3000 Trees, 3000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae

THEATRE
3,000 Trees
3 stars ***
Gryphon@West End  (Venue 109)
3,000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae
2 stars **
Sweet Grassmarket (Venue 18)

WITH SCOTLAND’S independence referendum just four weeks away, there’s huge dramatic potential in the story of the strange death, 29 years ago, of the leading Scottish nationalist William McRae, flamboyant Glasgow lawyer, ardent whisky drinker, and passionate campaigner against Britain’s nuclear industry.  MacRae was fatally injured on Good Friday 1985, while driving north from Glasgow to his cottage at Dorrie.  He was found in his car with a bullet wound to the head, and the gun some 60 feet away; documents related to nuclear waste dumping at Dounreay had disappeared from his briefcase.  Yet his death was officially listed as suicide.

It’s difficult to glean even this much information, though, from the two plays about MacRae’s death playing in Edinburgh this month.  George Gunn’s 3,000 Trees – presented by his own Grey Coast company – avoids the documentary approach altogether, in favour of an imagined final encounter, in a village shop on the road, between a MacRae-like figure called Willie Mackay, the sinister secret service man pursuing him, and the young woman staffing the shop, an old family friend of Willie’s.  The dialogue is well-shaped, intense and mystical, as Willie foresees his death, and the other two characters sing verses from Hamish Henderson Flyting O’ Life And Death; yet despite three fine performances from Jimmy Chisholm, Helen  Mackay and Adam Robertson, the effect is less to reopen the unresolved questions surrounding MacRae’s death, and more to remind us of how much Scottish nationalism has changed, in the decades since MacRae stood for the leadership of the SNP.

Andy Paterson’s 3,000 Trees: The Death Of Mr. William MacRae takes a more straightforward approach, offering a monologue spoken by Willie himself from the limbo that followed his death, and including a roughly factual account of events.  Produced by Teatro Magnetico of Glasgow, the play is delivered with terrific intensity in a tiny room at Sweet Grassmarket, as Willie’s restless shade downs the best part of a bottle of whisky.

In truth, though this version of 3,000 Trees – named, like Gunn’s play, for the forest planted in MacRae’s memory in Israel, where he had been a visiting professor – seems too short even to begin to encompass the complexity of MacRae’s character, from his campaigning brilliance to the allegations of  concealed homosexuality that haunted his political life.  And the time is made even shorter by the fact that at various points in the story, the actor playing Willie is obliged to burst into ill-advised original  song, accompanied by a karaoke tape.  In such a tiny space, the effect is unintentionally comic; but perhaps the show will play better in larger rooms, on its planned 2015 tour around Scotland.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24,24
pp. 359, 359

ENDS ENDS

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