JOYCE MCMILLAN: BEN HARRISON ON GAME OF DEATH AND CHANCE AT GLADSTONE’S LAND for The Scotsman magazine, 29.6.19.
WALK UP Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from St. Giles Cathedral to the Castle, and you might just miss Gladstone’s Land, standing among the jostle of buildings that crowd up the hill. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see one of the most remarkable houses in Edinburgh; stretching upwards over six creaking wooden floors, it was first built in 1550, but modernised around 1620 by wealthy merchant called Thomas Gledstanes, who gave the house its name.
Along with much of the historic Old Town area – then a byword in some quarters for filth, immorality and slum conditions – it was scheduled for demolition in 1934; but it was saved by the National Trust for Scotland, and today operates as a museum and gift shop, offering tours that instantly evoke the atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town in the centuries when it was famous for the height of its buildings, the squalor of the vennels between them, and the jumble of rich and poor folk living on top of one another on the various floors. It’s therefore not surprising that following the success of last winter’s theatre show Enlightenment House, staged at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, the National Trust has chosen Gladstone’s Land as the next site for its experiment in bringing together history, theatre, and one of the city’s tourist attractions; and once again, the Trust has commissioned Edinburgh-based writer and director Ben Harrison to create the show.
Ever since he graduated from Edinburgh University in the 1990’s – and, together with Jude Doherty, founded the legendary site-specific theatre company Grid Iron – Harrison has been intrigued, inspired, exasperated and thrilled by Edinburgh’s cityscape, and its many unexpected nooks and corners. One of Grid Iron’s earliest successes was the remarkable show Gargantua, which opened up the then unused floors of space now known as the Underbelly in the Cowgate; over the next 15 years, the company’s work ranged across the city, seeking inspiration for shows that, in different forms, often went on to tour the world. And although the focus of the company’s work has moved on – and Harrison now has a wide-ranging international career as a director – he still feels the special fascination of bringing live theatre to a space in Edinburgh that has not seen anything like it before, and of moving an audience through that space, rather than simply sitting them in rows as passive watchers.
“When I first know that I’m going to create a show for a particular space,” says Harrison, “I just go and sit in it for a very long time. I try to immerse myself in its atmosphere, and see what images come to mind. I also do a fair bit of research, particularly with buildings like the Georgian House and Gladstone’s Land. It’s not that I’ve been bound by the factual history in any way that limits the work; the National Trust are great to work for, very open and flexible. The history of these buildings is so fascinating, though, that you don’t have to look far for brilliant characters, and real drama.”
For Gladstone’s Land, Harrison has therefore created a show of just under an hour that takes place in four spaces across the building, and is set in the troubled century between the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Union of Parliaments in 1707. The story features five characters, including a female publican based on real-life character Isobel Johnston, a wealthy investor who loses his all in the Darien disaster of the 1690’s, the writer Daniel Defoe – who was an English government spy in Edinburgh before 1707 – and two symbolic characters, one representing Scotland herself, to be played by the magnificent Wendy Seager, and another, played by the show’s musician and composer David Paul Jones, representing Death, a force that, according to Harrison, truly stalked Scottish life at the time; hence the play’s title, A Game Of Death And Chance.
“It really is difficult not to feel sorry for Scotland at this point in its history,” says Harrison. “It had lost its king and court to London, and many of its writers, musicians and artists along with it; the church became the most powerful force in Scottish life, and the whole century was scarred by conflict between Episcopalians and Calvinists. In addition, there was plague, foul weather, poor harvests, and the final catastrophe of the Darien Scheme, a massive colonial enterprise that soaked up capital from across Scotland, and ended in utter failure.”
In order to capture the role of blind chance and ill luck during this turbulent time, Harrison has therefore written three versions of each scene, giving each audience an opportunity – the roll of a dice, or the choice of a different drink – to make a decision which will determine which story emerges. And Harrison hopes that the contemporary resonances of the play, as Scotland moves towards the dramatic moment of Union with England, will not be lost on audiences.
“The play ends in Defoe’s drawing-room at the back of the building, with a very English cup of tea,” says Harrison. “There’s a huge irony to it, though; a sense of a nation being driven towards Union by a fierce range of forces, some internal, some external, some just random. I suppose a kind of rebellion against the excesses of Calvinism and Puritanism has been a thread through my work from the beginning; that was certainly the theme of Gargantua, and I hope this show will also have that sensual energy and rebelliousness, bringing this old building back to life. But I hope it will also capture the complexity of what was happening in Scotland at that time; and make people think about the decisions we face now, about the nation’s identity, and its future.”
A Game Of Death And Chance at Gladstone’s Land, Lawnmarket, 16 July-8 September.