WHEN it came to writing the current show for Wee Stories – it’s called The Man who followed his Legs (and kept on walking) – company director Iain Johnstone followed his nose and kept on finding out more and more about how the First World War impacted on communities in Fife and in Edinburgh, and indeed on his own family. The result is another Wee Stories production where the narrative delivers an epic journey while drip feeding us details and truths that are rooted in our own (sometimes overlooked) history. It’s a process that Johnstone plunges into with unstinting relish.
Two years ago, he set off for France. An RL Stevenson writing fellowship from the Scottish Books Trust had enabled him to spend a whole month working on the first draft of The Man who... He already had in mind various elements that clustered together around the 1916 battle-field of the Somme: travelling through small villages and hamlets in rural France, seeing countless war memorials to the fallen of the Great War, simply stoked his imagination with more echoes of that past carnage.
It was only when Johnstone was looking into his own family history, however, that he realised how the 1914-18 conflict was written into the lives of his immediate kin.
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“I found out that both of my grand-dads were actually at the Somme,” he says. “Obviously they survived – because here I am, now! But I also had a great-uncle who died in that battle, and none of us knew anything about him. He was my granny’s brother, and she died without talking about him, or his death. So I’ve named one of the two men in the play after him, Peter Munro.”
At the end of his time in France, having found out where the war graves were, Johnstone made a very personal pilgrimage. “I’d just finished the first draft of the play, and just to be standing at his grave – probably the only person to visit it in the 98 years since his death – gave me a profound sense of what the Somme, and the other battles, had cost families all across the globe. And the thing was that in our family, and I think in innumerable other families everywhere, those who had survived never talked about it. When I must have been about twelve, I kept on and on at my grand-dad until, for the first and only time, he answered me. He told me that he’d been in charge of the mail trains that took the dead bodies away. It’s hardly surprising he didn’t want to talk about it. Not even his son, my dad, knew that, but suddenly, the history isn’t in a book. It’s flesh and blood. It’s your own family.”
There was, meanwhile, another story that Johnstone wanted to tell, and that one was about the involvement of the Heart of Midlothian Football Battalion who also fought at the Somme. “I’d known this story for years,” he says. “But again, you feel it’s a part of the past that deserves to be acknowledged fully today. There was tremendous pressure put on the footballers to enlist – the team was, in fact, being called the White Feathers of Midlothian, with white feathers being the symbol of cowardice. So Hearts players did enlist, and hundreds of Hearts supporters followed suit en masse within days. And most of them never came back from the Somme. Those who did had seen their life-long mates – school pals, lads they lived next door to, worked beside – killed in front of them. I find it fascinating, moving, that many of the men who did return took to small-holding, took to the land and to planting crops, raising chickens, almost as a kind of self-healing.”
There’s a strand of that in The Man who... but let’s keep that twist in the story-line a secret for audiences to discover for themselves. Meanwhile, Wee Stories is on the road again with a cast of three – Scott Hoatson, Belle Jones & Patrick Wallace – and crafty reinforcements in the shape of puppets, video and an atmospheric soundscore by long-time collaborator, David Trouton. Johnstone himself abandons his director’s chair to play the “older cameo roles.” He hasn’t, however, abandoned any of the impassioned belief he has in live theatre despite finding it a battle these days to secure the kind of funding and touring circuit that, in his view, engenders quality and box office appeal.
“Catch me with a few glasses of wine in me,” he says, “and you’ll get me ranting about whether theatre really has a mandate now, and whether we, as theatre-makers, are admitting to the problems that exist with finding audiences, finding funding, staying relevant to the times we live in. But then, when we’re playing to a mixed, intergenerational audience and you can feel them responding, it’s so deeply fantastic, such a socially healthy thing to be part of, you realise you can’t give up the fight.”
The Man who followed his Legs (and kept on walking) is at Dalry Town Hall tonight and Johnstonebridge Centre tomorrow. Full tour details at www.weestoriestheatre.org