WHAT A colossal missed opportunity it represents, this new revived version of Dogstar Theatre’s 1999 show about Captain Simon Fraser of Knockie.
Presented as part of this year’s Celtic Connections Festival, the show tells the story of a Highlander who served in the armies of King George III, and who in 1816 took it upon himself to publish, in censored and wordless form, a collection of Highland airs which in fact contained many rebel songs about the iniquity of British and Lowland rule.
In their edited forms, these airs became the favourite drawing-room entertainment of the Unionist establishment; and in Hamish MacDonald’s play, we see the ageing and dying Fraser in dialogue with his wife-cum-servant Mairi, as he tries to justify a life which seems to contain within itself all the intense conflicts and ambivalences of Scotland’s unionist history.
The strangest thing about this 80-minute show, though, is its striking failure to construct its narrative around the music itself, the central obsession of Fraser’s life. There’s plenty of music present; Alyth McCormack, as Mairi, sings beautifully, and musicians Jonny Hardie and Ingrid Henderson are present on stage, with fiddle, harp and keyboard.
Yet instead of building the drama around the songs, their original meaning, and the wordless things Fraser made of them, MacDonald offers instead a jumbled and unclear historical narrative, the odd impressionistic burst of political poetry, and episodes of jokey traditional storytelling with musicai accompaniment. None of these is made clearer - or saved from an alarming couthiness of tone - by Alison Peebles’s sluggish production. And as Matthew Zajac buffoons his way through the role of Fraser, the word “kailyard” comes to mind – I hope for the very last time in Scottish theatrical history.