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Shining a new light on Hector

Hector. Photo: Peter Dibdin 

Based on the story of a Black Isle crofter’s son who became a Knight of the Realm and Queen Victoria’s favourite, intriguing drama ‘Hector’ tells a different story of fallen hero Hector MacDonald. The play was written by David Gooderson and was the result of a co-production between Eden Court, Comar and Ed Littlewood Production.

Having completed a successful Scottish run of the play, we caught up with Director Kate Nelson to find out more about Hector ahead of their two performances at London’s Ambassadors Theatre on Wednesday 9 December.

Who is Hector MacDonald and what makes his story so compelling for a theatre production?

Sir Hector Macdonald was a crofter’s son from the Black Isle. He joined the Gordon Highlanders at 16 and rose through the ranks to Major General. In the late 1800s this was an extraordinary achievement and defied the norms of class and social structure. Towards the end of his career, Macdonald was stationed in Ceylon. It is speculated that during his time there he antagonised influential members of the ex-pat community and they conspired to ruin his reputation. Whatever the facts were, all evidence either way has disappeared. Macdonald was accused of exposing himself and engaging in inappropriate behaviour with young boys. This was leaked to the press prior to a court martial taking place. 

En route to Ceylon to stand trial, Macdonald took his life. He is buried with his wife and son in Edinburgh. Over 30,000 people processed past his grave in the days after his funeral. An enquiry after his death was inconclusive as so much of the evidence was missing. The Macdonald Clan has always maintained his innocence. A memorial to him stands in the Black Isle and a church service celebrating his life is still held each year. 

Hector Macdonald was the ultimate outsider. He was a ferociously intelligent and brave man; but he was a crofter’s son, a low-born Scot and a Gaelic speaker to boot. He had the temerity to turn down a Victoria Cross and take a commission instead. It is unsurprising that the snobbish, ex-pat community in Ceylon disliked him so much. He must have terrified them.

The story we tell in ‘Hector’ is the anti-Establishment version. It challenges the view presented in many historical accounts that his suicide was proof of his guilt. As a director, I would argue that we should always question how history is versioned and as a woman, I am conscious that versions are often omitted when history is recorded. Often it is the voices of the oppressed or the conquered we do not hear from.

Macdonald’s case also reminded me of stories where the media has, in effect, tried someone before the evidence has actually been heard. Macdonald never had his day in court. No evidence remains to allow us to evaluate what actually happened, from an era famous for its letters, cables and record keeping. Not even his personal correspondence has survived. As we know well from current cases, it is not necessarily the guilty who always end up paying the price.

Hector, Stevie Hannan and cast. Photo: Peter Dibdin 

You’ve just completed a Scottish tour of Hector taking in dates all across the country, how did this go?

The tour has been a tremendous success. We had a very busy premiere in Inverness and sell out shows at the Traverse and a number of our other venues both big and small. We end the tour with our two performances at The Ambassadors in London which should be fun. It’s always interesting to see what the audience make of Hector’s story.

There have been some fantastic responses from press and audiences to Hector, what are some of the common reactions to the play?

The most common reaction from audiences has been very emotional. We have had weeping, and a couple of standing ovations which has been very touching. The play is a very simple narrative and I think this has made people respond to it in a very uncomplicated way.  The presentation of the seedy, greedy life of the ex-pat community has also provoked laughter and then disgust in our audiences. There is definitely a strong feeling from the outset that our audiences have sided with Hector. There has also been tremendous enjoyment from audiences seeing a touring show with a large cast and high production values. We have had a lot of audiences in smaller venues saying that it is great to see a show with more than three people on stage! 

Our press reception has been very supportive of the story we are presenting and very respectful of the fact we have been re-telling the life real man. There have been a number of very enthusiastic reviews including one five star which was lovely!

Hector, Valentine Hanson, Stevie Hannan and Kevin Lennon. Photo: Peter Dibdin 

What are the challenges in presenting Hector’s story on stage and how have you overcome these through the cast and crew?

The writer has chosen to tell the story very simply, concentrating on the lead-up to Hector’s suicide.  As a creative team, this is challenging and exciting in equal measure. It offered a great breadth of creative freedom in terms of staging and design, but there are very short, rapid scenes that are a challenge to stage conceptually and practically. Working with Ali Maclaurin, the designer, we decided to take a simple, story-telling approach to the production; which allows the audience to understand we are showing a version of events and lets us have actors change from one character to another as part of the show. There is a cast of six, and between them they play 16 characters. We have a sterling ensemble, with Steven Duffy taking the title role supported by Gowan Calder, Kevin Lennon, Stevie Hannan, Valentine Hanson and Raj Ghatak. 

Pippa Murphy, who is currently artist in residence at the Scottish Parliament, composed much of the music for the show including a very beautiful reel and a strathspey. Diana Loosmore's choreography works brilliantly with the tunes. 

We were delighted to have been able to offer paid opportunities to a number of younger practitioners in the production team.  Laila Noble and Chloe Dougan joined us as trainee director and technical stage manager respectively. Both Laila and Chloe received FST/Creative Scotland bursaries to be part of our team. Young costume design and construction students from Queen Margaret University were also part of our team working in wardrobe. Their help has been invaluable in a tour which started in an 800 seat theatre but has also played at Inellan hall to a sell-out audience of 32. This, I think, perfectly encapsulates the joys and challenges of touring theatre in Scotland!

What would you like to see happen next for Hector?

I would love to see Hector tour more widely. I know a number of venues in the Highlands and Islands wanted to see the show before they decided whether it would work for their audiences. Now, having seen it and loved it, they want to bring it to their communities. I think its immediacy and vitality have a very direct connection with audiences and it would be lovely to see it out on the road again.

Photo Credits: Peter Dibdin

Ed Littlewood Production received Lottery funding through Creative Scotland for Hector.

This article was published on 09 Dec 2015