The story of Mull Little Theatre

By Barrie Hesketh

The New Iona Press: #8.95

WAS it billed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest theatre in the world? I have that recollection, but then, with the Mull Little Theatre, fact and myth have coalesced, as in the best dramas. I do remember, however, my father Angus, who was manager of the Clydesdale Bank in Tobermory, coming up the stairs to the house one evening to tell us that a ''theatrical'' couple had bought an old manse in Dervaig.

Barrie Hesketh tells the story of their coming to Mull, and the founding of their world-famous theatre, in Taking Off. He and his wife, Marianne, met in dramatic circumstances at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London in the 1950s. The teacher invited the class to improvise a dockyard scene. Barrie recollects: ''I thought that if I pretended to be very drunk, any mistake I might make would be seen as the effect of assumed inebriation. I set off across the room. Standing in my way was a girl with the most marvellous brown eyes. She wore a red tartan skirt and a green jersey that swelled over her large bust. She stood firmly and had the strong legs of a dancer. Because my character was proving more difficult than expected - it wasn't easy to be convincingly drunk when I was not - I was looking for any excuse to hide my inadequacy. I threw my arms round the girl's neck and stuttered:

''Kish me!'' These were the first words I ever spoke to Marianne. She told me afterwards she had hated me immediately.''

They were married in August 1954 in Seaford where they were playing in a summer repertory company. Barrie got character parts in Children's House with the BBC in Manchester, and was invited to join the Manchester Library Theatre. They had decided not to start a family until they had developed their careers, but their son Richard came along in 1955.

Barrie recalls: ''A Scots couple who lived in the flat above us lent us Para Handy, a book of comic short stories about the west coast of Scotland that I could read to Marianne during the night watches, to keep her company while she fed the baby. Here, had we known it, in these delightful little tales of Hebridean life, was an intimation of what lay before us.''

The Heskeths were both doing well in their careers in Manchester when Marianne came home one evening from her part in a Granada Television soap opera to announce that she was pregnant again. With two children and a third on the way, the Heskeths found themselves short of work and money. Barrie was advised by a friend to apply for a job in Edinburgh.

His work took him all over Scotland, lecturing and adjudicating festivals of plays. He was asked to go to the isle of Mull. ''I found Mull spectacularly beautiful. Unlike many parts of the Highlands, it is not overwhelming in its grandeur nor frightening in its isolation.''

Barrie returned to Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, he inherited a substantial sum from his mother. The Heskeths became property owners in Edinburgh, looking up their investments in the Financial Times instead of turning to the vacancy ads in the Stage. But Barrie yearned for Mull, and bought Druimard at Dervaig, moving in the summer of 1963, ''riding too high on excitement to consider that what we had done might be foolhardy''.

The Financial Times didn't reach them on time on Mull, and their solvency deteriorated to the extent that they feared they were going to have to sell Druimard. The only alternative was to turn it into a guest house. They built themselves a chalet in the grounds so that they could let the maximum number of rooms in the main house.

The guest house wasn't successful, but it had given the Heskeths an idea. ''It was a form of theatre in which we, the servants, were also the audience. ''One autumn morning they walked across to the old byre in the grounds which had housed their failed cafe-cum-shop. Barrie recalls: ''I strode out the length and breadth: it was twenty-eight feet by fourteen. Not very long, not very wide, but big enough for a box of delights. A playbox.''

Friends handed in old curtains, and paraffin cans were turned into theatre lanterns. Barrie made dimmer lights out of blocks of lead attached to pieces of string, with jars filled with brine. Old beds from the guest house were turned into half a dozen crude, settee-like frames to which Barrie lashed the original mattress. But the shipping strike of 1966 stopped tourists going to Mull, and the new Little Theatre lacked patrons. As Barrie reveals in his book, my father kept the project afloat with an overdraft. Despite these worries the Heskeths staged Two by Two, a light-hearted look at love and marriage, followed, after the interval, by Shaw's Village Wooing.

I was in the audience for these first Mull Little Theatre plays, and like many other people, recall their innovative excellence, and the exquisite little chocolate cakes that the Heskeths made and served. Word of this artistic enterprise in a Mull hamlet spread far and wide, and people began to plan their holidays round visits to the Little Theatre. The Heskeths also encouraged Highland writers like Iain Crichton Smith to write plays for them. ''I remember one [of Smith's] in particular, that was set in a Chinese restaurant in Oban, where a middle-aged Ophelia and Hamlet were in conversation over a bowl of chop suey.''

The Mull Little Theatre attracted financial support from charitable trusts and the Scottish Arts Council. The Heskeths were able to put in better sound and lighting equipment, and to stage more ambitious plays. That small space was just right to get across the claustrophobic tensions of Strindberg's Miss Julie.

The Heskeths started to tour the mainland; The Tempest emerged from a van packed to the roof with props. But on a night in July 1979, as Marianne was undressing after a tour of The Owl and the Pussy Cat, she turned to Barrie, telling him: ''my breast's got a double chin.'' The malignancy was removed, and Marianne went back on the stage, wearing a prosthesis under her costume in Village Wooing. Barrie remembers: ''When I got to the line, ''We shall light up a lamp in the holy of holies of life for one another'', I was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude. How fortunate we were to be back and acting together again.''

In what became a play within a play, Marianne Hesketh put on the performance of her life. She acted the parts of healthy women when she was debilitated by radiotherapy and depressed by her spreading cancer. They took their costumes for Arbuzov's Old World to Germany in one suitcase.

Somehow she got through The Importance of Being Earnest, but Marianne died in April 1984. Barrie had carved on her stone for her resting place in Mull her favourite Shakespeare sonnet: ''Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments . . .'' But Barrie had lost his leading lady, and nobody would ever be able to take her place. He moved to the mainland.

As Paul Scofield says in his Foreword, ''This is a story of creative fulfilment ending in deep sadness, a story of artistry and perseverance and love.'' It is also a story of success, since the Mull Theatre continues, under strong directorship and management and with new players waiting in the minuscule wings.

n Mull Theatre's season runs until September 20. A new production of Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden is premiered on Saturday.