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Read, Watch and Listen

Open Hands, detail from Anti-Racism Mural, Northumberland Street, Belfast,

Northern Ireland, 2011; created by a community group of young adults from both sides of the Belfast interface, coordinated by community relations officer Marion Weir, after Dan Devenny’s New Bedford mural (see image 8) and the original Belfast mural also by Devenny (2006), central image based on a cabinet cardphotograph by Matthew Brady taken in Washington D.C. in 1876, left-side image based on a  daguerreotype made in 1853; CC BY-NC-ND.​

The working script.

Underpinning the project was the concept of ‘practice-based research’: the idea that new forms of knowledge might be generated about texts, ideas, and spaces by recreating historical performances, over and above those created by literary, archival, or archaeological research alone. In this case we aimed to see what additional understandings of Lyndsay’s Satire and the culture which produced and received it could be created by performing a version of the 1540 interlude in its original setting in Linlithgow Palace and in Stirling Castle, and the 1552 text in Linlithgow Palace’s grounds, known locally as the Peel. Intensive rehearsals in Glasgow and Linlithgow brought together academics and theatre professionals to work on the script, set design, and costumes over five months from January to May 2013. 

The set on the Peel, Linlithgow.

The play has long been assumed to have spoken powerfully to early-modern Scottish audiences about their sense of individual and national identity, and their engagement with the political process in a period of dramatic political and religious uncertainty. But what might it say to modern spectators when performed in its entirety at a moment when such issues were once again under intense scrutiny? The project offered the academics and actors a unique opportunity to test their hypotheses about the Satire’s enduring capacity to move and challenge spectators and embody a political message as relevant to modern audiences as to their Stuart forebears.

Good Counsel (Gerda Stevenson) with Linlithgow Palace behind.

The Three Estates speaks powerfully not only to lovers of Renaissance theatre, but also to a wider spectrum of Scottish society. It stages social and religious reform, and its strident, vulgar advocacy of the rights of the poor, and of women, has made it an icon of an alternative, popular Scottish history. It inspired John McGrath’s ground-breaking 1970’s drama, The Cheviot, The Stage, and the Black, Black Oil and his critique of the newly globalised media, A Satire of the Fourth Estate. And its influence can be seen in the strong tradition of ‘alternative’ Scottish popular theatre.

Divine Correction (Tam Dean Burn) promises reform.

‘What is ane king?’, the play asks at one point, answering, ‘nought but ane officer’, appointed by God to serve the people: a potentially radical view of the divine right of kings. It also condemns an over-powerful established church, and speaks memorably of the sufferings of the labouring poor. But at the same time it condemns all those who will not work, the shirkers of all social classes, in ways that suggest the agenda of the modern political right. And it widens its attack to include jugglers, poets and minstrels – hinting at post-Reformation Kirk suspicions of music, dance and the Arts that inform stereotypical aspects of Scottish identity to this day.