3,000 Trees:

The Death of Mr William MacRae

Sweet Grassmarket

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IN April 1985 Willie MacRae, a Scottish Nationalist, lawyer and anti-nuclear campaigner, was found dying from a gunshot wound by a Highland roadside. The circumstances of his death are still unclear and therefore disputed - such is the stuff of theatre.

And indeed this year's Fringe is playing host to two different plays (although with confusingly similar names) about MacRae's life and, indirectly, his mysterious death. The first of these, 3,000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae, is the stronger piece of theatre, a one-man show written and performed by Andy Paterson.

Basically a monologue, a lot rides on Paterson's performance and he doesn't disappoint. The intimate venue also helps, though the occasional songs (also by Paterson) and film (by punk band Oi Polloi) sit oddly with the rest of the material and, if anything, interrupt its fluency.

Working his way through a bottle of Laphroig, Paterson is compelling and believable as MacRae looking back on his eventful life. The script is great ("to be killed for a carry oot - it's a peculiarly Scottish assassination") but the politics are occasionally inaccurate (Norway, for example, didn't have an oil fund until the 1990s).

3,000 Trees


THE second play, by playwright George Gunn, is careful to point out that it's "inspired by" MacRae (the central character is instead called MacKay), and is more conventional in format but not as compelling as its competitor.

Part of the problem is the premise - an imagined encounter between the political activist and his would-be assassin - which, given that it didn't actually happen, is a bit difficult to take seriously. It also buys unquestioningly into the conspiracy theories surround MacRae's death, whereas the Grassmarket production is more circumspect.

Still, there's some engaging interplay between MacKay and Sinclair Oliphant (the assassin), even though the latter at times resembles little more than a toff bogeyman. MacKay clocks him from the word go ("I'm after a quiet weekend whereas you're after blood"), while Oliphant is scornful of his future victim's independence vision ("1,000 times you've said it and 1,000 times deluded").

Again, the political aspects are a bit cartoonish, a litany of 1980s woes and class politics, although the musical interludes in this show, which is produced by Mark MacNicol, work a little better.

Here the title of both plays is explained: following MacRae's death the University of Haifa in Israel, with which he was associated, planted 3,000 trees in his honour. "When a man starts a war against the state," says MacKay at one point, "it's a war he cannae win."

The Pitiless Storm

Assembly Rooms

OVER at the Assembly Rooms, David Hayman's one-man play, The Pitiless Storm, targets a more contemporary aspect of Scottish Nationalist history - in other words, the fast-approaching independence referendum.

Hayman plays - with humour and credible vigour - Bob Cunningham, a veteran trade unionist who's recently been honoured with an OBE. As he prepares a speech of gratitude, he is forced by voices from the past, not to mention his political conscience, to re-evaluate long-held beliefs.

This takes the form of fragments of conversations with loved ones and political associates ("It's a class war, Ethel, not a national one") and gradually we see Cunningham move away from Unionist solidarity to Nationalist revelation.

Chris Dolan's script has some memorable lines ("Christ, we don't know what the weather's going to be like in half an hour, let alone what our nation will be like in a decade" but it is let down (as was Alan Bissett's The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant) by a rather old-fashioned and left-wing view of the independence debate.