I grew up in a town that had a proper theatre but next to no proper theatre in it. Apart from the twice-yearly visit of the Dundee Rep and the annual pantomime, the Adam Smith Hall was home to everything from flower shows to school prizegiving ceremonies. The theatre was a perpetual promise that was almost never fulfilled.
But when it was, when theatre actually happened in that theatre, it was an amazement for the senses. That empty house became a magic box that whisked me away from my narrow horizons to other voices, other rooms.
My first memory is a pantomime. Aladdin and his Magic Lamp. I can still remember the hats like lampshades that signified the location as China. And Widow Twankee’s laundry, the painted clothes hanging from painted lines against a painted wall. But in the moment, I was transported from a freezing December afternoon in a town that smelled of linoleum and coal smoke to an exotic world where anything was possible if you only had the right lamp to rub. All of this and a tub of ice-cream at the interval.
By the time I was in my early teens, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make that ambition a reality, but somehow I grasped the idea that the more time I spent with words, the more I would learn. I read voraciously, I went to the pictures whenever I could, I watched TV soaps and dramas. I loved being sucked into the world of someone else’s imagination.
So when one of my neighbours asked if I wanted to go to see a play, my desire overcame the fact that she was generally regarded as a swot and a sook and an all-round Goody Two Shoes. The sort of company that would hole any aspirations for being cool well below the waterline. But I didn’t care. I was already seduced by the idea of watching the Dundee Rep. And besides, it was winter. It would be dark. Nobody would see me walking down the street to the Hall.
That night transformed me.
The play was The Changeling, a Jacobean tragedy that deals with a theme that’s no stranger to anyone who grew up in Presbyterian Scotland – the idea that human nature is sinful and we fall inexorably into betrayal, treachery and its consequences. Beatrice is betrothed to Alonzo but she secretly loves Alsemero. So she persuades De Flores – who secretly loves her – to murder Alonzo and free her to be with Alsemero. As is only to be expected, it ends violently and tragically.
And of course, because there is nothing we Scots love more than black humour, there’s a parallel plot set in a madhouse which teeters on the edge of farce and ends with what passed for comedy in Jacobean theatre. Which is to say it was more or less baffling for a teenager in 1960s Fife.
It wasn’t the wildly complicated plot or the convincing performances that had the profound impact on me that night. It was one extraordinary moment halfway through the play. De Flores murders Alonzo, and to prove to Beatrice that he’s done what he said he would, he takes Alonzo’s diamond ring. He doesn’t just take the ring, he also cuts off the finger it adorned. It’s a terrible moment but it’s part of a wider horror – the murder of Alonzo.
It’s what comes next that electrified me. De Flores returns to Beatrice and produces the finger with the ring with a grotesque flourish. I was horrified, but I was also excited. The heightened drama of the moment, the shocking violence of the gesture and the knowledge that things will only get worse filled me with a kind of ghoulish delight. In that moment, I understood the power of imagination.
I realised what a writer could achieve. What I could aspire to.
And that’s why I keep coming back to the theatre. That alchemy that happens when writers, actors, designers and directors come together is the perpetual promise that the Lyceum and its fellow performance spaces hold out to audiences.
Of course it doesn’t always deliver. Over the years, I’ve sat through plenty of broken promises that have left me disappointed and sometimes outraged. I’ve even left at the interval a few times, convinced that nothing in the second half could redeem what I’d sat through. But no theatre company ever embarks on a production with the intention of delivering anything other than a night in the theatre that’s memorable for the right reasons. Failure is part of the human condition, after all.
And then I see a play that moves me to tears; a play that fills me with hope; a play that fills me with the right kind of outrage; a play that teaches me something; a play that makes me laugh out loud and walk out into the street with a smile on my face. I’ve known all of those emotions in the Lyceum over the past fifty years. Even though I know that five minutes backstage will dispel any sense of glamour, walking into that grand, slightly shabby auditorium always fills me with anticipation, an understanding that tonight could well be one of those nights that sticks in the memory like feathers in honey.
I feel its absence now. On our daily permitted prowls through the empty city, I walk past the Old Lady of Grindlay Street. The posters and the playbills don’t change, the temptation of what’s coming next is absent. I imagine dust slowly falling on those elderly plush seats, no spotlights to highlight the swirling motes.
And then memory kicks in, and the conviction that we’ll find the magic again. It’s not lost, it’s merely in abeyance, in the dressing room with its sticks of greasepaint ready to be applied once more, poised for its cue.
An empty theatre is not a sad thing. It is a box of promises.