Sexual Ecstacy and Insanity
Stranded in the Scottish Isles
“Don’t you like to wear a mask and visit the oyster sellers of Musselburgh?”
Rachel, Lady Grange
With Mark Rylance dominating the West End with Jerusalem and its allusions to the English countryside, the Finborough brings us The Straw Chair a picture of life on a tiny Scottish island in the late 1700s. The most interesting inhabitant is Lady Rachel Grange (Siobhan Redmond) who claims she has been imprisoned on Hirta, the largest island in the St Kilda group, by her husband Lord Grange.
Lady Rachel Erskine of Grange was a real person who lived in Edinburgh and who stalked her husband after he ended the marriage. What I wonder is whether without the history of this women being written by powerful men related to Clan MacLeod, Lord of the Isles, whether she might be given a fairer hearing in the 21st century.
The MacLeods of course were on the side of the English at the ’45 Rebellion but Lady Grange claims to have evidence that her husband was a Jacobite, a supporter of James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender and Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender and grandson of King James II of England and VIIth of Scotland, who was deposed and replaced by William III of Orange and his wife Mary II. This would be an act of treason punishable by death and confiscation of land and property.
A missionary minister Aneas (Finlay Bain) has been sent to Hirta to do “God’s work” to ensure the Christianity of the population who have heathen tendencies. He and his newly married wife Isabel (Rori Hawthorn) are stuck there for about four months when the boat will come back for them. Isabel’s first reaction to the furnishings, a bed made of stone and an old straw chair is to want to catch the boat straight back to the mainland.
The inhabitants of Hirta speak Gaellc which Isabel does not understand but of course Rachel speaks English. We first meet Lady Grange when she appears to take back the Straw Chair, “This chair is mine”, she claims assertively. Later she says the diet is disgusting with addled goose eggs and gannet meat. Oona the maid and captor for Rachel talks about an ancient god and spirits that the islanders believe in. Oona says of Rachel that she is, “. . . like a great Skua bird, you cannot get rid of.”
Rachel is a revelation to Isabel as she shares the intimate secrets of her marriage, how she enjoyed the honeymoon but later became a bolster and then a brood mare to her four sons and four daughters. As Rachel talks about sex, Isabel fidgets uncomfortably and awkwardly. Later Isabel will cast off her shoes and bind her feet as the island women do to walk on rocks. She will hear about the boat to Boreray and the excitement in store for the women there.
I love the way the tiny Finborough can bring this isolated island to life and involve me in the story of the woman who may have been imprisoned there, not just for molesting her husband, but for her political insight.
Alex Marker’s stage set is the room the minister and his wife live in with a bed curtained off but Jonathan Chan’s lighting shows us the gloom of dusk and then dawn in these islands of long summer days. Costume Designer Carla Joy Evans has the cast dressed in authentic linen clothes with no Velcro or zips in sight!
Siobhan Redmond is so accomplished at creating the mystery of Lady Grange, her fascinating stories with sexual details we don’t associate with these “Wee Free” islands nowadays. She rages against her husband and the factor, “Liars!” she calls them. “Vipers!” is the term reserved for her eight children. Rori Hawthorn acts the ingenue and sings Gaelic songs beautifully for a musical memory of island life as well as learning to obey her rather strict and staid husband finely played by Finlay Bain.
Until the pub is fully open take your own interval refreshment.
Welcome back to the Finborough and its unique gift at finding stories we can relate to and staging them so well.
The Straw Chair
Written by Sue Glover
Directed by Polly Creed
Director: Polly Creed
Set Designer: Alex Marker
Costume Designer: Carla Joy Evans
Assistant Director: Imy Wyatt Corner
Music Director: Rori Hawthorn
Sound Recordist: Maggie Apostolou
Lighting Designer: Claire Childs
Sound Designer: Anna Short
Running Time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Booking to 14th May 2022
118 Finborough Road
Box Office: www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Finborough
on 21st April 2022