ED2019 Chris Meets ED2019 Interviews ED2019 Musicals

Shonagh Murray: Armour and Burns

By | Published on Monday 19 August 2019

At last year’s Festival, ‘Armour: A Herstory Of The Scottish Bard’ really impressed our reviewer. An innovative new piece of musical theatre written by Shonagh Murray, it put the spotlight on two key women in the life of Robert Burns, his wife Jean Armour and mistress Nancy Maclehose. As the show’s blurb notes, maybe the cliche that “behind every great man is a woman” should be rewritten. Because sometimes it’s two women.

Though a third key character also appears in ‘Armour’, that being Burns’ granddaughter Sarah. Having researched her story while writing last year’s piece, Murray felt that Sarah Burns probably deserved her own show. And that is ‘Burns: A Lost Legacy’, which premiered at this year’s Festival alongside a second run of ‘Armour’.

Both are produced by Fearless Players, the theatre company Murray runs with producer Lydia Davidson. Given how much we loved the first production, and with the second sounding so interesting too, I decided to question Murray about her plays, the women they feature, and the company she co-founded that have brought these important stories to life.

CC: Let’s start with ‘Armour’ – a show we really loved when it was performed last year. Where did the idea come from to write a play about these two women loved by Burns: Jean Armour and Nancy Maclehose?
SM: I grew up around the Burns Federation school competitions so always had a fascination with him, and in the back of my mind I always wanted to reconnect my childhood of Burns with my career.

I had often thrown an idea around my head of Jean Armour sitting on a rocking chair reading all of the letters Rab wrote to her and all of the letters he wrote to Nancy Maclehose, getting her gut reactions to it all. During a holiday I happened upon a book written from the perspective of a young Jean swept up in Rab’s romantic words, and it kick-started a need to actually make this rocking chair moment happen, where Jean can address everything we think we know about her.

I then heard that Jean and Nancy had actually bumped into each other at a party and had also possibly met for tea. The idea of that meeting was both funny and heartbreaking. I started to imagine Nancy sitting opposite Jean, and what they might have talked about, and pretty soon the words began to flow.

As I researched Jean further I discovered how she cared for her granddaughter later in life, and the relationship of Jean with Sarah really caught my imagination, as I have a really close relationship with my granny. And that relationship felt like the perfect sweetener to a fairly confrontational cocktail.

CC: For the uninitiated, tell us a little more about Jean Armour and Nancy Maclehose, and the influence and impact they had on Burns.
SM: Jean Armour was not Burns’s first love, but she was the one he managed to marry. And I don’t think many women, despite their best intentions, could have handled Rab as well as Jean did. Despite how history painted her, she was a well-educated woman of the town and Rab was very much marrying above his station, in my opinion. She had the perfect combination of love, grit and patience to help her in her marriage.

Despite his love for Jean, I think Rab was addicted to the experience of new love, to the point that he fathered children that were not Jean’s but, to her credit, she loved the weans despite how they came about.

One of Rab’s loves was Agnes MacLehose, or Nancy, as she is known. One of the only women to not consummate her love for Rab, Nancy was also an educated woman of stature who was unhappily married.

She met Rab a few times, but most of their relationship was by letter, where they would write verses to each other, because she was a poet too. But Nancy would never be with Rab, because she was a very religious woman and – despite her love for him – she knew that life with someone who wasn’t her husband was not possible for her.

Both women inspired Rab in different ways. Jean was Rab’s home, she was steadfast and loyal and an inspiration for many of his works that spoke of everlasting, emphatic love. Whereas Nancy, perhaps due to their love being unconsummated, was a fiery “what if” that was never answered.

CC: You’ve clearly done a lot of research about both women. How much of the piece draws on actual history?
SM: I tried my best to keep as close to historical accuracy as possible. But creative licences were taken when trying to guess when Nancy and Jean might’ve met – would Burns’ granddaughter Sarah have been living with her granny by then? I decided to set the meeting when that was the case, so that we could see all of those dynamics overlap.

One thing I’ve learned in writing these pieces is that, even with best intentions, it’s hard to stick to exact history if you want to tell three different stories spanning decades in a 60 minute Fringe show. And sometimes it’s better to research, piece together, speculate and eventually let go of the rigidity of historical accuracy so that you can embrace the humanity that lies underneath.

CC: The music is key to the piece, of course – with both traditional and original compositions featuring. How did you approach this side? What made you decide to mix the old and the new?
SM: This was a natural assumption for me. Rab wrote about these women but they never got a word in, so Rab’s work could not be the voice of these women in any way. I wanted instead for his work to haunt, comfort and provoke them into finally voicing their own response. Those responses are influenced by Scottish traditional music, but I hope they also have a modern feel about them, as these women are timeless in my eyes and should not be confined by the music of one time period and one man.

CC: How was the play received at Festival 2018?
SM: Last year was an amazing experience! We were selling out by the first week, receiving four and five star reviews, and even got to perform and chat on ‘The Afternoon Show’ at the BBC. It was a crazy month! The audience feedback was so generous and humbling to hear, as everyone was connecting with these women from two centuries ago.

