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The Cone Gatherers - Peter Arnott Revisits Robin Jenkins


Peter Arnott had never read The Cone Gatherers when he was asked by 
Aberdeen Performing Arts to adapt Robin Jenkins' 1955 novel for their 
new touring production which opens at the city's His Majesty's Theatre 
next week. For a playwright who has already dramatised Neil M Gunn's 
The Silver Darlings for the same company, has penned a version of 
Robert Louis Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, and whose original works such 
as The Breathing House are often steeped in Scotland's rich literary 
heritage, this is quite an admission. Such is Arnott's curiosity, 
however, that the prospect of diving in to Jenkins' World War Two set 
work about notions of good and bad on a Scottish country estate was one 
to relish.

“I have to confess to my shame,” says Arnott with a mix of sheepishness 
and ebullience, “that not only did I not know The Cone Gatherers as a 
novel, but I didn't know Robin Jenkins as a writer either. Once I 
started reading his work, however, I developed a theory which is maybe 
something to do with him, that all his main characters are people who 
don't fit in the world. The Cone Gatherers has three or four people who 
don't fit in, and in dealing with that, it's how they respond that 
counts. Do they respond in good faith, or do they respond in bad faith?”

The Cone Gatherers was a very personal book for Jenkins, who took its 
backdrop from his time as a conscientious objector, gathering cones to 
replace trees felled for the war effort. In the novel, two brothers, 
Neil and his disabled sibling Calum, undertake this pursuit under the 
resentful eye of game-keeper, Duror, the estate's aristocratic owner 
and her son Roddy.

“Duror's way of not fitting in with the world is to hate it,” Arnott 
observes. “He has this furious energy, and just attacks all the time. 
Roddy can't bear the people he's grown up with, so for him, fitting in 
becomes about class. Calum, on the other hand, is mentally and 
physically handicapped, but the paradox is that he fits in with the 
world completely. He loves it, and he accepts everything, and it's this 
acceptance that drives Duror's rage. Jenkins doesn't say where that 
rage comes from. Duror just hates this boy, so there's a certain 
inevitability that something's going to happen. In the book, Jenkins 
himself shies away from what happens at the end. The story is told 
second or third hand, but you can't do that with drama.”

The Cone Gatherers is the third adaptation of a classic Scottish novel 
initiated by Aberdeen Performing Arts under the tenure of Duncan 
Hendry, who is now in charge of the Kings and Festival Theatres in 
Edinburgh. With Jane Spiers, former Chief Executive of Horsecross in 
Perth, now in post in Aberdeen, Arnott is optimistic that the 
relationship can continue.

As with The Silver Darlings, Arnott's latest adaptation isn't the first 
time The Cone Gatherers has been seen onstage. That honour goes to 
future TV writer and creator of Skins, Brian Elsley, who penned a 
version for Gerry Mulgrew's Communicado company in the early 1990s at 
Tramway, Glasgow. Mulgrew's production was played out in the thick of a 
gigantic forest set, in which the cast climbed trees while the audience 
sat on wooden stumps on either side of the auditorium.

With live music and singing accompanying Mulgrew's impressionistic 
direction, Communicado's The Cone Gatherers was an immersive spectacle 
that formed Scotland's contribution to a programme featuring a theatre 
company apiece from England, Scotland Ireland and Wales. Representing 
England were The Wrestling School, who presented the debut production 
of Howard Barker's play, Victory. The director was Kenny Ireland, who 
would go on to revive Victory while in charge of Edinburgh's Royal 
Lyceum Theatre, where his parting shot was to oversee the premiere of  
Arnott's slice of Victorian gothic, The Breathing House.

Significantly, the only other stage adaptations of any of Jenkins' many 
novels has again been by Communicado, with their take on Fergus Lamont. 
The status of the writer, who died in 2005, may be about to change.

“It's a very Scottish attitude,” Arnott says. “He's dead now, so we're 
suddenly allowed to rate him, but Andrew Marr is a bit of a fan, and 
Polygon are trying to republish everything he did, so I hope doing The 
Cone Gatherers onstage might be part of a revival, because, like 
Stevenson, he wrote a lot, and put out a lot, but we hardly know any of 
it.”

While Arnott's version of The Cone Gatherers looks set to be quite 
different from Communicado's, it is, according to Arnott, “like 
rehearsing a movie. We've been using a live score from the start, there 
are lots of projections, and there are choral parts in it which are 
being sung, which I never imagined. But there's a very different 
physicality to what we're doing. This maybe has a bit more distance, 
and is more about watching things than being in among them.”

Even so, Arnott's mix of enthusiasm and craftsmanship should make for a 
heady experience.

“The kind of characters who appear in The Cone Gatherers appear in a 
lot of other books by Jenkins. They're characters who have this 
luminous quality of the Bible, archetypes who are replayed through 
different situations, and which have the same approach to life and ask 
the same question; how do you live well in the world when you don't fit 
in and aren't accepted? I may be slandering Jenkins, who may well have 
been hugely happy, but his books deal with the same things again and 
again.

“One thing that's interesting about it as well is that it was written 
in the 1950s, and is set in the 1940s, and there's all these ideas 
about what's right and wrong. Attitudes towards people with 
disabilities, that's an issue that's different now to forty or fifty 
years ago. Duror has this hatred of Calum, but the challenge is to root 
Duror's loathing in something that makes him a sympathetic character, 
and not make it too easy dramatically to dismiss him. A good story is 
always about someone who is doing the right thing, even if what they do 
is horrendous”

Arnott will have his work cut out even more in this respect in a just 
completed play, commissioned by former Dundee Rep director Hamish Glen 
for the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

“It's about a Nazi jazz band,” says Arnott. “Charlie and His Orchestra 
were Lord Haw Haw's backing band, who played jazz standards but with 
anti-Semitic lyrics.”

Beyond this, presuming the relationship with Aberdeen Performing Arts 
remains ongoing, there are plenty of classic Scottish novels for Arnott 
to get stuck into. Arnott mentions The Master of Ballantrae and The 
House With the Green Shutters as future possibilities.

“I've got a long list,” he says, “and I'm sure other people have as 
well.”

The Cone Gatherers, His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, September 
14th-22nd, then tours
www.boxofficeaberdeen.com
The Herald, September 13th 2012

ends

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