Director, Gregory Thompson, on the revealing process of rehearsing A Satire of the Three Estates

Gregory Thompson, director of the productions this June, talks about his experience of working on the text for the first time and his realisation of the truly political nature of the play, saying that he recognised that this was as much a ”party political broadcast” as an entertainment.

The challenges of the play, according to Gregory, are its historic distance from us as well as the changing nature of theatre over time – now we see plays almost entirely as entertainment.  The other major difference is the play’s staging which is so remote from modern techniques.  Moreover, the shadow of Shakespeare looms large over sixteenth-century theatre in general, so zoning in on the peculiarly Scottish, as well as the pre-Shakespearean character of this play, will present a challenge.

Gregory also discusses the Interlude of 1540 – its separateness and its connectedness to the Satire.  Many of the entertaining digressions from the hard politics of the Satire are missing, giving the Interlude a sense of a being a “dramatized green paper”.  This could, of course, result from the fact that the only source we have for the Interlude, a letter from William Eure to Thomas Cromwell, necessarily emphasises the aspects of the drama that would have been interesting to the English King’s chief minister. Greg Walker has recently written about the differences between the two texts of the Satire and the Interlude and his paper will be uploaded to the website very soon.

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Gerry Mulgrew on A Satire of the Three Estates

Another treat from the recent script work undertaken with Scottish actors – this time an interview with legendary actor and theatre director, Gerry Mulgrew.  Having served as Artistic Director of touring theatre company Communicado for the last 30 years, if anyone can talk about the significance of the Satire for Scottish theatre history, it’s Gerry.

Of particular interest is his claim that the very local and seemingly historically specific concerns of the play in fact become “timeless and universal” because they concern the poor, social reform, and the corruption of the state – issues which still affect us today. He says that his prior belief that the play  was “stuffy” was challenged by the rehearsal process, and that the actors “have been rather impressed and surprised by how modern some of the ideas seem to be for the middle of the sixteenth century.  It is a great, passionate, humanist piece.”  Like Tam, Gerry picks up on the language of the play; both actors found Robert Burn’s poetry a useful gateway for undertanding it, although Gerry sees it as more of a challenge in terms of its orthography and rhythms.  But he also celebrates its uniqueness and its richness which he says produces a Scottish voice that is “glorious”.


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Tam Dean Burn on A Satire of the Three Estates

We hit the ground running in 2013 with a series of production meetings at Stirling Castle followed by nine days of intensive script work with actors Alison Peebles, Gerry Mulgrew, Peter Kenny and Tam Dean Burn.  It was the first time we had really tackled the play in its full, rich, and complex entirety… more of which later.

In the meantime, here’s TV and film actor Tam Dean Burn talking stirringly about his experience of working on the text, with academics, and his thoughts on the Satire‘s themes and language.  (The above image is the view he mentions; the panorama of Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags from Greg Walker’s office window!)






Drama and Reforming Ideals in the 1530s

Whether David Lindsay can accurately be described as a Reformer or not seems to be a matter of some contention for critics and historians.  For Joanne Kantrowitz, Lindsay is a Reformer, while Carol Edington errs on the side of caution when assessing his position, noting Lindsay’s connection to Reformers at the court but falling short of numbering him among them.  For Edington, Lindsay is a reformer with a small ‘r’, outraged by clerical abuses and yet steering clear of doctrinal matters in his literary works.

What has struck me as interesting in my reading today is how Lindsay manages to criticise the Catholic clergy in 1540 in a way which enabled James V to exhort the Bishop of Glasgow to “reform their factions and manners of living”, when other playwrights of the 1530s were punished for the same thing.  In his section on ‘Performances and Plays’ in The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, Volume One (2007), Bill Findlay relays  that:

In 1535, John Kyllour, a Dominican friar, wrote a Historye of Christis Passioun, performed in the Castlehill playfield, Stirling, before James V, his court, and the townspeople.  Kyllour employed the format of the passion play to criticise bishops and priests; for this, after a period as a hunted man, he was burned at the stake in 1539.  James Wedderburn of Dundee wrote, and had performed there about 1540, plays which satirised the Roman Catholic clergy: a ‘tragedie’, Beheading of Johne the Baptist, and a ‘comedie’, Historie of Dyonisius the Tyranne.  For these, he had to flee into exile in France. (p255-6)

How is it that Lindsay is not only able to attack the clergy, but has his play used as springboard for James to do the same, while contemporary dramatists suffer exile and execution for doing so?  Sadly, because neither Kyllour or Wedderburn’s texts survive, we will never be able to assess the qualitative differences between the forms and extent of reformation they advocate and how these differ from those that might have been suggested by Lindsay, if, indeed, Lindsay’s critique in the non-extent Interlude of 1540 bore any relation to that found in the Satyre of the 1550s.  It does seem astonishing that Lindsay’s attack on prelates and the “naughtiness in Religion” should have been sustained and vehement enough to justify James V’s response, while Kyllour and Wedderburn suffered such a fearful fate for their reforming ideals.



Staging ‘Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis’


In June 2013, the full 5 hour version a Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis will be performed on the Peel at Linlithgow.