Even the people who knew little about Robert Burns himself could identify and empathise with the women behind the Bard. But one thing I particularly liked was the number of Burns fans who were commenting on how little they previously knew about the women behind the man, and how much it altered and uplifted their relationship with the poet.

CC: What made you decide to bring the piece back to the Fringe? Has it evolved since last year?
SM: We sold out almost every show last year, so we knew we wanted to bring it back to a bigger venue and continue to share this story. With a new, bigger venue this year we were also chuffed to have an extra ten minutes in our performance slot.

‘Armour’ was originally one hour fifteen minutes, and we had to reduce it for 2018. Getting to add back in scenes and lines that were cut last year was so satisfying. The core of the show remains the same, but I like to think of this year’s ‘Armour’ as the director’s cut that brings extra detail and more room to breathe.

CC: Let’s talk about the new piece. Burns’ granddaughter Sarah was a character in the first play of course. What made you decide to focus on her story in particular through another piece?
SM: ‘Armour’ opens and closes with a monologue from Sarah. And when writing for her, it initially felt like her story was there for the purpose of remembering her grandparents.

But in researching Sarah I found I wanted to know more about her motivations in life; what conversation would she have with her granny as an adult? How did her granny influence her life and perhaps how did her grandparents influence her relationship with her own children?

To close her chapter in ‘Armour’ felt premature and we all agreed we wanted to hear more from her.

CC: How does the new play compare to ‘Armour’. Does it help if you have seen the prequel?
SM: ‘Burns’ is a bit darker than ‘Armour’. Where ‘Armour’ has a resolution for the main characters and a hopeful ending, ‘Burns’ isn’t as simple for the lead Sarah. It deals with more complex themes of regret, consequences and a fear that I think everyone has at some point in their lives – will anyone remember me after I’m gone?

I don’t think it matters if you have seen ‘Armour’ first before seeing ‘Burns’. Whilst the new show does take place after ‘Armour’, the fun part is that ‘Armour’ is bookended by one scene from ‘Burns’, so it gets a bit contorted if you want to watch it chronologically.

Most people have seen ‘Armour’ first, but I’m interested to know people’s takes on seeing ‘Burns’ first and then digging into Sarah’s childhood and seeing her memories from ‘Burns’ come to life.

CC: In Jean, Nancy and Sarah, we have three women whose life stories – it feels – should be much better known. Do you think theatre is a good medium through which to share these stories with a wider audience?
SM: I’m a big history nerd and believe history belongs in every part of our lives, not just in a classroom. So, yes, the theatre is a great way of bringing the past into our present, for us to observe and understand in a more creative way. Theatre, in my mind, is about provoking discussion so it’s a perfect medium for reassessing historical figures.

CC: What ambitions do you have for the two pieces beyond this year’s Festival?
SM: We would love to see both shows getting out and about around Scotland and beyond. Whether individually or as companion pieces, I would be chuffed with either!

CC: Let’s step back a bit and find out more about yourself. Tell us a little more about your career in music and theatre.
SM: I started as a singer during my undergrad in Applied Music at Strathclyde University before going on to qualify as a high school music teacher. I was a year into teaching when I properly caught the theatre bug, so I then went on to study a masters in Musical Directing at the Royal Conservatoire Of Scotland, which is where everything really kicked off.

I was already writing my own work, but it was when RCS went to the Fringe with a big show and two smaller new developments that the seed was sowed, in that I had this idea of returning to the Fringe after graduating.

I met Lydia at RCS, and it was based on our shared experience that we wanted to work together and make something special. I jump between London and Scotland for work and, when term starts, I’ll be back at the London College Of Music as a vocal coach and Musical Director. Every minute in between is Fearless Players time.

CC: Ah, yes, the Fearless Players? Tell us more about the company.
SM: Fearless Players is a female-led theatre company headed up by Lydia and myself. It started with Lydia and I talking about what we wanted to do with our time after graduating and what kind of theatre we wanted to be a part of.

Wouldn’t it be crazy if we made our own work and put it on ourselves? Wouldn’t it be cool if the creative team were at least 50% female, so that we could contribute even in the smallest way to helping get more gender balance in the industry? I was sitting on the idea for ‘Armour’ already, Lydia suggested taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe last year, and the rest is Herstory!

CC: How has this year’s Festival been going? Is producing two plays instead of one more of a challenge?
SM: It is definitely a challenge. We are a two person team who started the year living in two different countries. Lydia was producing the shows whilst living in South Korea. Navigating an eight hour time difference to produce two shows – one of which was still being written – is the hardest thing we’ve ever done without a doubt.

CC: And finally, other than your two shows, are there any others that you would recommend people see before the Festival ends this year?
SM: ‘I’m A Phoenix, Bitch’ by Bryony Kimmings might already be on people’s radar, but it’s a blazing piece of theatre. ‘Girlhood’ at Gilded Balloon is also a really intelligent piece of theatre that uses music samples to travel through time and tell the story of a girl turning into a woman with all the trips and falls along the way. It’s very cool!

‘Armour: A Herstory Of The Scottish Bard’ and ‘Burns: A Lost Legacy’ were performed at Gilded Balloon Rose Theatre at Edinburgh Festival 2019.