Monday 7 January 2013

Theatre review: So Great a Crime

The Finborough's never been a theatre to drag its heels about getting topical issues onto its stage, doing things like staging fully-formed plays about a revolution while that revolution's still going on. It's hard not to spot a certain topicality to their first Sunday-Tuesday show of 2013 as well - the story of a once much-loved public figure and knight of the realm whose reputation was destroyed by allegations of paedophilia. But what David Gooderson's So Great a Crime actually does is quite different from a warts-and-all exposé, instead attempting to restore the reputation of Sir Hector Macdonald. Nicknamed "Fighting Mac," Sir Hector (Stuart McGugan) was known as Queen Victoria's favourite general, a Gaelic-speaking Scot and career soldier with an impressive war record who becomes General Officer of Ceylon. But the governor (James Wooley) of the genteel colony and his cronies don't take well to a gruff Highlander with no interest in playing by their rules, and soon he finds himself accused of inappropriate relations with local boys.

The play is based on a true story, and following the general's suicide in 1903 all official records disappeared, his guilt or innocence remaining a genuine mystery. So Great a Crime however takes a very definite stance on this, siding with Mcdonald: Although we see him take an interest in the family of local bank clerk Vikram (Lyndam Gregory) who happens to have two pre-teen sons, we're also strongly encouraged to interpret this as a substitute for the secret son he's left in London and misses terribly. And any suspicious behaviour we see is outweighed by the other side of the argument, where the public school clique that run the colony instantly take against the outsider and actively start making up charges against him.

I might have preferred a bit more ambiguity left in but my bigger issues came from the way in which the story was actually told: Framed, sort of, by a guard of four soldiers escorting Mcdonald's unmarked coffin back to Scotland, we flash back to the latter part of his life story in a muddle of styles that break the fourth wall at inopportune moments and would work in a frantic comedy, but feels completely wrong for a sad, sinister story like this. At one point the guards break out of the story to discuss who will play which character in the next scene, to which the only response can be: Oh, is that what they've been doing, reenacting it as a play-within-a-play? In which case how come they constantly interact with three other actors who don't appear in the framing device? There's an amateurishness to the staging that, with much of the cast skewing upwards in age, has an unfortunate feel sometimes of old men playing at soldiers. The playwright also directs, and in the first act especially this is very apparent - I was wishing for a steady outside hand to have come in and at least focus the play a bit.

The second act is a big improvement, not least because it eschews most of the misfiring storytelling devices, and at some point it's almost a surprise when it becomes apparent there's an interesting story in here: Not just the machinations of Ceylon's ex-pats, that escalate Macdonald taking a piss near a train into allegations of him going full Now Then Now Then on 60 boys, but Sir Hector's own self-destructive streak as well: Fuelled by a conviction that the army doesn't promote "family men," he keeps his own marriage a secret from the world for 18 years. Of course, instead of respect, what this actually means is he's followed by sniggers about his apparent confirmed bachelorhood everywhere he goes, a fact that starts the gossip in the first place. (Even though if Mcdonald was guilty he'd be equally vilified today, the fury at the time was about the homosexuality, with the age of the boys never considered an issue.) It's a shame the play failed to find most of the interesting angles in the true story.

So Great a Crime ends with Mcdonald's widow (Elizabeth Counsell) at his funeral imploring that the dead be left to rest in peace. Which I found a bit of an ironic coda to a play that had spent two hours digging up a century-old body that had otherwise been mostly forgotten (except as the alleged inspiration for the logo of Camp Coffee.)

So Great a Crime by David Gooderson is booking in repertory until the 22nd of January at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours including interval.

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