HAMISH MACDONALD discusses the genesis of Singing Far Into The Night
MULL Theatre’s tour of Hamish MacDonald’s new play about the Invergordon Mutiny is now around the half-way mark in an extended tour of Scotland.
THE writer is more usually associated with the Inverness-based Dogstar Theatre, where he is co-artistic director with Matthew Zajac, but this project was conceived specifically for Mull Theatre, and has been some time in the making.
NORTHINGS: Hamish, can you tell us how the project came about?
HAMISH MACDONALD: It was written for Mull Theatre, and there is a bit of history to the whole thing, in that at the beginning I had ideas for two different plays. The first one was a play about Patrick McGill, the navvy poet who came to Scotland during the earlier part of the 20th century and worked on the tattie picking and the hydro dam construction, and became a writer.
The problem there was that I wasn’t able to get the permissions I would have needed to go ahead with that one. The play very much required use of some sections of his literary work, and that wasn’t possible, so we put that idea to one side and opted to work on this one instead, which was this idea about the Invergordon Mutiny.
NORTHINGS: What sparked your interest in that one?
HAMISH MACDONALD: I first heard about it when my father told me about it over a beer one night. That was how it started, and then my mother told me another story about something that had happened to her friend’s father, who was working on the Daily Worker.
He reported on the mutiny for the paper, and fled to Russia in 1931. I have some letters he sent to his daughter which suggest his reasons for going weren’t through choice, but he landed there at a horribly repressive stage in Soviet history. He goes to work for TASS, which is what happens to my character Finlay in the play, so it does reflect the realities of certain individuals lives, but in fictionalised form.
A number of the sailors also ended up going to the Soviet Union, and one of them, Len Wincott, who wrote Invergordon Mutineer, ended up in a labour camp for eleven years.
There seemed to me to be a lot of dramatic possibilities in what at the time was a major international event, but seen through the eyes of ordinary people. I saw the appeal of it as a piece of theatre right away.
NORTHINGS: It’s en event that seems to be a bit forgotten these days – we hear a lot about Red Clydeside, but not Red Invergordon.
HAMISH MACDONALD: It seems to be, and yet it was a momentous event at the time. It was not just that the sailors carried out an industrial action and brought the fleet to a standstill, but there were a lot of knock-on effects as well, including a panic in the stock exchange that led to Britain’s withdrawal from the gold standard, the fear that it might spread to the army and the police, and the King being placed under armed guard at Balmoral. It had a huge impact at the time.
NORTHINGS: So how have you structured the play around the mutiny?
HAMISH MACDONALD: The mutiny itself is at the centre of the play, but it isn’t directly addressed as the focus of the action, it is spread out in fragments. The play moves around quite widely in space and time – it begins in a psychiatric ward, and there are flashbacks to the street disturbances in Glasgow in 1931, when the naval rating Connal comes home on leave for two weeks.
From that point the path to the mutiny is explored over a kind of two-week curve, but beyond that curve it also explores more widely on the character’s lives – the other two principle characters are his brother and his lover, who flee to Russia, as a number of the people involved in the mutiny did. So the mutiny has impacted on them all in a dramatic way.
NORTHINGS: Did that structure lead to complexities in the staging of the play?
HAMISH MACDONALD: I think everything from the design to the movement massively complements the writing. It’s hard to be objective when you are the writer, and you can only judge on audience reaction, which was extremely positive on the preview and opening night. The staging has really come together with the design and the performances in a really strong and compelling way, I think, and I feel that will get even stronger over a six-week tour.
I don’t see it as terribly complex as a piece of work to watch – it demands a bit of thinking, but it is a way of telling a story that isn’t necessarily just moving in a line from point A to point B, although there is a linear thread through it anyway.
NORTHINGS: People are well used to that kind of narrative dislocation in film and television in any case, aren’t they?
HAMISH MACDONALD: Absolutely so, and it’s interesting that you mention film, because I think the production is quite filmic in itself, and there is a fantastic sound design as part of it that gives the whole thing a very cinematic feel for me.
There are definitely demands in dealing with the various shifts of location and so on, but I feel they have been met. The director, Alasdair McCrone, has used a very clever set by Alicia Hendrick which operates around a pair of dockyard gates that can adapt to various different uses and contexts, and could equally be in Scotland or the USSR.
They transform into many different things – a bar room, a railway station platform, and various other things, and it all worked very well. The most gratifying thing for me was that not only did the set work very well, it didn’t dominate the show – sometimes these things can become largely about moving a big piece of kit around the stage!
NORTHINGS: Mull Theatre have emphasised some of the parallels with the current situation – then as now, Britain was under a coalition government imposing austerity measures, and there was unrest on the streets. Is that parallel kept implicit in your play?
HAMISH MACDONALD: They have to be implicit, largely because it is entirely coincidental. It wasn’t written to coincide with a coalition government and the summer riots in England – it was initially written five years ago, and that is all coincidental, although what it maybe tells you is that nothing changes!
NORTHINGS: And it offers the prospect of a meaty piece of theatre?
HAMISH MACDONALD: I hope so, and I have to say that I think the performers (Harry Ward, Helen McAlpine, Barrie Hunter and Greg Powrie) have done a tremendous job. It’s a play that has been a long time in the development – there have been three big versions of it, and I think in the end we got what we wanted, and it’s a more mature production than it might otherwise have been had we got underway earlier.
NORTHINGS: I believe you are also busy wearing your Dogstar hat?
HAMISH MACDONALD: Full on! I’m producing a re-make of The Captain’s Collection, which we’ll be doing at Celtic Connections in January, and then touring in May 2012. I’m also going to Kiev to talk about Dogstar’s work and how it has been received internationally at a festival over there.
The project with the Tehran group that I described on Northings is also still going on. Dogstar is a project funded company, and we can only work in response to specific projects when we get the funding.
NORTHINGS: You are also a novelist – are you working on anything at this point?
HAMISH MACDONALD: Yes, in between all that, I’m working on a historical novel which has been sidelined for the last few weeks, but is also ongoing. It’s set around the conflict that developed in the 19th century around the idea of deep time espoused by the geologist James Hutton, and the conflict that his discoveries caused with established religious ideas. It’s set just before the publication of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species, and takes in the conflict between Robert Chambers and Hugh Miller, so there is a Highland connection in there as well.
Singing Far Into The Night is on tour until the end of October – see Mull Theatre website (link below) for details.
© Kenny Mathieson, 2011