Five shows and Home

Yesterday was the first day of our second week of Fringe performances – after a much-needed rest on Sunday (which some squandered climbing Arthur’s Seat) we got back on the horse and did the show for about 20 people. Audiences, though sometimes small, have been appreciative: here is some of the positive feedback we’ve received on Twitter.

We’re still waiting with trepidation on a couple of reviews. The Scotsman came on the technically-shaky first night, and while their write-up was a low star rating, it wasn’t negatively written. They found a lot to like in the play, praising Ben Gibb’s ‘very involving performance’ as the Ghost of Anthony Crosland, and – particularly encouraging for me – its ‘sharp and playful uses of verse’. All in all, the reviewer thought Free for All showed ‘a lot of promise’, and we’re confident that by this point in the run we’re delivering on it, with a much sharper, clearer show – it’s just a shame they didn’t come two nights later to see it! But for our other notices, we live in hope.

I’m also pleased to say some punters have already contributed to our online survey on the use of verse, with some positive and thoughtful comments, of which more later. Before we head out for another day’s flyering to try and build that audience, I thought I’d share a tidbit from the history of verse drama that happened right here in Edinburgh.

Old Playhouse Close
Old Playhouse Close

This sign, spotted on Canongate as we walked to the Scottish Poetry Library (sadly closed for refurbishment), mentions Home’s Douglas – a play which is quite significant in the development of poetic theatre. By most accounts, including mine, the 18th century is something of a fallow period for verse play – comedy in verse largely disappears, and tragedy becomes increasingly ossified and shrill. While in and of itself, it reads pretty terribly, Douglas seemed to excite audiences in a way that few plays had done in the preceding decades.

With its feuding border chieftains and its vague proto-Romanticism, this tale of a lowly shepherd boy who, surprise surprise, isn’t a shepherd after all, it won the admiration of major figures in London and Edinburgh, including David Hume, whose rational mind failed to resist its passionate melodrama. The nationalistic spirit of the Scottish characters probably made a contribution to its success:

My name is Norval; on the Grampian Hills

My father feeds his flocks; a frugal swain …

Whatever you make of Douglas, it’s clear that at the time it seemed to offer something at least slightly different – a less enclosed world, a more believable kind of emotional intensity. What strikes me reading it today is how rigid its verse is – dead metaphors and empty abstract nouns abound, and only two lines in the play break out of a fixed ten-syllable limit. Nonetheless, according to the most recent edition, a spectator at the Edinburgh premiere – presumably at the Old Playhouse – was moved to stand from the stalls and shout: ‘Whaur’s yur Wully Shakespeare nou?’

This reaction seems unlikely during the remaining dates of Free for All, but it says a lot about attitudes to verse drama: how much its cultural prestige has altered over time, and how when watching plays in pentameter, Shakespeare had become the primary reference point in an audience’s mind. It’s reactions like that inspired me to pursue this research in the first place – to find out how something now so marginal could have elicited such vocal response from mainstream audiences, and to work out how much of a play’s success is down to its verse alone. Who knows – maybe the next reviews will help us answer that!


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