Letter from Ian

Letter from Ian

20 May 2020

Dear Lyceum

The Real Mackay

Memory makes us who we are. Memories make you who you are. And what you are in our memory helps sustain us in these testing times.

I remember you before you became home to the Royal Lyceum Company, when you were owned by Howard and Wyndham and presented commercial tours and didn’t produce much yourself besides the annual panto that could run for months into the new year.

I remember your company before it was at the Lyceum, when the Gateway Theatre in Leith Walk, led by top actors like Lennox Milne and her friend Tom Fleming was the Edinburgh producing house.

I remember that, when Howard and Wyndham couldn’t keep you going and the city took you over and wanted to base a producing company in you, the Gateway company generously said, in effect, we’ll close down, you take our Arts Council grant and carry on our work and continuity was marked when in 1965 the great Tom Fleming became the Royal Lyceum Company’s first artistic director, in whose first season his Galileo shone like a celestial comet, lighting up your stage.

I remember the zest of that opening season when actors like Russell Hunter and Una McLean joined Tom and the others and your stage was suddenly not just receiving the work of others, but presenting its own creations.

I remember since then, above all, your actors who Shakespeare may call ‘poor players’ – well, there’s no ‘may’ about it; he does – but in your company they’ve enriched my life and that of so many others.

Who, for instance?

Jimmy Logan in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum bursting through the curtains for the prologue to a stunned silence, holding up his hand, saying to the audience ‘I know, you didn’t expect me. I’m going back behind the curtain and when I come out again, applaud!’ and he did and they did.

Tony (before he was Sir Anthony) Sher, as Khlestakov gradually and hilariously assuming a wonderfully shallow swagger as his impersonation of a government inspector conned the town, including the Mayor played with seedy dishonesty and swivel-eyed panic by Rikki Fulton, performances still to be seen in a photograph in your Stalls Bar.

Eileen McCallum and Roddy McMillan in an ensemble of the highest calibre, directed by Bill Bryden in his Willie Rough, playing to ecstatic audiences, work that led Peter Hall a year or so later to poach Bill to join his London National Theatre directing team, while later Bill’s Lyceum colleague, Richard Eyre, became that National Theatre’s Artistic

Director, because your stage has hosted world-class directing, as well as acting, talent.

Edith MacArthur in Davie Lindsay’s Ane Satire of the Thrie Estaitis, a serenely beautiful performance in a glorious 1973 Festival production your company presented in the Assembly Hall.

Elizabeth MacLennan and – no relation except in grace and artistic skill – Dolina MacLennan, the latter providing so much of the song and Highland intelligence for the superb company of The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil, which concluded its Highland and Islands touring in demand by Central Belt venues like you, which it filled.

John Grieve in an adaptation of Kidnapped in the guise of gannet (don’t ask), dancing and singing in Scots, ‘I am a goose, I’m a solan goose / And I live on the desolate Bass’, side-achingly – yet pathetically – comic so that my Australian companion said, ‘I didn’t understand a word, but he was brilliant’.

Maureen Beattie and Gregor Fisher in my own Mary in a young acting company, enhanced by the expertise of performers like James Cairncross, when, in one of the play’s many versions of ‘Mary-Queen-of-Scots’, Mary-as-Cinderella, has been told, ‘No balls for you’, Greg suddenly appears as her Good Fairy Knox-at-the-Window, introduces her to the problematic (to say the least) Prince Charming, Henry Darnley, and, leaving with an aside, reveals he is ‘in reality the wicked fairy Knock-at-the-door-and-it-shall-be-slammed-in-your-face’.

Russell Hunter with his constantly acute eye for meaningful detail as Polonius, who, at the end of the scene where he’s been so pompous to Laertes and Ophelia, looks fondly on them, showing the loving father as – in a moment of acting genius – the widower caresses his wedding ring, in one gesture telling us of his departing children’s beloved dead mother.

Tony Cownie in Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, a master of comic timing as a ship’s steward who can walk properly on choppy seas but lurches drunkenly when on calm ones.

And on and on:

David Tennant, an excoriatingly passionate and sharply observed Jimmy Porter, again pictured in the Stalls Bar.

Pauline Knowles, genteelly and hilariously – and collapsingly – drunk in The Belle’s Stratagem, having ‘a drink taken’.

Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Isobel McArthur, Meghan Tyler and Felixe Forde, multi-talented members of the Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) ensemble.

And don’t get me started on new plays over the years by the likes of Stewart Conn, Edwin Morgan, Jo Clifford, David Greig, Zinnie Harris and Linda McLean – and Stuart Paterson’s amazing plays for the young – or productions like Touching the Void, touching heart and soul and stretching the imagination.

I remember them all – and more – and they’re only part of the collective memory you embody and are, just as our memory is who we are.

And when you re-open you’ll still embody those memories – and us. And you’ll add more.


Because you and your actors are part of a history that goes so far back we sometimes neglect it. The 1767 parliamentary Act that allowed the New Town to be built included a clause to establish Edinburgh’s first official Theatre Royal. That building was actually opened in 1769 at the north-east end of North Bridge, becoming in the early 1800s home to Scotland’s National Drama, the repertoire of plays about Scotland, with pride of place given to adaptations of Scott novels, whose popularity lasted into the early twentieth century. And in 1962 you hosted a royal gala performance of one of those, Rob Roy, for the Queen when the King of Norway paid a state visit to Edinburgh. A leading role in that is Baillie Nicol Jarvie, in early days played by the great Scottish actor Charles Mackay. His acting was so highly regarded he was called ‘The Real Mackay’. Among theatres, you’re the real Mackay.

Keep safe and open soon.

Ian Brown

Tags: From Audience