Review: Thora, St Magnus International Festival

A play by David McNeish. Reviewed by Mike Robertson. Images by Ken Amer

a scene from the play where Thora is holding the baby Magnus, cellist at the front

Thora, the mother of St Magnus, lives up to her name as a goddess of thunder in this play by David McNeish.  Although little is known about Thora from history, this play weaves a compelling story of a powerful woman at a time when women had little power over their own lives let alone others.  It also tells the story of Magnus as a person rather than a saint.

The story is told on Thora’s deathbed as she sees visions of her martyred son and they talk about their lives and the events which shaped them. 

When Thora told of her rape by Magnus’s father with shocking intensity and Magnus described the people involved his own death with such graphic detail you could almost be there.

For one reason or another I rarely get to live theatre, so it was a real treat to be asked to report on this for the Orkney News.  With radio, your imagination is driven by what you hear.  In film or TV, special effects leave little to your imagination.   Theatre, however, guides your imagination so you believe the red cloth is blood without a large pool of the red sticky stuff and you can feel the warmth of the fire from a couple of glowing stage lights.

The cleverly designed set was economical but effective.  A simple stylised bed with an exaggerated perspective surrounded by gauzes which allowed the ghosts of Magnus and Thora’s younger self to drift in and out of the scene.   The set was built locally by Mike Partridge to a design by Jessica Brettle.  The lighting, by Laura Hawkins was particularly effective, subtly changing the atmosphere as the story unfolded.

Magnus appears through a gauze at the side of Thora who is washing her feet stage front

We saw powerful performances from Simon Donaldson as Magnus and Isabella Jarret as Thora as well as a non-speaking part by Eleanor Dean as young Thora.

Music was composed and performed on stage by the cellist Clea Friend.   Much of this was improvised to suit the mood of the performance.

As somebody who has passed 3 score years and ten, I felt Thora was a little more agile than you would expect from somebody in their last moments.  Then I remembered it was all part of her dream and you’re allowed a little licence there.

David McNeish explained afterwards how the play had evolved.  Thora had originally been played by Kirstin Linklater in an opera by Ron Ferguson.   The back story for this character was developed by David McNeish into the play.  It then became a collaborative effort during the readthrough and rehearsals.

Gerda Stevenson, the director had great praise for the team effort.  She had aimed for a storytelling theme which needed a certain starkness in telling while creating a contemporary relevance.

Seeing a couple of friends in the audience I asked what they had thought of the play. 

Stuart and Pirjo Little said

“This powerful exploration of the pressures and influences on Thora brings new light on the life and story of Magnus seen from the viewpoint of an exploited yet indomitable woman of great spirit who chose not to be a victim. Her determination freed Magnus to be his own man. The sexual politics of that day has immediately recognisable resonances for a modern audience.”

Another who wanted to remain anonymous had enjoyed it overall, particularly the staging, lighting, music and direction, but had some reservations too detailed to go into here.   He was particularly taken with Magnus’s description of his murder and use of the despicable Lifolf character.

Telling the story of St Magnus from the point of view of his mother reveals him as a person rather than a saint, exploring the dramatic moments and tough decisions in his life.  We saw powerful performances of Magnus and Thora, helped by young Thora, the ingenious set imaginatively lit and the atmospheric music.

The dying Thora is lying against Magnus whilst a young Thora is seen behind them holding Magnus as a baby

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