At last, after eighteen months of closure, Dundee Rep is back – although it never really went away.
Yet while the Rep’s artistic director Andrew Panton and his team have been trying to keep the city entertained with online performances and the innovative front-garden Christmas show Present, to see them back in the building with their first show since last spring’s Jim McLean bio Smile will be something special.
“I think people will recognise the city, and they’ll recognise the characters, but that the characters we’re showing will hopefully force the audience to rethink what they know of their city,” says John McCann, writer of the comeback show Wings Around Dundee, who lives in Tayport.
“Knowing the Dundee audience, and being part of the Dundee audience so many times at the Rep, it’s always amazing to be in that space when there are pieces on that resonate,” he continues.
“There’s humour in there, and I like to think that we’ve done is representative (of Dundee), but that maybe we’ve done it in a way we haven’t seen before on the Dundee Rep stage.”
‘People weren’t doing nothing’
Intriguingly, Wings Around Dundee is set during the first lockdown, which might present a problem for any artist who wants to get to grips with that period in the future to navigate – how do you create a sense of forward storytelling momentum when the country, if not the world, was essentially inert for a long period?
“For a writer, seeing lockdown as a lot of people doing nothing is the wrong way to look at it,” says McCann, who is originally from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, but who has been in Scotland for 13 years and Fife for seven.
He’s won Edinburgh Fringe First awards for Spoiling, his fictionalised account of the Scottish Indyref for the Traverse Theatre, and for DUPed, his one-man potted history of the Northern Irish political party, and hosts the Dundee scratch playwriting night Scrieve.
“People were forced into situations where they were going to be inside their own homes with people who they may not be there with 24/7, so new rhythms were forced upon us,” continues McCann.
“If anything, people weren’t doing nothing; if anything, it suddenly got a lot more challenging and dramatic for them. Every home was like this little crucible, where a new chemistry was happening and you had no choice but to find new ways of coexisting sharpish.
“If you were lucky enough to be in a situation where nothing was happening, then you were really lucky – because a lot of stuff was going on in many of these enclosed spaces.
“Wings Over Dundee is a way of trying to find something that speaks to Dundee, that speaks to the country, and that focuses on what was happening in the wider world at the same time.”
His characters, says McCann, are a Dundee family, a granny and her two grandkids.
“She’s been raising them herself, but there are events in their past that haven’t been dealt with, and this is exacerbated by things that are happening at the same time on the other side of the world. So they’re forced into a make-or-break moment in their relationship.”
Mum’s the word for director Hertog
The play will be a full and very welcome reunion for the Dundee Rep Ensemble, with regular members Irene Macdougall, Ann Louise Ross and Emily Winter, regular visiting artists Barrie Hunter and Ewan Donald, and young actors Danielle Jam and Benjamin Osugo making up the cast of seven.
Director Finn den Hertog has also gathered together a strong team of background collaborators, including Dundee composer Andrew Wasylyk for the music and sound design, choreographer Vicki Manderson, and his own brother Lewis den Hertog as video designer.
For Finn den Hertog, the Rep is a family tradition; Ann Louise Ross is his mother, and the family moved to Dundee in 1999 for she and his father Nils den Hertog’s work (Nils was then the Rep’s company manager). Finn has only directed his mother once before, in a rehearsed reading a couple of years ago.
“We get on brilliantly,” he says (but then, he’d better not say anything else).
“We’re very similar, so when I see her getting frustrated at things I think, ‘oh yeah, I found that as well’. Obviously I don’t call her ‘Mum’ in front of the rest of the room, because that would be horribly awkward for everyone, and I don’t ask her to do my washing or anything like that.
“It’s not just my mum, though. A lot of the members of the ensemble are like family to me, I’ve known them and this building for more than twenty years.
“It’s quite an experience to be in the rehearsal room where I used to come and sit and watch people rehearse plays in (as a child), and now I’m in charge of that room.
“That’s a big deal, and an exciting opportunity for me to have, I’m very grateful to be doing it. Especially because this project was custom built for this company.”
‘A very strange and unusual time’
Beyond the personal connections, den Hertog is excited to take charge of this particular work on its own merits.
“In the early conversations about what the show was going to be, the term ‘magic realism’ came up a few times,” he says. “I was excited about that, because for me it’s what theatre is – it’s always magic realism.
“I was excited to bring my directorial eye to something that felt it was about Dundee, but was also about a thing that we’d all been going through, without being specifically about the pandemic, without being at all about Covid. It’s a play about human relationships in a very strange and unusual time, which felt like a really exciting opportunity.
“More than anything, it’s a really collaborative piece of theatre, which has been the thing I’ve missed so much in the last eighteen months. Being in a room with other creatives again is really thrilling.”
‘Dundee through and through’
Asked by Andrew Panton to “keep an eye” on what was happening in Dundee during the pandemic right back when it all began, McCann used an online digital visualisation tool to collect stories from the time, local legends like those of the “Dundee superheroes” or the man out on his fifteen minutes’ exercise who generously helped a guy move some binbags down some stairs, only to find a burglary had been taking place.
“All these kinds of stories are Dundee through and through,” says McCann.
“All the helping that happened, the goodwill that went on, but what trickled into my thinking is how this was a worldwide phenomenon. One of the phrases that quickly became very tired was ‘build back better’, but it did feed into the show.
“The characters in the play find themselves in circumstances during lockdown that really challenge them and their view of the city they live in and how the city sees them. The family are forced to reckon with their past in a way that can either unlock things for them or condemn them to a halt for years to come.”
Talking seagulls, whale bones and magic
“John has given several dares to me as a director,” says den Hertog, in terms of unexpected things the director has to bring to life from the script.
“There are talking seagulls, the skeleton of the Tay Whale, and someone flying. When you see all those things written down, you’re like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get my thinking cap on now’. It’s got humour in it, it’s got some beautiful music by Andrew Wasylyk… it just feels inherently theatrical, with all these surreal and magical elements of the play.
“As audiences and consumers of culture over the last eighteen months, we’ve watched a lot of Netflix and a lot of people making theatre on their phones, but the act of going back into theatre for me is an act of collective imagination.
“We’re saying to the audience, ‘OK, we’re going to tell you this person’s flying, and you have to do the work too, you’re part of this act of imagination with us’. For me, that’s what theatre is – collective imagination. To use the old Superman quote, ‘you’ll believe a man can fly’; you will believe these seagulls can talk.”
After this first show back on the Rep’s stage, what does den Hertog want the audience to be feeling on their way out the door?
“I want them to leave remembering what it’s like to be at the theatre, and what a different, transformative experience that is,” he says.
“When you’re in the theatre – and this is something people talk about all the time – our hearts start to beat together, and we really have been starved of that during the pandemic. So I want our audiences to leave going, ‘great, what’s next?’, and I want them to come back and see something else here. That would be the real reward.”
Wings Around Dundee runs September 7-25. See the Dundee Rep website for tickets and full details.