So Great a Crime at the Finborough Theatre
When successful soldier and national hero Macdonald takes up a post in Ceylon in the early 1900s, he finds himself out of his military comfort zone and in a closed society of parties, socialising and colonial attitudes at their worst.
Unable to fit in, dance properly or converse well, Macdonald attracts the attention of the provincial governor and his cronies; upon deciding that Macdonald does not belong to their society, they begin to show him in the worst possible light by casting aspersions on Macdonald’s encouragement of the young and his fraternising with locals.
This is the true story of a man from humble highland beginnings who rose, through sheer courage and ability, to become Queen Victoria’s favourite general, and a celebrity of his day. At a time when reputation was all and homosexuality an unspeakable crime, a suggestion of impropriety escalated into a claustrophobic situation that was enough to force a suicide and almost erase his name from public consciousness.
This is straightforward unambiguous storytelling. In history, there may be doubt about the truth of the accusations, but in the play, the case is a clearcut conspiracy of whispers and class snobbery.
This is not a play to reread for hidden subtext and meaning, but instead a masterclass in the inventive craft of theatre in regards to using resources, which fill the stage of the imagination with a cast of thousands, to stage scenes from battles to ballrooms by effective suggestion. The writer, David Gooderson, is himself an actor, and gives his fine cast plenty to do.
The production, in a tiny theatre with few props and a small cast playing multiple parts, seamlessly moves through scenes and settings, the actors transforming in front of you with a change of hat or change of accent, keeping attention high all the way through to the ultimate defeat.
Stuart McGugan as Macdonald perfectly inhabits the part of a man who can effortlessly command armies, yet is a fish out of water around society manners.
In the light of today’s media revelations, scandals and debates, this play comes as a warning about the power of gossip, and that even those totally innocent may be brought down, without the courtesy of proof or conviction, by the toughest enemy of all – suspicion.