FringeReview Scotland 2023
In 1803, Dorothy Wordsworth, her brother William and friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, stopped off in Clydesdale for a night. During that stay, Dorothy was to discover what the secret wrapped in lead was and why those secrets were astonishingly kept. It’s an evening when her English courtesy is met by a forthright mither and dochter in Scots. We are taken to the final discovery over three highly dramatic exchanges. We begin on the evening of their arrival, when Dorothy picks something up from the back stap, on the way into the house. We then meet daughter, Primrose Otto who is initially mute, before we encounter Mrs Otto, who fills every silence. Dorothy then negotiates a night for her and her travelling companions. Having spent the evening at the local library, she is then visited once more by the daughter, Primrose, whilst trying to sleep. Primrose tells her more of the strange goings on in Leadhills, after Dorothy has read of them in a journal borrowed from the library. The following morning, she confronts Mrs. Otto with the strange item she discovered on the way in, the odd practices used locally to deal with the sicknesses brought on by the lead mining and the houlets who live amongst the mines. She gets something she never entered a bargain for.
This was a truly evocative evening where, as an audience we were taken down the mines without visiting them, had vivid descriptions of the horrors of those who did and were made face the reality of mining. Mining for minerals which today are both sought after and abandoned for reasons more widely debated than when the wise houlets told us of their poison back in the day.
Braw Clan have rooted themselves clearly and plainly in two places – the environment in which they work – Clydesdale – and the language in which they operate – Scots. From those premises their debut fully professional play, Secret Wrapped in Lead, is presented in Clydesdale with not a thought to tour outside of themselves. This is far from a pity, as their debut is so powerful, and their template so rich and admirable, that people should grab their own version of Braw Clan, wherever and whenever they can.
Their first play, written by Martin Travers takes us on a metaphorical journey through a real event – the Wordsworth’s and Coleridge on a tour of Scotland. Eschewing the European extravaganza of the time, they came up north instead. This trip is richly covered in the diaries which Dorothy left us. In it she describes this one night spent with landlady, Mrs. Otto, and from there Travers takes us to confront a reality – of our collective past, and the effects of how they mined for leid in the hills.
There are plenty of stories about the horrors of mining. The scars on the hillsides of Fife and Ayrshire tell a tale but the individuals who live in their shadow tell it better. And here this is where Travers has excelled. He has written a piece of beauty, based on the filth of the industry, for three women, managing to take the Scots of our hearts and make it the equal of English on the stage. He has made the words and the thochts of us a’ better than worthy stage material. It sparkles out of Mrs Otto’s mouth – coarse, mocket, vigorous and enthralling.
That Dorothy can understand is no flight of fancy. We know she understood and there was no language barrier that could not be overcome but the final scene between Mrs Otto and Dorothy is one to be treasured. Why?
Fletcher Mathers as Mrs. Otto strides across the stage like a colossus, demanding our attention without needing to try. It’s her presence, often still, but menacing, hiding the inner turmoil and guilt that is revealed which keeps us rapt. As Dorothy, Helen McAlpine meets her halfway and gives as good as is demanded of her. Added to that Morven Blackadder as Primrose, was enchanting. She pitched things to a perfection that sat just beneath the exchanges of her mother and her visitor. It blended so well as an ensemble piece without being one and for that we have to pay homage to the director, Pauline Lynch.
It was poignantly directed with skill. Despite there being little by way of traditional theatrical back up technically within this enchanting small hall venue, it was delivered and supported by soundscape and lighting with great flair.
The audience, who appeared to be people not unaware of theatrical norms, were warm and very appreciative, showing true community connection but as a theatrical experience, they seemed to recognise its true merits as a stage piece. Simply, this was a brilliant opening for a company of which I now have great hopes. Scots as a language, my leid, is scandalously undervalued. Combining the community, the stories from their hearts and heartlands, the language of their birth and being better than the rest when telling it is a tall order, but Brawclan have set a stage upon which to build. I am sure, that once built they shall come, and if I see something better this year I shall be truly blessed.