Theatre reviews: Hector | A Word with Dr. Johnson, Brunton Theatre

Steven Duffy plays Sir Hector MacDonald. Picture: Contributed
Steven Duffy plays Sir Hector MacDonald. Picture: Contributed
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THE BRITISH Empire always prided itself on its ability to absorb into its ruling class the occasional talented individual from a humble background; its problem, then as now, was that it also tended to tolerate a great deal of bigotry and mediocrity from those born to rule.

Hector

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

Star rating: ***

A Word With Dr. Johnson

Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh

Star rating: ***

David Gooderson’s powerful new touring play about the decline and fall of Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald - born on a croft in Ross-shire, and a popular hero after Queen Victoria bestowed a knighthood on him - portrays a man caught at the heart of that contradiction, a great battlefield soldier who was nonetheless openly critical of Lord Kitchener’s methods in the Boer War, and contemptuous of the self-indulgent Ceylonese expat community he was expected to join after his fall-out with Kitchener.

Gooderson’s thesis is that MacDonald, who committed suicide in a Paris hotel in 1903, was framed - in a series of flimsy allegations about his relations with young boys - by a bunch of imperial snobs in Ceylon who simply wanted rid of him. And without delving too deeply into MacDonald’s psyche, Kate Nelson’s six-strong ensemble presents this sympathetic story of his downfall with an almost tragic sense of inevitability, with Steven Duffy turning in a persuasive leading performance.

A modern audience is bound to wonder, of course, whether the allegations were entirely false; we have our own crisis of truth and falsehood to deal with, when it comes to historic sex abuse. But this eloquent and interesting play - co-produced by Eden Court, Comar and Ed Littlewood - certainly deserves the wider audience it will find, on a tour that takes it from Woodend Barn at Banchory to the Ambassadors Theatre, London, over the next six weeks.

James Runcie’s latest lunchtime play for the Play, Pie And Pint season, by contrast, has none of the intensity of Gooderson’s drama; it’s more of a sketch, a light-touch 50-minute musical entertainment about Dr Samuel Johnson’s great effort to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, with the help of a slightly fractious team of mainly Scottish scribes. Like Hector, though, Runcie’s play touches on the fraught subject of Anglo-Scottish relations within the UK, exploring both genuine differences of culture, and a few well-worn cliches about Scottish gloom and drunkenness.

All of this is highly entertaining, although it’s a bit of a stretch to accept the moments when Johnson’s scribes burst into couthy Scottish song. The play is at its best, though, when it focuses on Johnson’s own fine and moving words about life, literature and language, beautifully conveyed by Mark McDonnell in the title role; and above all, on his profoundly affectionate relationship with his wife, Tetty, played by Gerda Stevenson with such grace and poignancy that it’s hard to believe that within a couple of minutes, she’s once again back in breeches and tam o’shanter, playing Dr Johnson’s favourite Scotch assistant, Mr Sheils.

• Hector on tour until 20 November, including the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-12 November. A Word With Dr Johnson at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, tomorrow until Saturday.