When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, stood up in parliament in March this year to issue a public apology for the historic persecution of more than 2,500 so-called “witches” in Scotland between the 16th and 18th centuries – among the worst such episodes in Europe – she spoke of the reasons why such an apology for historic wrongs might still matter.
She mentioned the importance of acknowledging and recognising injustice wherever and whenever it may have occurred, and the fact that the hatred and fear of women that inspired those historic witch trials sadly still lives on, in other forms; and both of these thoughts are strongly reflected in Martin McCormick’s powerful new monologue The Maggie Wall, one of the shows that opened Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s brand new studio theatre, earlier this autumn. Inspired by a strange and chilling monument near the village of Dunning in Perthshire, inscribed “Maggie Wall burned here as a witch, 1657”, the play seeks to reimagine the story of one young witch-hunt victim, as she speaks to the audience on the eve of, and then during, her execution.
At Pitlochry, the play was performed by the brilliant young Scottish actress Blythe Jandoo, of this summer’s Pitlochry ensemble, in a pitch-perfect production by Amy Liptrott; and in this section, specially recorded for Scotsman Sessions, Maggie reflects on her relationship with her mother and long-dead father, and on all the songs and knowledge they were able to give her, now never to be passed on to her own children. She also reflects on the sudden cruelty of people who had known her all her life, when they turned against her as witch; and sadly, just as the play acknowledges the horrifying injustice Maggie suffered, it also reminds us of the shock and horror at the sudden cruelty of neighbours that is still present in so many modern wars.
Jandoo grew up in Edinburgh, and trained at the Arts Educational Schools London; and over the last seven years, her career has taken her from playing Tinkerbell and Princess Jasmine in pantomimes at the SECC in Glasgow, to roles in major West End musicals including Starlight Express and Joseph And The amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. In this year’s Pitlochry season, she also appeared as Liz in the company’s smash hit production of Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith, the first time she had been able to use her own Edinburgh voice in a musical role; and this Christmas, she will play Belle in the Glasgow King’s Theatre panto, Beauty And The Beast.
“After this season at Pitlochry,” she says, “and particularly after The Maggie Wall, I think I have realised that I want to be a storyteller, first and foremost. It was a fascinating experience, the first solo theatre show I’ve performed, and I loved the intensity and immediacy of the relationship with the audience, in the studio space. I’m sure all of us have had experiences in life of being targeted as outsiders – I certainly have, from time to time. And this story speaks to that fear in all of us; and reminds us of what those women went through, when that hostility to ‘outsiders’ turned to such terrible violence and hate.”