“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So runs the famous first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel, “The Go-Between.” Apologies to the great author, but we disagree! Sure, times and circumstances have changed, but fundamentally we are all human, and our needs, fears, hopes and desires haven’t changed too much over the last 1000 years or more. Take the lad on the right of the photo above. How do you judge him? Confidently handsome or vain? Jack-the-lad or an ambitious professional? An easily-distracted millennial playing on his mobile, or determined and tech-savvy? Now look at the photo to the left. What do you see? Likely a confident, brave, upstanding RAF crewman from WW2. Are we correct in assuming you made no judgements on the character of the man in the in left photo? Don’t worry – you are not alone. Studies have shown that people are far more likely to have a one-dimensional view of people they see or read about from history, and research showed 82% of people give no critical thought to the character traits of a person from history, other than the ones we are predisposed to give.

Which is of course problematic for audiences of shows examining historical themes. The two photos feature the same actor, but how we perceive him is based on our ‘historical lens’. (We would like to give a big thank you to Thomas Dennis, lead actor of ‘Wireless Operator’, for modelling for us!). We showed two groups the two photos – one group the contemporary, the other the WW2 photo and asked them to guess the age, background and character of the person in the photo. The first group aged contemporary Thomas five years younger than the second group and the conversation revolved around his looks, fashion sense and whether or not he was single. The group thought he was likely a student or ‘working in media’, and had a ‘worried expression’ on his face, perhaps about a ‘difficult decision he has to make’. The second group did not comment at all on his looks, and did not debate whether he was married, only the number of children he supposedly had. He was also ‘stoic’, ‘brave’, ‘had a stiff upper lip’, ‘focused, and ‘always gets the job done’. So same actor, same jacket, same pose, both with complex gadgetry in their hands, but vastly different preconceptions about the two photos! And again, seeing the contemporary as more complex in terms of character than the person from history.

And ‘Wireless Operator’ is a great example of how theatre can challenge these preconceptions. The play is told through the eyes and ears of the wireless operator (John), revealing the triggers to the lifelong legacy that traumatised those airmen who survived, focusing on PTSD. The worried expression the group saw on the face in the modern photo was perceived as stoic in the WW2 photo; the group simply did not contemplate that the wireless operator would be frightened, apprehensive or even traumatised.

All this perhaps indicates too that we are beholden to the circumstances of our age. If ‘modern’ Thomas went back in time 70 years, it is likely he would react with the same bravery, fear and fortitude bomber crews displayed during World War 2. If wireless operator Thomas travelled 70 years into the future, it is likely he would quickly learn how to use a mobile, swap his flying blues for blue jeans and quickly head out to enjoy the opportunities of our age!

The shows on our list below come from different eras, but all tell fascinating stories that make us reflect on how we would react given the same circumstances.

That is why plays with history at their heart are so important! They challenge our preconceptions of the past but also the present.

Note – the listing is in no particular order.

1/ Boswell

James Boswell was a Scottish biographer, diarist, and lawyer, born in Edinburgh. He is best known for his biography of his friend and older contemporary, the English writer Samuel Johnson, which is commonly said to be the greatest biography written in the English language. This production should appeal to anyone wanting to connect with one of Scotland’s greats.

Discovering James Boswell’s lost journals, an ambitious 20th-century woman cannot resist his literary charms whilst reading of his wild and woolly adventures in A Tour of the Scottish Hebrides. Speaking through his diaries, Boswell encourages her to live her own life. Falling in love with the lively narratives, she sees a person, time and landscape wondrously revealed – as well as the possibility for a more authentic life. Heart and mind spar wittily in this delightful new adaptation of her own work by playwright Marie Kohler. ‘One of the best voices in American theatre’ (Milwaukee Magazine).

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

2/ Clouds

This jaunty play looks great fun and comes to Edinburgh with some impressive reviews in the bag.

After their successful run of Greyhounds in 2018, Time & Again return with Edwardian epic, Clouds! The year is 1913 and women are rising up… Winifred Baxter is determined to become the first Englishwoman to enter an air race, learning to fly amidst the chaos of the suffragette movement, a glorious garden party and far too much nephology: the study of clouds. New writing combining the suffocating society of pre-war Britain with a touch of comedy, early feminism and pure vintage flair! ‘Atmospheric and entertaining’ **** (List). ‘Pretty much perfect’ **** (EdinburghGuide.com). ‘Clever and charming’ **** (BroadwayBaby.com). **** (BritishTheatreGuide.info).

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

3/ In Conversation with… Tom Devine

It would have been a crime to compile a list of history shows at the Fringe, and leave Professor Sir Tom Devine off our list! ”Sir Tom Devine is the rock star of Caledonian historians whose work in unravelling Scottish identity makes him de facto the father of the nation.’ (Scottish Field 2014). If you haven’t got a ticket yet, be quick, as they will likely sell out fast!

Tom Devine is arguably Scotland’s greatest living historian, having written or contributed to more than 25 books covering such areas as Scottish and Irish migration, Scottish industry and society since the 1700s, the transformation of rural Scotland, the Great Highland Famine, the impact of the Irish Famine on Scotland and Scotland’s tobacco lords. For the past 20 years Devine has also been a notable voice on the subject of sectarianism and its impact on Scottish life. Devine is a Professor Emeritus at Edinburgh University and was knighted in the 2014 honours list. “

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

4/ In Loyal Company

This was a sell-out show last year, and the very talented one-man show specialist David William Bryan looks set to repeat his success this year.

