Edinburgh Fringe 2018
Through song and poetry, Hamish Henderson: On the Radical Road highlights the political side and wartime experiences of the well-known Scottish folklorist
Hamish Henderson may well be best remembered as one of the greatest folklorists of the 20th century, responsible for collecting numerous songs that would otherwise have been lost to memory from the likes of Jeannie Robertson and Calum Johnston, as well as co-founding the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, but he was also an accomplished poet and songwriter in his own right, a multilingual intellectual and an avowed socialist.
It is this latter side that Hamish Henderson: On the Radical Road focuses on, beginning with his experiences in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War, dipping into his wartime songs and poems, both serious and humorous, and then other writings on issues such as Apartheid, land reform and Red Clydeside. One of the most moving parts of the play was his ‘ninth elegy’ by Isabella Jarrett, where Henderson stands at the grave of a dead German soldier and contemplates the meaning of the word ‘pietas’ – duty or loyalty.
Although this is billed as a play, it is perhaps more rightly a performance of a selection of Henderson’s songs and excerpts from his writings. It switches back and forward between recitation of poetry and prose and songs, with musical director Alastair McDonald playing the guitar and carrying the majority of the music and the other three cast members joining in and performing the spoken word pieces, all of them taking the voice of Hamish Henderson. They performed with obvious enthusiasm and used the space well, moving about the stage and into the audience.
But while the actors were wearing combat clothing to underline the wartime theme, it was a pity there was little in the way of set – just a couple of grey screens and a few boxes. The boxes provided the opportunity for changes of height, but it would have been good to see a bit more thought go into the backdrop and props to provide both context and visual interest.
Music is central to this piece – as it was to Henderson’s life – and the strongest parts of the performance were the well-known songs that the audience could join in singing. However, the music would have benefitted from some more variation and dynamics. The Flyting o’ Life and Daith, for example, could have done with more drama to go with the words, while The Freedom Come-All-Ye and The 51st Highland Division’s Farewell to Sicily didn’t quite have the right rhythm for their pipe march tunes. Perhaps a few more instruments would have helped with that.
But while there were good and enthusiastic performances from those involved, Hamish Henderson: On the Radical Road did come across as more as a work in progress, the elements of a play, than a finished piece, with the weakness being the script. There is no joined up narrative, just a series of excerpts, many of them quite literary, which made it difficult to follow what was going on, even for someone familiar with the man and his work. It also wasn’t clear why certain songs and poems and been placed in particular order and what the link was. Hamish Henderson: On the Radical Road would benefit from a much more coherent narrative to bring it all together, particularly if it is to achieve the aim of introducing this side of Henderson to a wider audience.