McGonagall’s Chronicles, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A late tribute to one of Scotland's latest and (not-so) greatest poets is an earnest and heartwarming three hander.

Review by Amy Taylor | 21 Dec 2018

Have you heard of the Chronicles? The Chronicles of McGonagall? Sir William Topaz McGonagall, Scottish weaver, and poet of verses most horrible? Although not always remembered for his poems – and when so, never for the right reasons – the protagonist of Gary McNair’s latest piece, McGonagall’s Chronicles (Which Will Be Remembered For A Very Long Time), deserves his very own space in Scottish cultural history.

Performed in “almost-rhyme”, with a lively score by Simon Liddell (Frightened Rabbit, Square Go, After the Cuts), McGonagall’s Chronicles follows the trials, the tribulations and the reliance of McGonagall, the son of Irish weavers, and an ordinary weaver himself until he decided, at the age of 52, to start writing and performing poetry. The only problem was that the poems themselves were terrible, and only ever garnered notoriety on account of how bad they were.

Premiering as part of A Play, A Pie and A Pint earlier this year, it’s not hard to see why the Traverse have decided to bring back McGonagall’s Chronicles in time for Christmas. Although it’s initially lively and lightheaded in the retelling, with lots of laughs courtesy of McNair, Simon Liddell, and Brian James O'Sullivan, the piece takes a characteristically McNair dark turn. It’s easy to laugh at the story of a terrible poet who was undaunted by criticism, and seemingly never dogged by low self-confidence, but less so the tale of a man displaced by the industrial revolution, looking for his place in the world. Unable to make money from weaving, he turned to writing – and there he remained. Although his work brought him to London and the US, albeit briefly, he was a laughing stock wherever he went, and McNair asks: if McGonagall had been born into an upper-class family, would his work have been taken more seriously? It’s sad to say that we will never know. This is a thoughtful, earnest piece of theatre, and a long-awaited tribute to Scottish literature’s underdog.

So there we have the story of the one we call McGonagall, whose rhymes were almost always laughable. Although his attempts at fame were not always that successful, it’s time to raise a glass to Sir William Topaz McGonagall.

Traverse Theatre, run ended.