By Dan Bavister
On the 6th and 7th of October, 2023, Durham’s Assembly Rooms theatre played host to the new spoken word play, Reiver: Tales From The Borders, as part of their Northern tour this year. One thing is clear, above all else – this play is a tremendous success. It is truly excellent. It is a drama and a work of history, shining in both regards. The play unpacks a troubled past, rooted in violence, blackmail and deceit, of what essentially boils down to gang warfare between local smallholders and the infamous reiver clans, who torment those less fortunate than themselves. It is a play about power and the abuse of power. Of two kingdoms, Scotland and England, both of which concentrate power around their respective capitals, Edinburgh and London, leaving provincial communities behind. It is a play inextricably bound to its historical context and yet still retains stark resonance. The play explores ideas around a people left behind and made voiceless, and of corruption among police and government, which still have echoes in the modern political discourse in both countries.
One line of the play, written expertly by Steve Byron, is: “walking the spine of this country shows how wealth is distributed”. It is a line that garnered a knowing laugh in this performance. It is a line that speaks of the deep discontent among communities in the North about the abject failures of the Westminster government’s “Levelling Up” agenda, highlighted most recently with the scrapping of the Northern leg of HS2, an act symbolic of the sense of timeless voicelessness and managed decline among Northern communities imposed upon them by central government. Indeed, this was a play written in the shadow of the Johnson government, and the perceived hope of 2019 among those disadvantaged communities shattered by the backpedalling in the years that followed. But this play, despite being laced with real anger, is no blind polemic. It is a sensitive, nuanced drama, that spins compelling human yarns about this forgotten period in these nations’ shared history, in a way that is rich with heart and sensitivity.
This is a play in three parts. The first, delivered by Matthew Howdon, whose calm yet sincere presence lends this section real gravitas, tells of “The Blackmailed”. The next, from Steven Stobbs – a forceful, combative orator – tells us the tale of “Ronald”. Both stories focus on everyman protagonists and their desperate families caught under the wheels of exploitation and abuse wrought at the hands of the reivers. The last section, “The Widow”, acted by the powerful Elaine McNicol, tells of a woman’s life left desolated by her husband’s tragic death at the hand of reiver violence. This final section, told after the interval for maximum effect, is especially poignant, as we bear witness to how innocent bystanders to this cruelty are made to suffer the greatest tragedies and injustices in this age of viciousness and vengeance. In addition, we see how this woman, who has a kind nature and immense empathy, is forced to follow the path of violence just to survive in this desolate world. Following the performance, there is a Q&A section with the director, Jake Murray, and the cast, in which we are told of the final end of the reivers with the arrival of the Scottish King James VI on the English throne as James I of England, when many of the reivers were forcibly relocated to Ireland, from where many later migrated to the United States. There, they created the culture of the Wild West, with descendants of the infamous reiver families including some of the most influential of modern American leaders, from Presidents Richard Nixon and Lydon B. Johnson, to legendary Christian preacher Billy Graham and even Neil Armstrong, the first man on the Moon. Clearly, the reiver spirit lives on.
The aim of this production was to highlight stories that are often forgotten or not told. There is a sense that around Edinburgh and London these communities hold a store of real lore; much is told of kings and queens, of war and conquest, heroism and deceit, in relation to these historic capitals. But this is often at the expense of regional stories, for example in the Borders. In this capacity at least, this play is a resounding success, serving to highlight stories that too regularly are silenced and forgotten. Indeed, Reiver: Tales From The Borders, ignites one’s fascination with these liminal spaces, on the border between one country and the next, where identities and nationalities blur, and cultures collide. This looms large in the spirit of “The Frontier” in the American story, as white settlers came up against indigenous populations, and it has strong resonance here as well, as we are forced to contemplate – what is Scotland? What is England? And is what separates us truly as pronounced as some would have us believe?
Reiver: Tales From The Borders continues its Northern tour between the 5th and the 28th of October, 2023.
Image credit: Elysium Theatre Company