The Piper’s Trail – George Square Theatre – 2 stars
My Grandfather’s Great War – Underbelly – 3 stars
Ten years ago, a play called Soldiers appeared at The Traverse. It was produced by The Grassmarket Project who, under the guidance of director Jeremy Weller, put real people onstage to tell their own stories rather than have actors play them. Prior to Soldiers, GMP had scored hits putting down-and-outs, ex residents of young offenders institutes and people who’d spent time in psychiatric wards. The results were rough in your face before that term became a genre and, some argued, unnecessarily voyeuristic, whereby well-heeled Fringe audiences could gawp at the freaks. Soldiers was something else again.
The production arrived in the wake of assorted Balkan conflicts, and brought together veterans from a variety of regiments, ranks and serial numbers, all of whom had spent time on the frontline. The merits of the production were fiercely debated, to the extent that, during a live TV discussion programme, one of the cast, a high ranking officer, was accused with some credibility of serious war crimes. The next day, the officer left the country, and the rest of the run of Soldiers was cancelled, never to be heard of again.
A decade on, men and women are everywhere, it seems, on this year’s Fringe. Both current and past wars come under scrutiny in a plethora of shows, while others attempt to get to grips with what it actually means to be a soldier. Outside of the productions themselves, however, there have been no such public debates as the one following Soldiers. Part of the reason for this is the paucity of serious television coverage of Edinburgh’s festivals, and partly because the quick turnarounds of busy theatres simply won’t allow for it.
Beyond this lack, however, the critical mass concerning plays about war and the army’s ambiguous role within it that appears to be converging in Edinburgh through plays like Deep Cut and Fall at The Traverse and others elsewhere, suggests some kind of discussion over theatre’s response to how the military operates both in this and other countries needs to be convened as a matter of some urgency.
A crucial presence on any panel should be the producers of The Piper’s Trail, a small-scale theatre in education piece in which a teenage boy desperate to be the best piper in the world leaves Shetland and goes on a rite of passage taking him from Orkney to Dundee and Edinburgh, finally landing up at the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow. Along the way he meets goth girl Morag and ex squaddie Robert, who becomes a kind of guru for Jamie as he discovers the values of courage discipline, respect, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment. All in fact part of the over-riding credo of the British Army, who bank-rolled the production to the tune of a quarter of a million pounds. Which, given that a main theatre rep production costs around £100,000, is a lot of money for something so small.
The British Army have gone on record as wanting to put over a more positive image of the army than, say, Deep Cut or the National Theatre of Scotland’s 2006 production of the phenomenal Black Watch did. Which is fine if they want to avoid the uncomfortable truths of those plays, but if that’s their aim, director Bryan Lacey of ImpAct Theatre really need to be as artistically blinding to make their point beyond the unavoidably triumphalist appeal of the pipe and drum accompaniment and the audience singalong to Flower Of Scotland. The travelling squatters Jamie falls in with in Edinburgh are clichéd bad guys, and it could be potentially fascinating too to find out why Robert left the army to become a traveller.
Beyond the show itself, there should be no need for the presence of the real life female Lieutenant who introduces this freely ticketed show by telling us exactly what’s going to happen.
A far more passionately rendered experience of army life is served up in My Grandfather’s Great War, actor Cameron Stewart’s one-man homage to Captain Alexander Stewart, whose diaries highlight his experiences of the Somme at a time when the theatre of war was a far muddier proposition.
As he bounds onstage to a back-drop of slides of his inspiration at various ages, Stewart minor is still in thrall of his grand-dad. He regards him as a hero, and freely admits that at times he feels as if he’s living in his mentor’s shadow. Stewart acknowledges too that “Our generation don’t have much faith in authority.”
As he acts out life on the front-line, so impassioned does Stewart become that you fear he’s about to launch himself into orbit, or at least dive for cover on the front row of the auditorium. It’s all delivered, however, with the sort of steely discipline that young Jamie in The Piper’s Trail so aspires to.
Adapted and directed by David Benson, Captain Stewart’s diaries were originally broadcast on radio before being worked up into the just-published A Very Important Officer. Audiences lap up such biographical memoirs, be it out of nostalgia or, like Stewart’s performance, to follow some unsated desire for heroism. In the end, My Grandfather’s Great War is as much about its performer as its subject, and if Stewart is desperate to be a chip off the old block he’s probably succeeded.
The Herald, August 2007