McGonagall’s Chronicles (which will be remembered for a very long time)
**** (4 stars)
Originally presented as part of Oran Mór’s Play, Pie and Pint series, and back by popular demand, Gary McNair’s play more than justified its return. I arrived very late, and sat all alone on the back row of Trav 1, so was somewhat divorced from proceedings: had I been sitting lower down, I think I would have given 5 stars: the audience certainly loved it.
A simple set – a chair in front of a fireplace, with three claymores of graded size [akin to flying ducks] beside it and the mounted heads of a unicorn and a stag above it – in front of which a man with a HAT speaks to us of the tragic life and death of the self-convinced World’s Greatest Poet whom the rest of the world regarded as a laughingstock.
The Traverse’s winter offering is presented in rhyme as tortuous and torturous as McGonagall’s own, exquisitely delivered by McNair himself, ably supported by Brian James O’Sullivan and sound designer and composer Simon Liddell. I was impressed by O’Sullivan’s chameleon-like ability to represent any number of civic dignitaries, editors, critics, and Ordinary People while also providing, with Simon Liddell, the musical background to this tragic story. And all credit to McNair, who manages to marry the absurdity and comic potential of the appalling rhymes and highfaluting sentiments with the pathetic story of the man who refused to accept his failings and persisted in believing that the world would finally recognise his genius.
What on earth made McGonagall do it? A poorly-educated weaver, child of weavers, who left school at the age of seven, tried to escape the poverty trap [sprung upon him and the other weavers of Dundee when machines took the work away from the men, women and children who had previously prospered] by writing poetry, or at least what he thought was poetry: a collection of lines of random length and with little attention to rhythm, metre, grammar or syntax but with a RHYME at the end of each line. Criticism didn’t deter him; abuse and missiles hurled at him while performing his poems didn’t stop him. He walked to Balmoral to try to read his poems to the Queen, he walked to London in the hopes of finding the fabled gold that paved its streets, he even crossed the Atlantic to try to make his name in America – all to no avail, as he died in poverty and was buried in a pauper’s grave in Edinburgh.
And yet… we remember his name, when his contemporaries are forgotten, his poems are studied in universities, and it’s impossible to cross the Tay rail bridge without remembering the 96 people whose death was commemorated in what is possibly his most famous poem. Do we laugh at the deluded madman, or applaud his irrepressible drive to write despite all the mockery and abuse? McGonagall Societies host McGonagall Suppers, and wherever poetry is found, there too will be his name: and if that’s not fame and recognition of a very unusual form of genius, I don’t know what is!
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry: if you sit on the front row you can throw the things you will be given – and if you sit further back, you can always bring your own eggs, tomatoes, cabbages or worse. The run is short – don’t miss it!
McGonagall’s Chronicles, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, run ends 15th December, For tickets go to: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event-detail/1525/mcgonagalls-chronicles-(which-will-be-remembered-for-a-very-long-time).aspx