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Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaits - Estait of the Nation

The first time Paul Henderson Scott saw Ane Satyre of the Thrie
Estaits, Sir David Lyndsay's sixteenth century epic that took the rise
out of church, state and gentry, it was a life-changing experience.
That production of Scotland's oldest known surviving play, as knocked
into textual shape by Robert Kemp, was seen by Scott at the 1948
Edinburgh International Festival. Then, as he related to National
Theatre of Scotland artistic director Vicky Featherstone several weeks
ago, he couldn't believe he'd never seen it before. Here was a play
that represented his culture, his history and his mother tongue in a
way that nothing else had in his experience.

Since Scott's eureka moment, he has gone on to see it in home-grown
productions in 1949, 1973 and in 1985, when Tom Fleming's production
for the now defunct Scottish Theatre Company played at the Edinburgh
International Festival. The production was revived the following year
at Glasgow's Theatre Royal before flying out to the Warsaw Theatre
Festival, where what was then a fairly rare sighting of Scottish
theatre abroad won a prize as the show of the festival.

Since then, however, Warsaw has proved to be the Thrie Estaits last
hurrah. This despite Henderson Scott's ongoing campaign to revive the
play with a tenacity that has b become a fixture at public events.
Every year at the announcement of EIF, Henderson Scott has made a point
of asking successive directors if they planned to do the play. Since
the formation of the National Theatre of Scotland Henderson Scott has
lobbied in a similar fashion. Up until now the answer to his question
has been in the negative. With the NTS planning to analyse the Thrie
Estaits as part of their online book group in August, Henderson Scott
has been invited to give a lecture on the importance of the play. As
part of the NTS' fifth anniversary Staging The Nation series of events.
This is a direct result of a conversation between Henderson Scott and
NTS artistic director Vicky Featherstone.

“It was a fantastic meeting,” according to Featherstone. “I think Paul
felt his voice wasn't being heard properly, but as soon as he told me
about how it affected him the first time he saw it, I knew exactly what
he meant, so we're interrogating the play, and we need to find out why
it's an important piece of writing, and whether it's dramatically
important for now.”

For Henderson Scott, this is a given.

“It's a magnificent piece of work,” he says. “It's a very clever piece
of drama, and its importance to the history of Scottish drama is
significant, and it's always been a mystery to me why it hasn't been
done for so long.”

At this juncture it might be pertinent to confess my personal
experience of The Thrie Estaits. In 1986 I'd just started as a first
year on the drama course at what was then Queen Margaret College in
Edinburgh. One afternoon, all the males in a year whose female
colleagues included future Ugly Betty and Extras star Ashley Jenson
were called into a room where we were asked to line up before a man
called Tom Fleming. This play I'd never heard of was being taken to
Warsaw following a couple of nights at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow,
and as well as the large cast already drafted in, they needed a dozen
extras to enter waving flags as a fanfare sounded.

Selecting six from Queen Margaret and six from RSAMD (based on height
rather than acting ability, much to the chagrin of our shorter
classmates), Fleming then put us through our flag-waving paces, which
then involved us all standing stock still onstage for a couple of hours
holding our standards aloft as the action went on around us. I was
thrilled, especially as Iain Cuthbertson, who I knew from his larger
than life turn as Scots gangster Charlie Endell was in it, as was too
Angus Lennie, who'd played tragicomic hotel chef Shughie Mcphee in
teatime soap opera Crossroads, and Russell Hunter, who I recognised as
Lonely from Callan.

Having left my native Liverpool less than two years earlier, I at first
found the play itself incomprehensible, although this was leavened
somewhat by the sense of spectacle and colour Fleming and the actors
brought to it in the rehearsal room. Myself and my fellow flag-bearers
were kitted out in outfits which I thought resembled the costumes in
Planet of the Apes, and I at least sported thick-lined face make-up in
a fruitless attempt to look mean. Yet, even with a crippling dose of
Polish flu and a steady diet of beetroot soup that only a huge banquet
at the Polish Consulate took away the taste of, once onstage with
little to do except listen to what was going on around me, things
gradually began to make sense.

The end result of this crash course in auld Scots was that by the time
we left Warsaw I had a far better grasp of my adopted country's native
tongue than I had when I arrived. I still have the front page of a
Polish newspaper featuring an image from one of the Polish
performances, with the entire page covered in autographs collected from
the entire company, Iain Cuthbertson, Angus Lennie, Russell Hunter and

The Scottish Theatre Company's Polish visitation with the Thrie Estaits
may have been the last major production of the play to be seen, but it
has continued to fire the imagination in other ways. In 1996 the late
John McGrath, founder of 7:84 Scotland and no stranger himself to
theatrical pageantry, updated it as A Satire of the Four Estates – with
the modern-day media now thrown into the rogues gallery they now
conspired with – for a production for Wildcat at the Edinburgh
Conference Centre. The same year Scottish Youth Theatre performed an
updated, more streetsmart version of Sir David Lyndsey's original.

Even more up to date is young director Stasi Schaeffer's five-minute
version of the play which will be performed at some point over the next
twenty-four hours as part of the National Theatre of Scotland's Five
Minute Theatre online extravaganza. An American, Schaeffer came across
the Thrie Estaits on taking up a place on RSAMD's post-graduate
directing course when she realised she didn't know one Scottish play.
Her researches led her straight to the play, whereupon she became
intrigued by its possibilities, even in five minutes. With playwright
Maried A Martin on board, however, things worked out differently.

“My original idea was that we could do all the hight points of the
play,” Schaeffer says, “but we realised that just wasn't going to be
possible, so we decided to just do a section instead.”

Martin and Schaeffer have updated their bite-size version to a hotel

“It's the perfect venue for this play, which asks big questions about
ethics and how things are run, which I think is still really pertinent
to today.”

Given what Vicky Featherstone's comments about how if the Thrie Estaits
was revived it would have to be done by as director who could make it
mean something to modern-day audiences, might Schaeffer be the one to
do it in full?

“I'm always up for a challenge,” she says.

While Featherstone will only commit to her ongoing interrogation of the
play, Henderson Scott can see no reason why it can't be done within a
couple of years.

“I don't just want the Thrie Estaits revived,” he says. “There are
others as well. I don't want the National Theatre of Scotland to just
be doing old plays, but there should be one or two a year.”

The Herald, June 21st 2011



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