Theatre: The playwrights shining a light on the forgotten corners of history

Joan Eardley, working in her Townhead studio in Glasgow in 1962, is the subject of a new play, Joan Eardley: Private View. Photograph: Oscar Marzaroli
Joan Eardley, working in her Townhead studio in Glasgow in 1962, is the subject of a new play, Joan Eardley: Private View. Photograph: Oscar Marzaroli
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Provided they get the facts right, theatre makers telling real life stories can fill significant gaps in mainstream history

To all outward appearances, it seemed like an ordinary Monday lunchtime at Oran Mor, when I arrived there a couple of months ago to see the latest short play by writer, teacher and actor Stuart Hepburn. There was the usual buzz of activity around the sound desk, as the company put the final touches to the show, after just two weeks’ rehearsal and no previews; and backstage, the three actors were doubtless in a similar state of pre-Play, Pie And Pint nerves.

As the show unfolded though, it soon became clear that this was a play with a special intensity. Told with a rare passion and restraint by actors Ron Donachie, James Rottger and Ashley Smith, The Beaches of St Valery dealt with the fate of the 51st Highland Division, 13,000 British soldiers left stranded in France in the summer of 1940, even as Winston Churchill was proclaiming the successful evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk; and for 18 years, Hepburn had been researching, and finally writing a PhD thesis about, the largely untold story of those men.

“My main feeling was anger,” says Hepburn. “I just felt this was a story that had to be told, about men whose experience had been written out of history because it didn’t fit the conventional narrative of 1940.” For years, Hepburn tried unsuccessfully to raise money to make the story into a film, before deciding to try the Play, Pie And Pint format, as a way of getting it into the public domain.

And as I watched this exceptionally intense and beautiful piece of drama, I was struck by how often, over the years, I had seen theatre play this role of filling gaps in historical knowledge, and telling stories that have been forgotten or suppressed. I remembered stories of Scotland’s travelling people, brought back to life by playwrights like Anne Downie, or plays like Ann Marie Di Mambro’s Tally’s Blood, which told the story of Scotland’s Italian community during the Second World War.

And this week, in Edinburgh, audiences will have a chance to see two new shows inspired by a similar impulse, as Heroica Theatre of Yorkshire presents a new play about artist Joan Eardley, designed to coincide with the magnificent Eardley exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and the annual Tradfest event stages Raymond Raszkowski Ross’s On The Radical Road: Enacting Hamish Henderson, based entirely on the words and music of Scotland’s late, great poet, folklorist, scholar, translator and agitator, who died in 2002.

“I was just aware,” says Anna Carlisle, writer of Joan Eardley: A Private View, “that there was this entire nation – certainly England, and to some extent Scotland too – that just didn’t know about Joan Eardley, even though she was undoubtedly one of the greatest British painters of the 20th century. In particular, I knew of galleries in England that had Joan Eardleys in their collections, but never exhibited them, because they didn’t know anything about her. So we developed this idea of creating a play about Joan Eardley’s life that would tour not to theatres, but to art galleries, on both sides of the border.”

For Raymond Raszkowski Ross, too, the motivation behind his show is to ensure that Hamish Henderson is neither forgotten nor misrepresented in mainstream history. “I think there have always been a lot of Scottish stories that have been suppressed or mistold,” says Ross, who has previously written plays about the 18th century massacre of mining workers at Tranent, and about Wojtek, the “hero bear” of the Second World War. “And when it comes to Hamish, I suppose my concern is to make sure that his extraordinary range of work is understood as a whole, and that people don’t see him, for example, entirely as the father of the folk song revival.”

All three writers have their own views on why the stories they are dramatising have remained untold or mistold. Hepburn notes – while reserving his own judgment – that many of the abandoned Highland soldiers believed, for the rest of their lives, that “they wouldn’t have done this to an English mob.” (In fact, an estimated 40,000 British soldiers were left in behind after Operation Dynamo, with several English regiments including the Royal Warwickshires and the Royal Norfolks falling victim to appalling war crimes.) Carlisle is eager to tell the story of the women who helped shape Joan Eardley’s work through their close relationships with her; but believes that Eardley’s low profile probably has more to do with her reclusive personality than with her sexuality. And Ross sees Scotland’s difficulty in fully recognising Henderson’s genius as one symptom of the dominant British establishment culture Henderson himself so fiercely opposed.

All three writers are adamant, though, about the need, in bringing neglected stories to light, to remain true to the known historical facts. “You have to read every piece of history you can,” says Hepburn, “and then, once you’ve absorbed it all, start writing something that will work as drama. Because with a story like this, you carry a very heavy responsibility as a historian. What you are doing matters a great deal to the families and friends of those whose stories you’re using; and you can’t have people coming up and saying, ‘that didn’t happen like that’ or ‘you’ve changed the dates.’”

Carlisle agrees. “One of the most encouraging comments I had came from a woman who knew Joan, and said, ‘I don’t know whether those words you wrote for Joan were true or not. But I could see the truth behind them.’ And to me, that’s what matters; that we tell the story as accurately as we can – and then finally use our imaginations, as honestly as possible, to recreate the emotional truth behind the historical facts.”

Joan Eardley: Private View is at the the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and National Gallery of Scotland, 5-7 May, and on tour. On The Radical Road: Enacting Hamish Henderson is at Summerhall, Edinburgh until 1 May. It’s hoped that The Beaches Of St. Valery will tour Scotland in 2018.