Without the remarkable actions of Thora, the mother of Magnus, the cult of St Magnus, the mighty cathedral and even the St Magnus International Festival would not exist. David McNeish’s new play brings Thora to the fore , a name mentioned in the sagas but about whom little is known.
The story of the Orkney Islands revolves around St Magnus. Here, in her old age, Thora tells of her own life and its intersection with the story of her son before and after his martyrdom: the hardships, the violence, the duty and the pain. The resulting play is an intense, powerful and poetic two hander which adds a new dimension to this familiar story.
After her award-winning film for the Festival, The Storm Watchers, Gerda Stevenson returns to direct this exciting new drama. While at St Magnus Festival, she will also launch her third poetry collection Tomorrow’s Feast, a tribute to families everywhere, who will inherit the global legacy of climate change, war and migration.
David McNeish was inspired to write Thora, his first full-length play, by Kristin Linklater. An Orkney based, renowned voice coach, Kristin played Thora in an opera by Ron Ferguson and Gemma McGregor previously performed at St Magnus Festival (2017). Ron and Kristin had hoped to collaborate but when their respective commitments prevented it, Kristin turned to David to help bring the character she had created to life. The part was originally written for her, however she sadly died just weeks after its completion.
“I was inspired to explore this formidable woman, light on her feet and capable of incredible diplomacy in the face of personal tragedy, in a society which was often awful to women – violent, misogynistic and patriarchal. Listening to the stories around me, I felt that Thora could speak very powerfully to our present communities. Thora imagines what life had been like before losing her son, to give her the confidence and cunning she needed to navigate the deadly intrigues of court. I’m so grateful for the support of the St Magnus Festival in bringing Thora to life. She must have been incredible, and this play seeks to redress the balance by giving her centre stage. i”
The role of Thora is played by Isabella Jarrett (NTS, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, Magnetic North, Dundee Rep and film work) and Magnus by Simon Donaldson (Tron, Raw Material, Traverse, Oran Mor, Communicado, Vox Motus, alongside radio, tv and film). Young Thora (a non-speaking role), is played by Eleanor Dean, who also appeared in the George Mackay Brown film The Storm Watchers. The set is designed by Jessica Brettle, and lighting by Laura Hawkins.
David, who moved from Glasgow to Orkney in 2015, has always written while studying medicine, working in lobbying for Citizen Advice Bureau and becoming Minister of Milestone Church in Dounby, Orkney. This is his first professional production. His second, The Boy Who Thought He Could Swim, has been commissioned by An Tobar and Mull Theatre and Unlimited, for completion in summer 2024.
Thora is imbued with music, including a Norwegian lullaby, and song settings of texts from the Orkneying Saga, composed and performed by cellist Clea Friend.
THORA written by David McNeish
Orkney Theatre, Kirkwall Grammar School, The Meadows, Kirkwall, Orkney KW15 1QN
16 June 2023, 2.30pm & 7.30pm
17 June 2023, 4pm
Director of Thora, Gerda Stevenson said:
“It’s a huge pleasure to be collaborating with the St Magnus International Festival again – such a unique event, its international programme always relevant to the times we inhabit, producing art of the highest quality, while remaining deeply connected to its own community. What a joy to back in Orkney, one of my favourite places in the world. And to be directing a powerful new play, rooted in history but connecting with our own times.
“Thora is about things that matter to everyone – family, love, death, war and peace, immigration (Thora is an immigrant from Norway), religion, and violence against women. It’s a miniature epic, you might say! I’m honoured to be directing a company of such wonderful artists, and humbled by the amazing input from Orkney’s skilled volunteers, who give their time so generously.”
Festival Director Alasdair Nicolson said:
“ I’m delighted to be bringing David McNeish’s new play to the stage in what will be his first professional production as a writer. The story of Magnus has always been central to Orkney but, as with many women in history, his mother is only mentioned by name in passing. The new play is a beautifully poetic and fiercely intense drama which continues the Festival’s ethos of bringing exciting new work to the fore.”
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