The research team gathered about a month into the project to discuss how this performance would be staged.  Initial thoughts had concerned a ‘horseshoe’ configuration; several platform stages set up in a semi-circle, with the audience arrayed before them and the east side of the Palace providing the backdrop to the action.  Such a configuration may well correlate to the 1554 performance of Satyre on the Greenside just outside Edinburgh.  While the specifics of the staging of this performance are unknown, the topography of the playing area involved a steep hill with a burn or drainage ditch running through it, faced by a gentler slope on the other side .  Sarah Carpenter suggests that the hill povided acoustic support for the actors playing in front of it, and that the audience were separated from the action by the burn – which is actually used during the performance – as they sat on the naturally ‘raked’ landscape behind it.  The effect would have been similar to an outdoor proscenium arch theatre.  The mode of staging during the 1554 performance was seemingly ‘place and scaffold‘ as certain main characters have named ‘seats’, meaning the rest of the characters would act in the undifferentiated area of the ‘feild’ mentioned during the play.

This configuration makes sense of the Greenside as a performance venue, but our ideas were adapted after several site visits and getting to know the grounds of Linlithgow a little better.  The action involving the burn (John the Commonwealth ‘loups’ or jumps it, the workmens’ wives wade through it, and the Pardoner’s relics are thrown into it) would not be able to be replicated at the Palace which is ‘ditch-free’, so other features of the text took prominence.   Paramount to Ane Satyre is the fact that key characters emerge from the audience; the Vices probably do in Part One, and John the Commonwealth and the Pauper certainly do in Part Two.  This is not uncommon for sixteenth century interludes.  Deriving from the morality play, a Vice’s entrance through the audience serves to remind them of how close they are sin and temptation.

In Satyre however, it is not only the Vices but the characters representative of the wider Scottish community who make their way to the stage via the audience.  We looked at the limited number of examples of late medieval staging that survive including The Castle of Perseverance, The Martyrdom of St Apollonia, and one found in the Térence des ducs manuscript.  All of these images showed some form of in-the-round staging.  The Térence des ducs image was especially helpful as the very top of it demonstrates an enclosed playing area, and you can actually see the back of audience’s heads in the foreground of this theatrical space.  While there is a wall rather than stages encircling this outdoor theatre (unlike the St Apollonia image), there is a central ‘scena’ – a pulpit-type area in which an actor is reading from a text – and costumed actors can be seen playing before it.

This set-up lends itself to the effect that we are trying to achieve with our audience; that they are auditors of a parliament whose decisions directly concern them, and that the speakers who represent their interests may be found among them.   By staging Satyre in-the-round, the world of the play collapses with the play in the world, helping to make relevant social issues which are remote in time, but which stand in for a whole host of issues faced by Scottish people today also trying to get their voice heard.  A crucial intervention to completely in-the-round staging was made by the team however, who thought that the area directly in front of the King should be cordoned off in some way, to demonstrate the inextricable nature of access to certain spaces and political authority or influence in the play.  There was also the decision taken, for reasons of audibility and visibility, that there should be a central, elevated stage in the middle of the playing area, in the vein the Castle of the Castle of Perseverance, or the ‘scena’ in the Térence des ducs image.

Consultation with personnel at Historic Scotland will decide whether this form of staging is feasible, but for now the project team are excited about the surrounding of audience with stages on the Peel, truly marking them out as a political as well as a theatrical community during the performance of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis.


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Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court…begins.

Welcome to the blog for Staging and Representing the Scottish Renaissance Court, a major two year project which will explore Stuart drama, politics and place during the mid-sixteenth century through the staging of David Lyndsay’s A Satire of the Three Estates at Linlithgow Palace and Stirling Castle in 2013.  Staging the Scottish Court is a collaborative, interdisciplinary project drawing on performance, film, literary and historical analysis, archaeology and architectural studies.  It brings together Edinburgh, Glasgow, Lincoln, Oxford Brookes and Southampton Universities, with Historic Scotland, theatre professionals and film-makers.

This blog will chart the research process over the course of the project; firstly as we approach the full outdoor production of the Satire at Linlithgow Palace, as well as indoor versions of Lyndsay’s non-extant 1540 Interlude as reconstructed by the research team in the shell of the Great Hall At Linlithgow, and the actual Great Hall of Stirling Castle.  Following the performances of June 2013, this blog will enable a continuation of the debates instigated by the project.  It will also link up with a website which will host professional films of these unique theatrical events as well as other research and educational materials.

The project aims to address a number of questions which fall into three broad categories; literary, textual and performance analysis of Sir David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis (A Satire of the Three Estates); archival and iconographic analysis of Scottish Renaissance court culture at Linlithgow and Stirling; and contemporary understanding of ‘public history’ with specific reference to importance of historical truths and myths to Scottish nationalism.

  • What was the nature of the dramatic interlude performed before James V at Linlithgow, and what was its relationship to the later performances of 1552 and 1554?
  • In what ways is Scottish Renaissance court culture reflected in Ane Satyre and in the related physical evidence of Renaissance architectural features of the Stuart royal palaces such as the Stirling Heads?
  • In what ways do performances and media re-workings of historical events shape contemporary national, political and popular understandings of the past?

The project will run parallel to a crucial period in Scottish history.  Just as Lyndsay sought to investigate Scottish national identity and suggest reforms for his society in his epic play, Scotland once more finds itself at a crossroads as it heads towards the Independence Referendum in 2014.  People are again asking what it means to be from Scotland.  What elements of social and political organisation can be seen as distinctively Scottish? If Scotland is going to become an independent nation, what should it keep and what should it throw away? Independent or not, how should Scotland move forward into the future?

Such questions and more will be addressed on this page every fortnight or so.  We hope you will check here, on the twitter account, and ultimately the project website, to see how research becomes performance, and how Scotland’s present interacts with the Scottish past at this critical juncture in its history.


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