My First Play
I made my debut as a four year old. This was at Sacred Heart Primary School, Cumbernauld, where I took the non-speaking role of Christopher Robin in the school concert.
I was very much a Method actor as an infant. While my classmates sang “Christopher Robin is saying his prayers”, I knelt beside the bed and silently said some proper prayers; and when a big girl from Primary 7 lifted me into bed, in front of a packed house, I promptly fell asleep.
My first play as an audience member was 7:84’s The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, an agit-prop piece about the history of the Highlands. I was sixteen. I wish I could say it overturned all my expectations of theatre but firstly it was on the telly and secondly I had no expectations of theatre, never having seen any. But yes, it ripped through me like machine-gun fire.
I’m not from the Highlands and, like the majority of Scottish Catholics, I regarded Scottish history as alien and abject. The songs I sang were Irish and I knew more about the Easter Rising than Keir Hardie. The icons of Scottish culture, from Robert Burns to Rangers, were anathema to me. “Burns and Scott,” Edwin Muir wrote, “sham bards of a sham nation” – a phrase I often quoted with relish.
The Cheviot changed me. It was performed by Bill Paterson, Alex Norton and John Bett (among others) and theatrically it drew energy from the juxtaposition of stand-up, polemic, song and story-telling. It was staged (and filmed) in village halls, so there was a tremendous intimacy about the story-telling, and the subject matter was the clearance of the Highland glens by Highland aristocratic landowners to make way for sheep. I was watching alone and I remember crying when a Gaelic lament was sung and then being annoyed/embarrassed when my mum popped her head in the door.
I can picture everything about that night – the pattern of the carpet we had and the plant that lived on top of the telly (in the 1970s plants grew out of telly sets) – because it was the night I became Scottish. My identity was re-written. I began to identify with the people and history of the country where I was born and where I lived rather than conceptualizing myself as a member of an Irish-descended minority living in exile abroad.
Of course, I also began to see I could be both, that the two identities were not necessarily at war. It was a big moment for me; and I’m pretty sure that I continue to go to the theatre because I unconsciously expect, and hope for, more machine-gun moments.