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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Captain's Collection, theatre review

Published in Northings
YOU probably heard the fuss kicked up by fans of the Smiths in the run-up to Christmas. They were outraged with department store John Lewis for using one of the indie band's finest songs, 'Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want', as the soundtrack to an advert. What greater insult than using a song of heartbreaking yearning as a way to get people to buy things?

If Smiths fans were up in arms, just think how Jacobite sympathisers must have felt about Captain Simon Fraser. The early-19th century soldier and musicologist thought he was doing the world a service by anthologising the great Scottish folk music from the period 1715-45. Given how many of those tunes are played in ceilidhs to this day, you can see he had a point.

Rather more problematic, however, was the way he treated these songs. Eager to make his fortune, he was determined to keep in with the pro-Union Scottish establishment of his day, a class whose romanticisation of the Highlands did not extend to a tolerance of rebel songs. If ever he came across a politically sensitive lyric, he stripped the piece back to its melody alone.

"It is not my business to publish such sentiments," he says in Hamish MacDonald's play. "I seek to improve not to debase."

It means there's a fierce dramatic idea at the heart of The Captain's Collection, the play that launched the Inverness-based Dogstar Theatre Company in 1999 and is now being revived by the same team for a Highlands and Islands tour in May. The story of a man who has two songs, "one in his heart and one in his mouth," has rich potential to explore the schism inside that man and the struggle of a nation to be at one with itself. What's odd is the way this idea drifts in and out of view in a script that's more inclined to describe the conflict than have it played out before us.

More interesting is the play's ceilidh-like structure. There are some odd juxtapositions (scenes written in the past tense running alongside others written in the present and others still, sounding like they've been copied straight from a history book), but in Alison Peebles' fluid production, there is a lively eclecticism, as monologue gives way to ballad, storytelling, puppetry and dance.

It's purposefully performed by Matthew Zajac as Fraser and Alyth McCormack as his various friends and adversaries, with Jonny Hardie on fiddle and Ingrid Henderson on keyboard and harp. The sweetness of the singing, the freshness of the playing and the inventiveness of the staging go a considerable way to compensating for a play that doesn't give teeth to its own powerful conceit.
© Mark Fisher, 2012
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