Saturday, 14 June 2014

Plays and Prose

Last night I travelled through to Dumfries to see the screening of footage taken of a play originally produced by the town's Guild of Players 25 years ago. A series of coincidences and conversations had led to the discovery of the video made of The Execution of Mary Timney by photographer Brian Sherman when the play was put on at the small Brigend Theatre in Dumfries. 

The play had been commissioned from poet and playwright Tom Pow by Radio Scotland and was first aired on that station. The Guild of Players took the radio play and produced it as a stage production, creating a powerful piece of work which had extra resonance because it was about a tragic episode in the history of this town in south west Scotland. 

The play highlights the case of 27 year old Mary Reid or Timney who was found guilty of the brutal murder of her neighbour and publicly hanged before a crowd of three thousand in 1862. The case inspired such horror amongst the public that it was a catalyst for a change in the law in six years later and so Mary became the last woman to die this terrible public death in Scotland. Sadly, Dumfries was also the place where the last man was executed in public, shortly before the new law was brought in. 

Tom Pow has written about both cases after seeing the death mask of Robert Smith and the broadsheet depicting Mary Timney's execution in Dumfries museum. He wrote a poem about Robert Smith and intended doing the same about Mary Timney but instead found himself being commissioned to write a radio play. 

When I began researching the story of Mary Timney for my book, published last year, Tom very kindly shared not only some of his sources but also his feelings about the case. He hadn't seen the Guild of Players production as he had been abroad at the time and at that stage he didn't know about the footage. By coincidence Tom later met and married the actress who produced, directed and took the role of Mary Timney in the production of his play. 

Being able to see this play thanks to the digital conversion of the video tape, was an extraordinary experience. As Tom said in his introduction, his play would now be described as verbatim play as he lifted many of the lines and statements direct from the original court records and newspaper articles. Of course I had also used these sources, along with others, and many of the words also appear in my book. 

Hearing these words being said by the actors, who all gave such outstanding performances that it was difficult to remember that this was and remains an amateur theatre company, was deeply moving and more than once I felt the hairs lifting on the back of my neck. Julie Smith's central performance as Mary Timney was heart rending, capturing the person that had emerged, for me, from the dusty lines of Victorian newsprint or the scrolled handwritten legal documents from the trail and precognition process. 

The play powerfully conveys the difficult life of this young woman struggling to raise her four children in poverty with her neighbour quibbling over details like who owned the wood that had been washed down the river and left in the meadow opposite their cottages in the remote glen in north Kirkcudbrighshire. 

The film is now available on DVD from Brian Sherman in Dumfries and I hope many schools use it as a resource as part of modules examining the issues of capital punishment. 

Brian Sherman

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