Published: 27/09/2015 12:09 - Updated: 24/09/2015 12:32

Poets' strange meeting takes the high road in war play revival

Philip Howard rehearsing with actors Thomas Cotran and Ali Watt at Eden Court.
Philip Howard rehearsing with actors Thomas Cotran and Ali Watt at Eden Court.

HE may have been director of some of Scotland’s best known theatres, but for Philip Howard, there is something special about a Highland tour.

"I have always been happiest doing small shows in village halls," the former Traverse Theatre and Dundee Rep boss said.

"Sometimes the smaller the community, the greater the percentage who come out to see it. Even with a massive hit show, you can never hop to each more than four per cent of the population in a city."

Howard’s record is a lot better than that, especially when he took a play to the island of Easdale in the Firth of Lorn.

"We were able to report to the Scottish Arts Council that we had played to 182 per cent of the local population," Howard laughed.

"Just over 30 people came, but that was more than the population of the island.

"I find that sort of work very rewarding. If you get the play right, the audiences feel really privileged you have come there and you feel really privileged they have enjoyed it."

Howard is in charge for Not About Heroes, the latest touring production from Eden Court which follows the Inverness theatre’s previous inhouse productions, Para Handy and Never Land.

While those plays had strong north links either in subject matter or in terms of the creative team — Never Land was written by Moray-raised Morna Young and directed by Golspie-born Jimmy Yuill with a largely Highland cast — Not About Heroes lacks such obvious connections.

Written by the late Stephen MacDonald and first performed in 1983, this recreates the meeting of World War I poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, played by actors Ali Watt and Thomas Cotran, at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh in 1917 where both had been admitted for shell shock.

"It’s not the case that every original show has to be by a Highland writer or with a Highland theme," Howard said.

"It’s also about demonstrating that Eden Court can produce a show of quality that can reach a city audience."

Nor was the resurgence of interest in World War I following the centenary of its outbreak last year a factor in Eden Court staging the play.

"Eden Court weren’t motivated particular by that anniversary," Howard said.

"It was more important to find a small play we could tour effectively and use it as a way of developing Eden Court’s touring ambitions.

"For that, it is important to have a play that is going to reach audiences. It is an increasingly well known contemporary classic and the storyline is very audience friendly.

"How did this intense friendship turn Owen from really a fledgling poet into the man we probably agree was the greatest of the war poets? It’s popularly believed that Sassoon was probably the catalyst for that."

Working on the play has provided Howard and his cast with a fascinating insight into the lives of the two soldier poets.

"Every day we make a massive discovery that changes everything we are doing," Howard said.

"It is very addictive. I’m ashamed to say I knew much less about the Great war than I care to admit.

"The problem with doing a play that has got a biographical or historical element behind it is that there is almost an infinite amount of research that can be done, so as a company we’ve read the biographies, we’ve been doing a lot of research into the period, but at some point you do have to accept that you are doing a play and not a documentary."

Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald will be performed at the OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, from Thursday1st to Saturday 3rd October. Following performances in Glasgow, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Pitlochry and Crieff, the play returns to the north for a Highland tour and dates at The MacPhail Centre, Ullapool, on Friday 16th;

Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye on Saturday 17th; Lossiemouth Town Hall on Tuesday 20th;

 Lyth Arts Centre, Wick, on Wednesday 21st;

Carnegie Hall, Clashmore by Dornoch on Thursday 22nd;

Victoria Hall, Cromarty (to be confirmed) on Friday 23rd:

 and Fochabers Institute, Saturday 24th.

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