Theatre review: Secret Wrapped in Lead, Arts at Loaningdale, Biggar
Secret Wrapped in Lead, Arts At Loaningdale, Biggar ****
Scottish history is full of untold stories that never quite made it into any official narrative; and theatre is a wonderful arena for the rediscovery and restoration of those tales, from the imagined life of St Magnus’s mother – explored at this year’s St. Magnus Festival in Orkney – to the story of a 1990s Glasgow six-a-side football team, currently playing to packed houses at the Tron.
There’s therefore a special thrill in seeing this debut production by Braw Clan Theatre, which joins that list with a short tour of community venues in South Lanarkshire. Secret Wrapped In Lead is a powerful and troubling one-hour drama set in the summer of 1803, when the English writer Dorothy Wordsworth was travelling in southern Scotland with her brother, the poet William, and his friend Samuel Coleridge; and their journey included a visit to the lead-mining upland village of Leadhills, where the miners notoriously suffered from a terrible wasting disease caused by the lead dust that penetrated their lungs and guts.
The play also embodies Braw Clan’s central ambition to commission and perform plays in the Scots tongue, notably the powerful South Lanarkshire Scots still spoken in the area, that inspired Scots writers from Allan Ramsay to Robert McLellan and Hugh MacDiarmid. What emerges, in playwright Martin Travers’s intense text, is therefore an impassioned dialogue between northern English-speaking Dorothy, and the brusque and secretive Leadhills landlady Mrs Otto, who speaks a proud, dense and unbending Lanarkshire Scots; a conversation interrupted by occasional interactions, ever stranger as the story unfolds, between Dorothy, and Mrs Otto’s fey daughter Primrose.
Based in Lanark, Martin Travers is one of he co-founders of Braw Clan; and he is also a writer with an unparalleled record in community theatre in the west of Scotland, a long-time linchpin of the Citizens’ Theatre’s outstanding outreach work with groups ranging from schoolchildren troubled by sectarianism – the theme of his remarkable large-scale show Divided City – to prisoners in Barlinnie, with whom he created the groundbreaking 2010 show Platform 2:10.
Travers has worked in every register of Scots, from 21st century Glasgow street speech to a recent James MacMillan musical monologue about Burns, for the Cumnock Tryst, and believes that “Braw Clan is a radical theatre company, acause Scots is a radical leed”. He is therefore brilliantly placed to create this short and ferocious play designed to explore the confrontation between Dorothy Wordsworth’s slightly patronising enlightenment attitudes – combined with a genuine interest in old lore and traditions – and Mrs Otto’s fierce determination to guard her own language and culture, including the secret of a strange and grotesque treatment that can hold the lead disease at bay, although at a frightening price.
In bringing this play to the stage, Braw Clan – based in Biggar – has assembled an impressive group of theatre artists and friends from the area, to help support the production and tour; and director Pauline Lynch’s fluent and good-looking production features outstanding performances from Helen McAlpine and Fletcher Mathers as the two strong women at the heart of the drama, equally matched opponents with no intention of giving way or backing down.
There’s also eloquent music, sound and lighting from Jack Henderson and Paul Rodger; and Morvern Blackadder is memorable and moving as young Primrose Otto, the fleeting presence that embodies the tragedy of the place known as the Grey Glen. The text of Secret Wrapped In Lead has already been published by Methuen; and when Travers argues – in a programme note – that Scots is for everyone, and that this play marks “the start ae a wunnerfu an slightly terrifeein jurney”, it’s hard to resist his energy and enthusiasm, or his invitation to “Come wi’ us – hit’s gaun tae be braw.”
On tour until 29 July, see www.brawclan.com. Secret Wrapped in Lead, by Martin Travers, is published by Methuen Drama