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Shakespeare in Perth

It is generally understood that Shakespere, who was himself a player, visited Scotland professionally. To this visit the world is perhaps mainly indebted for the grand, almost local, drama of ‘Macbeth’,” says Peacock in his “Perth: its annals and Archives.”

A strong tradition has indeed persisted through the years that Shakespeare once came to Perth, getting inspiration there for the play “Macbeth,” which appears to reveal a knowledge of local topography, with references in it to Birnam Wood and Dunsinane. What are the actual facts? Perth Kirk Session records for 1589 refer to a company of English strolling players being granted a licence for a play in the town. Shakespeare at this date was 25 years of age, and may well have been one of these actors.

Unfortunately no names of the players are contained in the Session records, and no playbill with the great
writer’s name on it is extant or, at least, has so far been discovered! Maybe some day . Baxter in his book, “The Drama in Perth,” tells us that two of Perth’s historians, R. S. Fittis and Thomas Hay Marshall, believed in the possibility of Shakespeare being in Perth. So strongly was Marshall convinced of the tradition that he intimated his intention of writing a story to be entitled “Shakespeare in
Perth.”

One of the earliest playhouses in our Fair City was the Amphitheatre of Perth, which takes its place in the history books largely because of a performance there in 1535 of David Lindsay’s “Pleasant Satyre of the Three Estates” before His Majesty King James V.

The Amphitheatre was apparently in the St. Catherine’s district of Perth, on the west side of the town, outside the city walls. After the Reformation there was little encouragement for theatricals; and between 1600 and 1700 apparently few strolling players acted in Perth.

At Candlemas, 1734, the pupils of the Grammar School, in St. Anne’s Lane, acted a play “Cato” before 300 ladies and gentlemen. We are told they performed “surprisingly in action and pronunciation, considering that they had never before seen a play acted.” There was violent opposition to the play from Church authorities. Kirk Session records of 1735 complain: “A great offence is given to religious persons in town and country by the tragedy acted in the Grammar School of the burgh.”
We note, however, that the theatre of these times was not without its supporters. An aged lady wrote in 1780: “A wheen narrow-minded loons wud attempt, on account o’ their jimp brains, sour stamachs and bad temper tae spoil the daffin’ o’ weens, and braw lads and bonnie blushing lassies, forbye the fun o’ auld folk, by their
skirlin’ an’ roarin’ that tae dance or lauch or aiblins gang tae the Pantomime is a mortal sin.”

Before 1785, the Guild Hall (taken down in 1907 as unsafe) appears to have been the home of drama in Perth, though there seems to be no record of the companies that played there. After that date the Glover’s Hall became in its turn the centre of matters theatrical. We are told that “it was the third house on the west side of George Street”—from the High Street end. The building was fitted up as a theatre, with a pit and gallery, and
was much more commodious than the Guild Hall. Among others, Mrs. H. Siddons, Kemble and Kean performed there, and one of the most successful plays presented there in 1792 was the “Siege of Perth,” or “Sir William Wallace,” written by a Perth gentleman, Mr. McLaren.
The play had local scenes—”View of the North Port” and “The North Inch.” Theatricals were enjoying what might be termed a “boom” period, when disaster struck suddenly. Penny in his “Traditions of Perth” records that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, “during one season of Sutherland’s company the gallery broke down.”
“The play was ‘Macbeth,’ and the house was crowded to excess. Macbeth was on the stage, looking at his hands and exclaiming, ‘This is a sorry sight!’ when, in an instant, the supports of the gallery gave way, and the whole came down with a dreadful crash, on the floor, from a height of from ten to twelve feet!” Fortunately, there were no fatal injuries although several limbs were hurt.

Penny, also, in his “Traditions of Perth,” observed: “The
Theatre Royal has never paid . . . a great proportion of the genteel population are now removed to the south side of the town, at a great distance from the theatre. The taste for theatricals has declined so much that even the first talent has failed to draw a good house.”

In 1845 there took place an event that accelerated the decline of the Theatre Royal—a new City Hall was built on the west side of St. John’s Kirk. Between the new hall and the theatre there ensued a contest for engagements that lasted for several years. This competition, coupled with the growing disinterest in matters theatrical on the part of the citizens of Perth, spelt doom for the theatre which had been built with such high hopes in happier days. At length the doors of the theatre were closed for the last time in 1848 and the building was taken over by Messrs. John Jamieson, clothiers. An opera house was erected in 1881 at the corner of Tay Street and Canal Street. Ten years later it was sold in Brady’s Auction Rooms to the Baptist Church authorities. The “Perthshire Constitutional” for 1 June, 1891 says last performances by the D’Oyley Carte Comic Opera Company of the “Gondoliers” and the “Yeomen of the Guard” fetched crowded houses, hundreds being turned away!

In 1899 the present theatre in the High Street came into being, and it has proved to be a notable addition to the theatrical entertainment of the citizens of Perth. Under the guidance of the late Miss Marjorie Dence from 1935 to 1966, and with actors such as Mr David Stuart, it has become one of the foremost repertory theatres in the country.

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