’s performance showed that the understanding production of Mr Tyrone Guthrie has saved Lindsay’s play for another generation. As he has produced it, its appeal is spectacle as much as drama.

Mr Guthrie has devised a great scene for the entry of the Estates “gangand backwart led by their vyces,” using, as in other entries and exits, the passageways between the audience for this purpose. He has impressive crowd scenes, and scenes of both dignity and tumult.

His adoption of what approximates to the sixteenth century stage – a stage which juts right into the audience – has allowed him to contrive much masterly grouping.

It is rather like looking at a painting by Breughel; something of human interest is to be found in any odd corner, and it is quite likely that a second visit, with a changed angle of view, might reveal something new. In the first half of the play there was an every-shifting chain of incident. The second half was more continuous, but equally impressive.

Monday, 9 September, 1963

High jinks end drama conference

FULL OF FURY – AND IDEAS

Ancients battle with moderns

By Magnus Magnusson

The International Drama Conference ended in a splendid uproar of ideas on Saturday – a fitting firecracker of a session on “The Theatre of the Future” that produced some very real illumination as well.

Much will, no doubt, be made of the brief appearance of a nude model being wheeled across a gallery above the platform of a literary debate – and in hallowed McEwan Hall last night – but out of context reactions are synthetic. Because the nude, and the casual elaborate series of “Happenings” that were inflicted on the packed audience, were part of a fascinating illustration of futuristic experimental theatre, and provoked a sustained debate that brought out the very best in the assembled company of speakers.

It threw the conference back on its heels, into a reassessment of the fundamental definitions of words like “art” and “theatre” and forced on the audience an involvement that no other session had done.

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the afternoon was the violence of the responses it aroused from the audience, ranging from acute interest to furious resentment at having their traditional ideas tampered with.

The “Happening” was engineered by the young American writer, Kenneth Dewey. What he did was to create a most peculiar atmosphere of semi-alarm; an eerie, disconcerting feeling that chaos was inexorably setting in.

The McEwan Hall organ sounded a deep vibration. Men appeared, silhouetted against the topmost windows. Carroll Baker, the film actress, left the platform and began blundering towards the back of the hall – not up the aisle, but clambering over the rows of chairs.

The sensation of disorientation spread to the audience; people stood up, craned, shouted. A very subtle sense of menace spread. A pipe played. A sheep’s skeleton appeared. And a gantry of death-masks was unveiled with a crash on the platform.

The question now was Was this “theatre” in any recognisable form? Or was it merely mischievous, a prank to stimulate reaction – any sort of reaction? Has improvisation “Im promptu Theatre,” any validity?

Monday, 7 August, 2006

Black Watch

Drill Hall, Edinburgh

By Joyce McMillan

When Vicky Featherstone was appointed director of the new National Theatre of Scotland two years ago, one of the first potential projects she announced was a new play by Gregory Burke based on the real-life experience of the Black Watch regiment in Iraq.

Even she can hardly have dared hope, though, that the idea would finally come to birth in such a magnificent, moving and mind-blowing first night as the one that raised the roof of the old Forrest Road Drill Hall on Saturday evening.

Based on dozens of interviews with present and former Black Watch soldiers, the play adopts a fairly simple flash-back, flash-forward structure.

On one hand, there is the tense encounter between the nervous playwright and the former Black Watch men whose experience he is about to mine and exploit for his next show. On the other hand, there is the fragmented story of the men during their time in Iraq, suffering, arguing, and in some cases dying, as they seek to replace a much larger American force in one of the most dangerous zones of a war about which many of them have doubts — and at a time when, back home, their 300-year-old regiment is facing dissolution.

Woven through both stories there is the ‘golden thread’ of Black Watch history as it is passed on to each new recruit, represented here by a rich vein of soldiers’ songs, visual imagery, and stunning, sometimes heart-rending movement sequences by the associate director, Steven Hoggett.

People will argue, of course — or should — about the precise meaning of a play that pulls no punches in describing the discomfort, disillusion and suffering of the men of the Black Watch in Iraq, but has little to say about the suffering they inflict, or about the dark strain of colonial savagery in the regiment’s history. And the ending of the show is undoubtedly a shade too drawn out, too in love with its own gift for music and movement.

What’s undeniable, though, is the breathtaking theatrical brilliance with which the director, John Tiffany, and his team bring the main sequence of Burke’s story to life, in the great echoing space of the Drill Hall, blending sound, music, light, movement, and the occasional huge projected video image, with the tremendous live performances of a brilliantly-chosen team of ten young Scottish actors, each of them apparently driven by an overwhelming sense of purpose and history, and of superbly disciplined physical energy.

The technical quality of this production is flawless, soaring up to and beyond the gold standard we can expect from our National Theatre.

Far more important, though, is the ground-shaking energy with which it announces the arrival of the Theatre as a force that can reassert a strong, grassroots Scottish perspective on parts of our story which, until now, have been filtered mainly through institutions of the British state.

Burke’s play does not represent the last word on the history of Scotland’s most famous regiment. But it does represent a massive step forward in our understanding and recognition of a vital part of our national story, and – potentially – of the relationship between Scottish theatre and the widest possible popular audience, both at home, and far beyond our shores.

The full text of these edited extracts can be found at The Scotsman Digital Archive.