After a total sell-out Edinburgh Fringe run in 2018, In Loyal Company returns in a venue twice the size for 2019. This incredible true story of missing WWII soldier Arthur Robinson, written and performed by his great-nephew David William Bryan, is a tour-de-force war epic not to be missed. ‘A tour de force’ (Scotsman). ‘A masterpiece’ ***** (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘A fresh sense of humanity’ **** (Stage). ‘Touching and humbling’ ***** (BritishTheatreGuide.info). ***** (EdinburghGuide.com). ***** (FringeGuru.com). ***** (Breaking-the-Fourth-Wall.com). ***** (EssentialSurrey.co.uk) ***** (SouthsideAdvertiser.biz). “

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

5/ McNaughton

Condorrat actor Jason Harvey steps into McNaughton’s shoes for an adaptation of writer Steve Gooch’s award-wining one-man play.

In his cell, woodturner Daniel McNaughton, wronged by his father, dismissed by the Glaswegian legal establishment, awaits sentence for his botched attempt to shoot Prime Minister Robert Peel. Lawyers are keen to use him as a test case for pleas of insanity in murder trials. Whatever the outcome, it will set a precedent for a hundred years… The McNaughton Rules. This prize-winning dramatic monologue by Steve Gooch is both powerful and engaging but is also laced with rueful humour.”

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office. (Note the show has multiple listings for dates/ locations, so please check)

6/ The Passion of the Playboy Riots

A true story which demonstrates the power of theatre.

True story of the role played by theatre in the birth of modern Ireland, set backstage during performances of groundbreaking Irish plays, Cathleen ni Hoolihan (1902), The Playboy of the Western World (1907) and The Plough and the Stars (1926). Based on the writings of WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, who founded the Irish Literary Theatre, and Patrick Pearse, first of the leaders of the Easter Rising to face the firing squad. ‘Funny, taut and thought-provoking’ (Roy Foster, author of Yeats: A Life). ‘Original, witty and controversial’ (Ruth Dudley Edwards).”

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office. (Note the show has multiple listings for dates/ locations, so please check)

7/ Chagos 1971

The play focuses on the events between 1968 and 1971 when the British and American Governments executed an agreement to allow the American military to use the British island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago.

This is a bizarre, unbelievable, but true story – and a darkly hilarious play. In 1971, representatives of the US and UK governments made a heinous decision somehow still unheard of in either society today. After promising the Chagos Archipelago to the Americans a few years earlier, the British government opted to clear the indigenous people living there using a truly bizarre method. Chagos 1971 tells that story, by combining the factual beats of the real events (they get stranger) with an Armando Iannucci-style snappiness and farcical level of cutthroat comedy. ***** (Young-Perspective.net)..

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

8/ Wireless Operator

As we detailed in the introduction, this play challenges our perceptions of WW2 bomber crews, and gives an insight into the lasting personal cost of their actions on their mental health.

This gripping true story of a terrifying night-time Lancaster Bomber raid in WWII uncovers the triggers of the lifelong legacy that traumatised those airmen who survived. This tense visceral play is told through the eyes and ears of the wireless operator. Confined in the claustrophobic aircraft the young crew struggle to survive. They avoid searchlights and flak, witness fellow airmen blown out of the sky and plunge into zero-gravity corkscrew manoeuvres to dodge enemy aircraft. As they unleash their deadly cargo onto the city below, the wireless operator agonises about the real cost of their mission. “

Back in May, we did a fantastic interview with the team behind the show. Click here to find out more.

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

9/ The Good Scout

Inspired by the amazing true story from the 1930s, when Lord Baden-Powell and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s London ambassador, instigated exchange visits between British boy scouts and Hitler Youth, in expectation that they would influence one another. Glenn Chandler (creator of ‘Taggart’) came across the story of the Hitler Youth visits by chance and thought it too good to pass up. This is the first ever play based on this astonishing historical record. 

Inspired by true events. In the 1930s, Baden-Powell and Von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s ambassador, decreed that British boy scouts and Hitler Youth should learn from one another. In Bassington, England, the local troop play host to a cycling party of Hitlerjugend – but are the German boys cyclists or “spyclists”? For Will and Jacob, two Rover Scouts on the cusp of manhood, it is a visit that will change their lives forever. As war looms, a heart-wrenching, darkly humorous drama about espionage, scout’s honour and forbidden love unfolds. From writer/director of Kids Play ***** (Bobby Award winner, BroadwayBaby.com).”

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

10/ Woyzek

Georg Büchner first began writing Woyzeck in 1836, but it was not until 1913 that it was finally performed, after being heavily reworked by Karl Emil Franzos. Woyzeck deals with the dehumanising effects of doctors and the military on a young man’s life. It is often seen as ‘working class’ tragedy, though it can also be viewed as having another dimension, portraying the ‘perennial tragedy of human jealousy’.

Life after war is quiet and eerie. Returning home, Franz Woyzeck, a young soldier, attempts to maintain his grip on reality whilst providing for his lover and illegitimate son. Whitgift Theatre Company have reimagined Buchner’s classic European play from his original manuscripts and brought them squarely into 21st-century Europe where division and fragmentation rule, nothing is as it seems and nobody can be trusted.

Tickets available now from the Fringe Box Office.

Note – Our recommendations for the shows listed above is based on preview material only, and is no guarantee of the quality of live performance of the shows.

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