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Fergus Lamont- Communicado Do Robin Jenkins' Novel

When a young call centre worker suddenly started appearing in society columns dressed in full military regalia and claiming gentrified ancestry to his colleagues, something was clearly not right. Any ideas he might have had above his station, alas, quickly exposed him as a fraud. The culprit’s motives for such an extreme display of social climbing may have had more to do with esteem issues than with caddish opportunism, though the ease with which he first ventured into such high-falluting circles, as well as the fact that he even got away with such an adventure at all, say much about the Scottish establishment’s fluidity.

Any similarity to the eponymous hero of Fergus Lamont, the late Robin Jenkins’ 1979 novel of one man’s 40-year travail across this country’s class divide, which has now been adapted for the stage by Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado theatre company, is purely coincidental. Jenkins’ hero may be born in the slums, but he quickly sets his sights on reclaiming what he believes to be his noble origins. Manoeuvring himself into the officer class during World War One, Fergus moves across country via a series of chameleon-like reinventions that sum up a nation’s wayward psyche which this picaresque rake’s progress satirises at length.

“It’s quite Greek in a way,” Mulgrew observes of the story, “in that it’s about one man’s rise and fall. What Jenkins has done is something that reminds you of Great Expectations or something. There are a lot of grotesque Dickensian characters who enter into it. It’s completely epic. It’s ridiculous, and though I’ve always loved the book, I always thought I’d have to be mad to want to adapt it. But here we are. You just feel the zeitgeist or the mode’s right to do it.”

Fergus Lamont is Communicado’s second Jenkins adaptation. The first came in 1991 with Mulgrew’s take on The Cone Gatherers, an altogether darker tale of country life and death. For all their differences, both stories possess breadth enough to make them classic Communicado material. The company Mulgrew founded in 1983 with actors Alison Peebles and Rob Pickavance have had a relatively low profile over the last few years. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Communicado developed a house style of ensemble playing more in tune with Eastern European methodology than anything on their own doorstep.

Mulgrew scored hits with Carmen and Liz Lochead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped off, whose further collaboration with the company, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, was one of the flagships of Glasgow’s City Of Culture year in 1990. The Cone Gatherers followed, and the company scored further hits with Danton’s Death and their stage version of Cyrano de Bergerac, scripted by poet Edwin Morgan.

One of the last major productions of Mulgrew’s original tenure as head of Communicado was of Nicolai Erdman’s The Suicide. Its tale of how one man’s attempt on his own life is hijacked by all around him, The Suicide’s satirical bent superficially resembles that of Fergus Lamont. A further link with the old Communicado comes via a score composed by clarinettist Karen Wimhurst, who’s worked with Mulgrew since the early days of the company.

Internal wranglings in the late 1990s saw Mulgrew leave the company he’d become the figurehead of, with Communicado itself reconstituted as the short-lived Theatre Archipelago. Mulgrew gradually returned to reclaim Communicado’s identity, though until now shows have been relatively small affairs. Following last year’s take on Vaclav Havel’s play, The Memorandum, Fergus Lamont looks set to change that, and might go some way to putting Communicado back on the international map. It’s a wayward path that Fergus himself might appreciate.

“He is his own country,” Mulgrew says of the play’s hero. “He identifies himself with the aristocracy, even though he hates the bourgeois Scots. So he’s very aware of his own snobbishness, even though he’s a complete fraud. Fergus Lamont is about the Scottish class system, which is still alive, even though we’re living in very different times. Fergus is given a kilt by his mother, which he then wears all the time, and becomes his identifying symbol. He becomes this very arrogant Scottish nationalist and would-be poet who ends up marrying this romantic novelist who’s also Scotland’s richest woman. His whole life is based on lies, but this kilt becomes a talisman of who he is, which in some way saves him in the war.”

Part of the character of Fergus, Mulgrew suspects, is based on poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who reinvented his self from his original identity as Christopher Grieve. While living in the highlands, MacDiarmid too was a full-time kilt-wearer. Whether Fergus’s poetry is of a similar stature as MacDiarmid’s, though, isn’t known.

“You don’t know whether he’s McGonagall or whether he’s Byron,” Mulgrew chuckles, “because you never hear any of his poetry. Yet out of everything that Fergus does, you get this big kaleidoscope of the Scottish nation between 1900 and 1945. Eventually Fergus is forced to go back to where he came from, but it’s changed and he’s changed. There are lots of people that will resonate with. Anyone from a working class background and who went to university will recognise that wondering about where you fit in. If you look at all the Clan chiefs, they all speak very posh, because they’ve all been to Eton. In terms of who owns what in Scotland, it’s still the same hundred families who’ve owned it for years. So Fergus Lamont is still very current. It’s set in the past, but it’s very much about Scotland here and now.”

Ambitious call centre workers take note.

Fergus Lamont, Perth Theatre, March 21-31, then tours

The Herald, March 20th 2007


ends

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