Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 7 April 2018
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Gary McNair’s McGonagall’s Chronicles, the first in the new series of A Play, A Pie and a Pint at the Traverse, is a winningly daffy confection. While it may not treat its subject entirely fairly, it does at least show him unusual sympathy.
William Topaz McGonagall is the 19th-century handloom weaver from Dundee who is often described as the world’s worst poet. This claim is often cited without any consideration as to whether it is true – which it decidedly is not.
He is not a great poet, but he is not within a million miles of being the worst. He may show no interest in either imagery or metre, but his rhymes are no worse than many of his more celebrated contemporaries. His works, with their syntax twisted to fit the rhyme scheme, are a kind of rhyming reportage similar to countless broadsheet ballads – and to many earlier examples of the folk tradition.
It is strange that other art forms have no problem with those who affect ‘primitive’ forms, or who are self-taught – nobody describes Rousseau or Alfred Wallis as ‘the world’s worst painter’. Those who sneer at McGonagall generally find it impossible to write anything with a tenth of the compulsive drive and charming strangeness of ‘The Tay Bridge Disaster’.
Those who attacked him – often physically – during his life may, of course, have had reasons other than literary criticism, as he was the son of Irish immigrants. McGonagall may himself have been born in Ireland, with his claim to an Edinburgh birth being an attempt to combat bigotry and the Poor Law.
One of the strongest points of McNair’s lovable, almost-poetic telling of McGonagall’s life is the pathos it evokes when detailing the onstage abuse he received. It also confronts the problem of how this barracking has been continued long after his death, by the constant kicking he still gets from people who wouldn’t know poetry if it bit them on the bahookie.
Which, of course, is perpetuated by productions such as this, but McNair does not shy away from it. Although there are musical and dramatic interjections from the excellent Brian James O’Sullivan, and further music from Frightened Rabbit’s Simon Liddell, this does have the feel of a one-man show, not least in the way it is a conduit for McNair’s own concerns.
Although it is subtly interwoven, there is a definite thread about the problems of the creative process, and how following your artistic impulses can leave you dangerously exposed. He also cleverly makes the audience complicit in this by getting the front row to pelt him with damp lettuce.
Much of this is hidden within a script whose forced rhymes and demotic doggerel owe more to your average panto than to McGonagall, but McNair is an inviting performer and it is directed energetically by Joe Douglas.
The musical interludes are also diverting, and the show certainly could have stood a couple more. There is one song that makes explicit what is suggested by the musical quote from Mary Brooksbank’s Jute Mill Song that also sneaks in, and it is something that has afflicted writers far greater than McGonagall.
Notably, just as some believe that Shakespeare’s plays can only have been written by a member of the nobility rather than a glove-maker’s son, there are many who believe that a poor working-class immigrant who left school at seven can never be a real poet.