Leith takes centre stage in new audio plays series

Taking in plague, smuggling, witch hunts and war, a new series of audio plays based on William Haddow’s novel Leithers One Family charts the development of Leith from a fishing village to a major trading port, writes Mark Fisher

Liz Hare of Citadel Arts Group and author William Haddow PIC: Lisa Ferguson LISA FERGUSON
Liz Hare of Citadel Arts Group and author William Haddow PIC: Lisa Ferguson LISA FERGUSON

When the Covid-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, many theatre companies could only shut up shop. Not so Citadel Arts Group. The Leith company, which is dedicated to staging the work of older playwrights, was in no mood to wait around. "Oh no, we didn't consider stopping," says co-founder Liz Hare. "Most of us are quite old; a year is precious."Turning to Zoom, Hare continued to work with her team of playwrights, simply switching their focus from stage to audio. The first fruits of that policy are already there to hear on the company website. They include a three-part version of Susan Chaney's Beyond The Ash Tide, which had been scheduled for the cancelled Leith Festival, as well as plays embracing everything from maritime research to neurotic crows."There was never any question of being silenced," says Hare. "As older people, we are the ones who have been worst hit by Covid and we were determined we were going to be up and running as quickly as we could by going online. We've never been busier."Now the company is in the midst of an even more ambitious project. It has turned to Leithers One Family, a historical novel by William Haddow that follows the fictional Preston family from the 14th century to the present day. As Leith grows from a fishing village to a major trading port, the Prestons deal with everything from plague to witches, from smuggling to war.In a sequence of stand-alone chapters, family members appear as pickpockets, sex workers, bankers and fishwives. "They pop up, Forrest Gump style, at various major events in Leith history," says Hare. "Whether it's the outbreak of a plague, a mutiny of a Highland regiment, Spanish and Dutch soldiers shooting at each other from their ships across the Shore, there's always a Preston there."The novel, which was published last year, came to Hare's attention via her friends at the local Yard Heads theatre company. "They thought it might be up our street and, of course, it was," she says. "That's the sort of thing we've been doing since we started: taking living memories, history and local reminiscences and using that as a basis for creating plays. So we jumped at the chance."Its episodic structure made it a prime candidate for adaptation, so Hare shared it around the Citadel writers and asked them to make a pitch for the chapter they'd most like to take on. Between them, they cover half the book. "They each chose a chapter they were drawn to which, luckily, has given us a spread through the centuries," she says. "They were really inspired and have produced some of their best writing."The first episode, The Betrayal by Hilary Spiers, is already out, telling the story of an attempt by powerful forces in Edinburgh to grab control of the port. It's an early sign of Leith's fraught relationship with its larger neighbour. Adding to the local colour are the swans you can see on the water today and who figure as recurring motif through the plays.The second episode, The Preceptory by Susan Chaney, goes live tomorrow, with a tale of religious fervour. Stories of French spies, hangings and Italian immigrants will follow."It’s history looked at from the point of view of the hooks, crooks and comic singers," says Hare, who met Haddow in the flesh for the first time for the Scotsman photoshoot, despite the novelist's enthusiastic involvement in the project. "They're not grand people. There's one banker – but he's an absolute rogue as well."Hare has divvied up the plays with fellow directors Adam Tomkins and Mark Kydd, all of them stretching their skills as they explore the possibilities of audio drama and the learn the technical requirements of working with sound. "Each writer has their own style," says Tomkins, who directed the first instalment. "It means you have distinct chapters throughout the series. They've all done a brilliant job at creating characters you can relate to even though they supposedly lived 400 years ago. It shows how little times have changed."The art of adaptation is a fine skill at the best of times and the writers, aiming for episodes lasting only ten minutes, have had to become experts in concision. "They selected what was dramatic," says Hare. "The chapters are full of incident but I don't think Bill would be upset if I said they're not very character driven, so it was almost a process of adding rather than subtracting, developing the characters more."She adds: "What we've been doing for the past year is gaining new skills. It's a challenge for the writers to tell stories that come from a very visual book – it's full of the sights, smells and sounds of Leith – and to tell those stories clearly with only voice, music and sound effects. They've risen to the challenge pretty well."Considering the possibility of putting some of the plays on stage once restrictions allow, she is delighted to have been able to stay true to Citadel's fans through these extraordinary months. "Our audiences are appreciating it too," she says. "A lot of them are older people who are stuck indoors. One of our listeners said our audio plays were the highlight of her week.""That's right," says Tomkins. "We're trying to keep that feeling of connectedness with the work over time. We want it to be enjoyable… as well as dark, dangerous and dramatic."Leithers One Family is available at www.citadelgoesviral.com

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