Rob Drummond: The Mack, A Play, A Pie & A Pint
***** (5 stars)
This play, particularly apposite in the light of the recent fire at Notre Dame, neatly side-steps the issue of whether the cost of restoration could be better spent helping people in need, and is an engrossing three-hander which is played out in front of a simple, instantly recognisable Rennie Mackintosh rose, with the cast sitting on three equally iconic black ladder-back chairs.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself [a delightful performance from James McAnerney] took the centre chair and gave us a delightful rendition of extracts from the twenty-three letters – the only surviving record of how or what he thought and felt – written to his wife Margaret Macdonald during their separation when he stayed in France while she went home to recover from an [undisclosed] illness. Seated each side of him were Frances, an American art historian [Janet Coulson], and Wayne [John Michie], a very Scottish senior fire officer, who began talking of their memories of the fires which destroyed “the Mack” – the Glasgow School of Art building designed by Mackintosh, and for which he is probably best known.
It was interesting that author Rob Drummond felt it necessary to preface his play with a disclaimer that Frances & Wayne were NOT based on ‘real people’ i.e. recognisable individuals… The two of them seemed to be in an interview situation, but it was not clear who was doing the interviewing, or whether they were in the same room at the same time: their reactions and stories overlapped but didn’t intertwine until the closing moments of the play.
Their initial responses were fairly unemotional and factual, Frances telling how as a student she became fascinated with Mackintosh and devoted her life to studying his life and his work. She put The Mack into context, telling us about Charles’ early days and his meeting with and subsequent marriage to Margaret, a student at the art college. Wayne talked about the challenges of being a fireman, and how it’s not all sitting around playing cards and keeping fit – mostly these days about health and safety and the properties of chemicals. Rarely, he said, do firemen go into burning buildings these days – but in the case of the Mack, 120 firemen went inside the building, not to rescue trapped people but to try to save the building and remove as many artefacts as possible.
Mackintosh, meanwhile, was writing loving letters to ‘my Margaret’ from ‘your Toshie’, commenting on the lack of other guests in the hotel, visits from a raven who tells him long stores he isn’t able to understand, and sadly remarking that mealtimes lose all their savour when there is no-one with whom to converse… He seemed to be trying his best to appear cheerful and to enjoy his life, but it became clear that all was not well and he was painfully lonely.
Both Frances and Wayne began to reveal cracks in their seemingly competent and capable façades. Each was in their own way deeply affected by the fires and each slowly unravels. Frances is isolated in her solitude, unable to share with anyone the grief she hardly realises she’s feeling, and slowly becoming a prisoner in her own flat, unable to go out and uninterested in eating. Wayne is isolated in a work situation which needs you “to be strong for the people around you” and is overwhelmed when all the deeply-buried memories of the horrors witnessed in other fires start to emerge. In each case a sudden event forces them to accept help, and they both come to realise that talking about how they feel and being listened to, being heard, is the most important thing of all. In the case of the Mack, it’s not the rebuilding of the structure itself that’s important, but rebuilding it for the people who use it.
This was a superb piece of acting, all three protagonists slowly revealing their inner pain, often without words, and with an expressive soundtrack by VanIves. The three narrative strands overlapped, at times echoed and reflected each other, and raised questions and ideas that will hopefully have sent the audience out of Traverse 2 with much to think and talk about.
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was lovingly brought to life – he seems to have been a lovely man, who greatly missed his Margaret, who played so huge a part in all his achievements: Sadly he returned from France to rejoin her with the tongue and throat cancer that was to kill him: and his most lasting memorial no longer exists – even if it is rebuilt, it can only be a copy… and we’ve not even mentioned the cost!
Rob Drummond: The Mack, A Play, A Pie & A Pint, Traverse Theatre, Edinburg run ends Saturday 27th April for tickets go to: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/ppp-the-mack
review by Mary Woodward