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Peter Arnott - The Monarch of the Glen

The theatrically named Hurricane Ophelia may have blown in and out of Scotland like a banshee by the time these words appear, but in Pitlochry, the season's more regular winds have already taken root in the Perthshire town. Such a blustery climate has allowed Peter Arnott the opportunity to don what the Glasgow based playwright calls his Kenny Ireland Memorial Cap while taking regular constitutionals from rehearsals for his new stage version of Compton Mackenzie's novel, The Monarch of the Glen.

Arnott has so named what looks like a traditional fisherman's cap in honour of the late director, actor and former artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Ireland's outgoing Lyceum production in 2003 was of Arnott's piece of Victorian Edinburgh Gothic, The Breathing House. The pair later collaborated with designer Hayden Griffin on stagings of classic Scottish novels at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen. Arnott adapted both The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn, and The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins, which was Griffin's final work before his passing in 2013. More collaborations between Arnott and Ireland were planned before Ireland's death a year later.

“We had a big list of Scottish novels we wanted to do,” says Arnott. “The Monarch of the Glen was very much near the top of that list, so I'm particularly pleased to be doing it in Pitlochry with Richard Baron directing it, although this is a very different thing. For one thing, it's a much sillier book, and I've never written a farce before. It doesn't let up for a second, so the script has to move like lightning. Although the book was written before P.G. Wodehouse, it kind of has a Scottish P.G. Wodehouse feel to it, but with more of a political edge, and this deeply buried subtext about who owns Scotland.”

Given that Mackenzie was one of the co-founders in 1928 of the Scottish National Party alongside the likes of poet Hugh MacDiarmid, such preoccupations are surprising. As with Mackenzie's earlier novel, Whisky Galore, seen in a riotous musical version as part of Pitlochry's 2009 season, Mackenzie's meditations on Scotland and its relationship with England and America came gift-wrapped in the sort of high comedy which Arnott is discovering first-hand.

Set among the fictional Scottish castle of Glenbogle, The Monarch of the Glen revolves around golf club owning American millionaire Chester Royde's visit to the Highlands to explore his trophy bride's ancestry. With their cash-strapped hosts lewd by clan chief Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis fiercely protective of the old Highland ways, other interlopers include a nationalist poet and some English hikers all wanting to make their mark. If the golf-club owning American sounds familiar, it is also an accidental dramatic gift which Arnott doesn't have to try too hard to have fun with such a cartoonish archetype.

“It's effortless,” says Arnott. Any accidental association with Donald Trump is already there, and you don't have to play it. But the book is also a fantastic description of Tory Scotland as well. Wandering around Pitlochry, I initially thought I'd written this wild farce, when actually it's a docu-drama. Those people are still here, and they're going to be around for a good while yet. The book is so much on the money, and if anything, we're trying to pull all that back.

“The other thing as well is that it's not obvious who the monarch of the glen actually is. Through Chester's wife, Carrie, whose family were kicked out, we see this rediscovery of Scottishness, and what that means to someone who's ancestors were thrown out of the country because of the Highland clearances.”

Arnott is acutely aware that audiences may presume his play to be a staging of the successful BBC TV series of the same name that ran for seven series between 2000 and 2005. While the Sunday night comedy drama was inspired by Mackenzie's novel and the subsequent books that made up his Highland series, it updated things to a late twentieth and early twenty-first century back-drop that was infinitely gentler in tone.

“I think the TV show did something really clever,” says Arnott. “In the book, Hector, the character that Richard Briers played, is aged twenty-two, but in the TV show he's in his 60s. What that means is it's not cancelling out anything that's gone before. It's just updating it, so you can see the class structure that still exists in Perthshire. But that's not what we're doing. If anything, because the characters are so recognisable, it will hopefully be the audience who will be doing the updating.”

Arriving in Pitlochry by train, one of the first things to be seen at the station is a mock-up of the original Monarch of the Glen, based on the painting that inspired Mackenzie. By a quirk of serendipity, as Arnott's adaptation prepares to open, Sir Edwin Landseer's 1851 masterpiece, acquired this year by the National Galleries of Scotland, will embark on a Scotland-wide tour that will see it travel from Inverness, where it is currently on show, to galleries in Perth, Paisley and Kirkcudbright. This follows the painting taking up residence in Edinburgh during the summer months.

“It all feels strangely karmic,” says Arnott.

If all goes well, Arnott would like to continue working his way through the list of Scottish novels drawn up by him and Ireland, and would like to see them staged as much as resources allow.

“I'd like to do The Master of Ballantrae,” says Arnott of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel. “I really want to do a swash-buckler, and I think it's a book that needs to be done onstage.”

Before he takes such a leap, Arnott has the farce of The Monarch of the Glen to contend with, while also making sure that the story's underlying serious intent doesn't get lost in the play's wildness.

I hope it masters its frenetic pace, plotting and counter-plotting,” says Arnott, “but at the same time I hope it does something more. The people in the play all care passionately about what they believe in, and as a playwright I can't write in my judgement of that. The characters all have to make a case for themselves, whether they're a Scots Tory, a nationalist or a socialist, and it's my job to present all of those cases as best as I can. So when Ben Nevis says all this stuff that he does about Scotland, I have to imagine that is something that is very real for him. It's the same for the Scottish nationalist, whose views are probably a bit more like mine, so I can take the p*** out of that a bit.

“Everyone has a persuasive case, so it hopefully makes you think about who the real monarch of the glen actually is. As a piece, the play is hopefully addressing the question of whither Scotland, and what is Scotland? It's like when someone in the play says, Scotland is an argument, always has been, and always will be. Ben Nevis has a different point of view, and there are other people with different points of view which they believe in passionately, and which are really important to them. If truth is such a difficult category these days, as we see on the news every night, then the stage is the perfect place to explore that truth.”

The Monarch of the Glen, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, October 26-November 12.
www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

The Herald, October 24th 2017

ends

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