Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The McGonagall of the title is, of course, William Topaz McGonnagall, the infamous ‘Bard of Dundee,’ widely celebrated as the worst poet of all time. A weaver by trade and a jobbing actor for a short while, McGonnagall embarked on his writing career in 1877, inspired by a ‘heavenly visitation’ and, by the time of his death in 1902, had left a legacy of over 250 (admittedly dreadful) self-published poems. In his declining years, he was treated with scant respect by the citizens of Dundee, where he was reduced to appearing in a circus tent, reading his poems aloud while members of the public pelted him with ripe fruit and rotten eggs.
As the name suggests, this show, written and performed by Gary McNair, with musical accompaniment from James O’ Sullivan and Simon Liddell, offers us a chronological history of the great man’s life from birth to demise. Fittingly enough, the play is delivered entirely in verse and McNair gleefully takes every opportunity to make his recitation appear as clunky and wince-inducing as the work of the great man himself.
It’s in the final third where the major surprises come. I’ve been fully expecting to laugh at McGonnagall’s exploits, but am quite unprepared for the overpowering tragedy of his hard-knock life. What comes across most strongly is the man’s indomitable self-belief: his determination to struggle on in the face of overwhelming ridicule. It probably boils down to yet another poorly-educated working-class man desperately trying to better himself, while the toffs around him look on and snigger.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
McNair has his own cross to bear during this afternoon’s performance, when a gentleman in the front row leaps suddenly to his feet and scuttles out of the nearest exit. McNair, interrupted mid-verse, has his concentration well and truly shattered, but deals with the interruption playfully (and in rhyme!) before regaining his momentum.
This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking romp through one of history’s most peculiar stories, and it’s a show well worth seeking out. As for McGonnagall himself, well, he has the last laugh. Hundreds of years after his death, his poems are still widely available in print, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. As McNair and his musicians take their well-earned bows, I’m half convinced I can hear the sound of triumphant cackling from somewhere high above the audience… but, hey, maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Oh, and if you’re wondering about that sub-title, look up the Bard’s masterwork, The Tay Bridge Disaster and all will be explained.