Sarah Walker-Smith on the Isle of Mull
Can you tell us the idea behind the Legend of Lady Rock?
I was on holiday in Scotland around 2001, and I went over for a day trip to the Isle of Mull and when you go over on the ferry you see this amazing castle. It’s Duart Castle, which is the clan seat of the MacClean family.
We went round the castle, and we were told this story by the tour guide, who just so happened to be Sir Lachlan MacClean, the head of the clan. They’re not very glamorous up at that castle, so they all muck in. He was doing the tour that day and he took us to this beautiful view over the Firth Lorne and you can see all the Highlands in the background and this amazing sea scape.
He said, “I’m not proud of all my relatives. One of my ancestors dumped his new wife on a rock” and pointed out to this rock, and he left her to drown, back in the 1500s. Don’t ask me why – maybe I have a macabre imagination or something, but that just stuck with me. He could have stabbed her, poisoned her, chucked her off something – anything. So why would he row her out into the middle of the sea and leave her on a tidal rock to drown?
It struck me as being really obscure. The legend had it that he was fed up with her, he didn’t like her and so he tried to kill her. I thought that was far too straightforward. I just spotted an opportunity to write a much more complex, twisting turning Agatha Christie-type version of what really happened.
Has the current clan chief seen or read the play?
Yeah, he hasn’t seen it because we’re only just producing the first performance. I was very nervous about writing to him. I only actually wrote to him earlier this year because the play wasn’t really finished. I kept thinking, what if he hates it? I wrote him a good old-fashioned, handwritten letter. I didn’t hear anything back, and I thought, either it’s not got there or he didn’t like it.
In the end, I managed to get through to his PA. She put it in front of him. He’s a very traditional gentleman in his seventies, and I don’t think he immediately went, “Oh how wonderful, a musical about my ancestors”, but equally, he didn’t hate the idea.
Did you feel pressure about writing about a real historical event where the descendants can be traced down?
I was worried because it’s not a picture that particularly presents all the people involved in the best of lights because it’s a true story about someone trying to murder somebody. I was concerned that they might be concerned. In actual fact, when Sir Lachlan read my synopsis he said he thought I’d been quite kind because, in his words, this particular ancestor was the black sheep of the family and I think he said, “You can’t always choose your family, and this one wasn’t a good one”. He was quite surprised that I’d managed to turn it round and paint it in a slightly different light.
I didn’t want to create a straightforward, evil baddie who sticks his wife on a tidal rock - I wanted to make him human. I want the audience to feel incredibly sorry for him. I’ve turned it on his head to make him feel like a victim, in a way. It’s not excusing what he did, because he still tried to murder somebody, but I tried to explain it in a way that makes him a victim as well. I don’t like writing one dimensional characters who are either baddies or goodies, I always try to make the audience have empathy with the characters no matter what.
I know you didn’t have any song writing experience before you started this. What was that experience like?
Painful. I hope it’s not painful for people listening to the music as well. It’s been a really elongated process. My whole life I wanted to write stuff. When I was a little girl on school holidays, I’d lock myself in a cupboard with a typewriter and bash out stories. I’ve also been lucky enough to be in a lot of musical theatre since the age of about fifteen. As soon as this story came about I naturally wanted to talk about them through musical theatre. But not in a Mamma Mia style - it’s much more musical drama. Think Shakespeare meets a musical.
About two and a half years ago, I saw an advert for writing applications on an iPad. All I needed to do was plug the notes in. I understood basic music from my experience, and it gave me access to a full orchestra. I could keep messing with it until the thing I could hear in my head was played back to me on the iPad. The difficulty with this show was that everything is orchestrated. Even when people are talking there is music playing in the background.
I’ve written every note of music in the show, apart from one song which was written by a chap called Jon Orton. I’ve written it in a way that’s almost illiterate. You can’t tell by listening, but when a musician listens to it, it almost needs the grammar putting back into it. The musical director for the show and I have come to the conclusion that we want to make the backing tracks as good as we can. We’ve put them into a fantastic piece of software called Sibelius, and we’re going to use it to play the backing tracks live and mix them live during the show.
I think it was a step too far to get the music I had written playable for an orchestra in the time we’ve got. I think it’s worked out better because we’ve got so much control over it now. It means that we can put an orchestra of thirty into the piece, whereas we probably only would have been able to afford a band of about eight. I would dearly love to hear this played by an orchestra at some point.
That’s the other challenge with this – we’ve had such limited time to put the show on. We’ve set ourselves a massive challenge. I know the talent we’ve got on stage, and the story will bring the audience along, and there is some lovely music in it, it will come together. But you’d normally spend three to six months rehearsing an amateur musical and we’re trying to do it in five weeks.
What musical influences will people think of?
The cast are driving me nuts at the minute because they keep picking things out. They’ve decided that a bit of it was from Into The Woods. Then they decided West Side Story. They keep picking bits out. I tried to write it with a hint of Scottishness. We picked up a fiddle and a harp and pipes rather than using anything modern. It’s got a folky, Scottish feel. But I think people think I’ve written music similar to Sondheim in a way that it tells a story.
Music is used as narration as well as “Let’s stop talking and sing a song”. It’s very much integrated into it. That’s why I compare it to Les Mis. Songs get repeated in little bits. It moulds. I wanted to keep the action going. I didn’t want to stop and start. I wanted to make it more organic than that.
You’ve acted and directed before, but what’s it been like directing your own creation?
In some respects it’s quite similar to directing someone else’s work, because at the moment I’ve got my director hat on, not my writer hat. It’s like I’ve separated myself from it. When I wrote it, I did write very detailed stage directions into the script. I did that because as a director, very often when you pick a script up, it’s just the words. I was writing pretty specific stage directions into it. In a way I had already done part of the job. I am finding that I’m looking at it afresh now, and being quite objective about the writing and cutting bits out. I’ve just taken a big red pen and chopped a whole scene out. Big chunks of a song in the last two weeks.
It was always part of my accidental master plan. I knew the end game was to write, but I wanted to perform and direct as well. As a route to becoming a writer, I was an actor and then a director. It’s really helped because I can see where the cast is coming from, and the production team. You can bring it all together.
The Legend of Lady Rock premieres at The Space Nottingham Contemporary 6-9 October 2016. Tickets can be bought here.