Theatre nights - Richard Clubley

Read the latest from author and new Orkney resident Richard Clubley as he explores all aspects of island life.


Picture the scene, it is February 1602. The curtain has just come down on the first, ever, public performance of Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare, at Middle Temple Hall, one of the Inns of Court in London.

In Orkney, like as not, it being February, a gale was raging and the sky was dark. Waves were crashing against the Yesnaby cliffs and plumes of spray were breaking right over the Hole O’ Row. Few ventured out. More peat would be placed on the fire and maybe a dried cow pat or a piece of wood from the shore. Tales would be told, poems composed and read. There would be music, song and laughter. No one switched on the television, let alone went out to the cinema.

Even in the brand new Earl’s Palace, then under construction in Kirkwall, Earl Patrick Stewart would not have Netflix. He had pages, lackeys and trumpeters clothed in red and yellow, but of DVDs and Blueray there were none. The only flat screen in the palace was in front of the fire or to prevent draughts at the door.

The Earl's Palace, Kirkwall - image by Kenny Lam


In February 2018 I sat with fellow “theatre-goers” in The Phoenix cinema, Kirkwall, to watch a live screening of Twelfth Night from The Royal Shakespeare Company’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon. The wind still blew, waves still crashed and the night was black and clear. Many stars shone. Stars Adrian Edmondson and Kara Tointon also shone in the cinema as Malvolio and Olivia in Shakespeare’s play.

Who’d have thought it? Here we were, drinks and snacks in hand, watching live theatre from six hundred miles away. We heard the buzz and applause of the audience in Stratford (we could even have joined in the clapping if self-consciousness hadn’t got the better of us). We had an interval when they did – and a short documentary about the costume department.

The Phoenix Cinema at the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall


By the miracle of technology we have the RSC live, blockbuster movies and global telecommunications to go with our wide open spaces, birds, flowers and clean air. We have everything. And, what is more, by the same miracle the folk down in Stratford can watch Orkney’s otters and puffins, or view our Neolithic houses.


Speaking of entertainment, Julie Felix came to sing for us in March. Julie will be 80 years old in June. She’s working on a new studio album – her first for ten years – with which to celebrate.

They say that if you remember the sixties you weren’t really there. Well, I do remember them, and I was there, but I don’t think I paid enough attention at the time. The Summer of Love (fifty years ago this year), Flower Power and Ban the Bomb all passed me by in a blur. My room at college had some graffiti, left by a previous student, saying things about Vietnam.

I listened to The Byrds sing Mr Tambourine Man and a song about wearing flowers in San Francisco. I even played badminton with Deep Purple (they rehearsed in our community hall). I didn’t really get any of it. It was just the stuff happening around me.

Julie Felix got it. She spoke to me after her gig in Stromness Town Hall. She’s a bit older than me so I asked if she had realised at the time how significant the 1960s were.

The Stromness waterfront


“Yes.” She said “It was a special time. I didn’t think it would end, or that it would be interpreted so much by future generations. My dad had given me a guitar and I just started singing about what I believed in – rights for the individual and such. I was involved with CND and the Aldermaston March. My first album came out in 1964. Songs like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’ were getting into the charts – it was unbelievable.”

Julie became interested in ‘Earth Mysteries’ during the 80s. Proponents hold certain sites to be sacred, Stonehenge is probably the best known, but our own Ring of Brodgar, Maeshowe and Skara Brae are also up there. She believes in the mysticism of these places and the whole idea of Mother Earth. She deplores the damage being done to the Earth by corporate greed.

Maeshowe, Orkney - image by Paul Tomkins


When we talk to the archaeologists they don’t know for sure what the low, stone walls being unearthed at Ness of Brodgar were intended for. There is all manner of speculation based on hard scientific investigation and measurement. They talk of religious and social ceremonies; government, trade and just about every activity still practised today when people meet. If people like Julie Felix, with all that she has lived through, find mysticism in them, if they represent, for her, Mother Earth and all that’s wholesome, then I for one would not wish to argue.


Richard contributes regularly to Scottish Islands Explorer magazine and his first book: 'Scotland’s Islands – A Special Kind of Freedom' was published in 2014. His new book 'Orkney – A Special Place' is available from all the usual outlets now.

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