“Distinct, succinct, and valuable”
Take two names of the same man, move him from Dingwall to Colombo, via Kandahar, Omdurman, and Bloemfontein, and you have an extraordinary life. It should be a history in an imperial sense – proud and impressive, monumentally worthy of respect – and in Scotland it surely is; but add sleazy allegations, the New York Herald, and a hotel bedroom in Paris and it’s all demeaned.
Born Eachann Gilleasbaig MacDhòmhnaill in Mulbuie on the Black Isle, Major General Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald shot himself in the head in the Hotel Regina on 25 March 1903. He was 50 years old. This distinct, succinct, and valuable play by David Gooderson, directed by Kate Nelson, would show how, in all likelihood, this came about.
There is a parade ground moment of wounding significance, there is a battle-field manoeuvre of astonishing derring-do, but actually it’s all set up in the mincing and treacherous line, ‘None of us would be called a fairy’, viciously twisted from ‘Three Little Maids from School Are We’. ‘Fighting Mac’, the crofter’s son from Ross-shire, had no defence against tittle-tattle and class prejudice. His face may have been on cigarette cards but the Governor’s wife cares only for (English) officers who can waltz.
Look at Hector MacDonald, courtesy of ebay, and see Steven Duffy – broad, ramrod straight, level gaze – but without sword, sash and medals. Actually, keeping uniform to plain khaki and the odd puttee is quietly effective, as is the Highland lilt to Hector’s voice. Fancy jackets, drawled vowels, a certain moneyed ease and a torpid morality are the property of the colonial administrators and the plantation owners. Valentine Hanson is especially conspicuous as the scheming Hugh Phipps and an excellent Kevin Lenon is the chaplain, possessed of a conscience certainly, but with not quite enough of it to do any good. The Governor (Stevie Hannon) and his frightful Lady (Gowan Calder) would curl their upper lips in disdain if they knew that Hector’s London home is in middle-class Dulwich. And Hector has another, much more precious secret that comes as a smart surprise early in the second half.
Ali MacLaurin’s serviceable set is out of a military transport: an unfussy assembly of crates, a desert-blown tarp across the back, boarding steps, and a larger, rectangular box that doubles as wardrobe and coffin. (Listen up for the time of Hector’s funeral. It’s both sad and scandalous.) There is a tantalising snatch of the pipes and drums, just possibly of ‘The Black Bear’, but the fuller, evocative sound is of strathspey and reel and of gaelic song, beautifully gathered at the close.
My one gripe is with Lord Roberts, supposedly Hector’s army mentor and ally. He bellows a final order that in fact does for Hector. I would have thought it would have been a kinder encounter along the lines of, “Now see here, Archie, this wretched business has to be faced down ….” However, what do I know? David Gooderson has had to work on what is known of MacDonald’s last years when it is clear that relevant letters and papers were ‘lost’ or destroyed. Fortunately, Raj Ghatak, who plays Roberts, also has the much more sympathetic part of the local bank manager, Vikram.
Poppy Day, introduced in 1919, came too late for Hector MacDonald, but for him (and for the Gordon Highlanders) here are the concluding sentences to the Government Commission’s report on his death:
‘…. We find that the late Sir Hector MacDonald has been cruelly assassinated by vile and slanderous tongues … we cannot but deplore the sad circumstances of the case that have fallen so disastrously on one whom we have found innocent of any crime attributed to him.’
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 11 November)
Go to ‘Hector’ at Ed Littlewood Productions.
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