Both performances of Dundee’s Four Marys at Verdant Works this week had sold out quickly. It was apparent when large numbers of attendees started to assemble at High Mill, which has only just reopened after a beautiful refurbishment, that people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds had found great appeal in some aspect of the play. Taking it on face value, with limited knowledge of the subject matter, I was initially intrigued by the historic voices I would surely hear, by how four late women of Dundee from different time periods (some overlapping) would be brought to life, and how they might interact with each other in Eddie Small’s play.
With everyone gathered, Eddie gave a brief introduction to the setting, talking of the history of the Dundee Mills, and introducing one of the curators who also gave us some detail on the refurbishment of High Mill itself. We then took our seats on the main floor of the Mill. The Four Marys themselves were standing on plinths, each inscribed with their name and dates: Mary Ann Baxter (1801 – 1884), Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915), Mary Lily Walker (1863 – 1913) and Mary Brooksbank (1897 – 1978). I was impressed by the actresses’ ability to stand very still for quite a long time as we the audience got ourselves seated and settled (tall ones at the back, which was anyone over 4 foot 3, according to Eddie’s instructions).
The Four Marys kicks off with Julie Reilly’s entrance, as Maisie the Cleaner, who is dusting round the four statues and does a great job of setting the scene. Then the modern day Mary, along with her pal Emily arrive, the story being that they are US tourists who have been locked in Scotland’s Jute Museum by mistake.
When Mary Brooksbank starts to sing – (a spirited and engaging performance throughout by Jane Campbell), the story of the Four Marys begins, and we are drawn into their characters and their worlds by the dialogue which is at first driven by Brooksbank – “the chattiest one”. She tells us that she was sent to work in the Mill when she was “too young”. She complains about the poverty in Dundee, the inequality between the rich mill owners and poor workers, and how she had to fight for a better wage; all the different types of workers got different pay, so it was very hard to get them all to strike and be united in action. Whilst she starts by expressing a rather low opinion of her fellow “statues”, as more and more detail of their good works and sacrifices is revealed, by themselves, and by each other, by the end of the play, Brooksbank is in full complimentary flow towards her fellow women o’ Dundee, as they are towards her.
We hear more from each of the other Marys. Mary Lily Walker, who “shone a light on the very darkest of days”, in a suitably restrained and finely judged portrayal, by Holly Whitfield. We learn that Walker had a comfortable background, her father was a solicitor, and she herself attended University College in Dundee. She travelled to London to bring back ideas on social improvement, as she despaired at the prevalence of cholera and typhoid in poor communities in Dundee, and the existence of poor houses – as well as the unequal treatment of men and women in the society of the time. We find our that Walker spent many months compiling a factual report on 6000 houses in Dundee; the statistic that 2/5 of children did not survive until their first birthdays and the details of the the shocking conditions shamed the city, We later hear that amongst Walker’s other achievements was to set up a milk depot and she also funded holidays for poor and crippled children.
The choice that Mary Slessor had to make between the love of a good man and her calling to be a missionary in Nigeria is just one part of her story, and Lynne Binnie’s beautiful voice and gentle insistence of Slessor’s moral fortitude throughout a challenging life is a joy to behold. From the slums of Aberdeen, with an alcoholic father, Slessor went on to start at the mills aged eleven, after moving to Dundee. She talked of the jute mills, “tainting your tastebuds” and the rancid fish smell in all the mills due to the jute being mixed with whale oil in the processing, Slessor also explained how The Civil War in America helped trade in Dundee where the void for jute and linen for sailcloth, bags etc. could be filled due to blockading and lack of workforce in the USA. In a moving and heartbreaking speech, Slessor talked of her time in Nigeria as a Missionary, when she eventually had nobody to send letters or stories to back home as her mother and sister had died whilst she was there.
Mary Ann Baxter talks of the 1830s in Dundee being a vibrant and exciting time, and further on in her lifetime, how The British Association for the Advancement of Science came to Dundee and delivered science lectures for workers – unheard of at the time. Baxter defends her family’s contribution to the setting up of the textile mills and offers an explanation of how the trade worked in Dundee – claiming that her family treated workers comparatively well. She talks of the Dundee building boom in the 1850s and 60s, with 4 Railway stations in Dundee, and the Tay Bridge when it was built being the longest metal structure in world. She also recognised the harsher conditions of the time – “diseases and pestilence….the drinking of spirits.” There is also mention of her huge contribution to founding and funding the University of Dundee, and the part she played in having men and women educated in the same classrooms. Marjory Robertson has a very hard job in presenting the modest character of Mary Ann Baxter, and it could so easily have become overplayed, underplayed, or just not credible. Instead, her performance was an example in fine tuning; like a certain bowl of porridge, it was “just right”
The brief appearance by Gary Bottoms as the Guide who rescues the tourists from their historical lock-in is a finishing splurge of quality over quantity!
Essentially the play is an expositional exchange between the Four Marys, with the American tourists (ably and convincingly portrayed by Annie Bottoms and Gwen Teppett) providing links of steel between the bridges of history. Whilst exposition is a tricky beast to tame or abandon in other forms of prose writing, the playwriting craft, in so many of its guises is often obliged to encompass the “e” word as an essential element, and it’s how the writer handles it that can make or break the finished work. Along with the historic detail, we are shown the characters of the Marys through their words and the many excellent acting performances – in fact the dual layers of history and character are beautifully balanced.
Eddie Small has such a light yet deeply informed touch; the history of these four women, and, (at the risk of appearing in Private Eye), Dundee itself is in his DNA, so we never feel as if the telling of their history is forced or contrived, instead we suddenly find, when the play is over all too soon, that we have learned a huge amount about the history of the city, and of course about the Four Marys.
I am not a native Dundonian, and I often find myself unable to remember where I put my keys or whatever was in my hand five minutes ago, but on the car journey back from Verdant Works, I was delighted to be able to regale my Dundonian husband with a slew of historical facts I had learned from the play, many of which were news to him.
Dundee’s Four Marys is a play which I am compelled to see again – listening to some of the comments afterwards, it was clear that others shared my desire. After a wee speech from Eddie, ending with an emotional request for the audience to now applaud the women o’ Dundee throughout the ages, he invited Professor Kirsty Gunn up to speak a bit more about the Mlitt in Study and Practice of Writing at the University of Dundee. Kirsty, in fact took the opportunity simply to thank everyone involved for the wonderful evening, and to enthusiastically express the many positive thoughts she had for the performance and the writing. The very able and helpful staff at High Mill at Scotland’s Jute Museum finished off the evening perfectly with their professional and caring attention – allowing everyone to wander through the Mill at leisure before we headed out into the night, with some wonderful memories and a desire to return.