“When a man starts a war against the State, it’s a war he cannot win,” says our nominal hero Willie McKay at the point in this play when the writer presumes we will sympathise with him most. For McKay is a man with a mission — specifically, to uncover government plans to build a nuclear waste dump at Dounreay, but more generally to hold power to account — who finds himself stuck in a small petrol station shop in the far north of Scotland, waiting for the rain to stop and a flooded road to reopen so he can then drive to his death in a state-sanctioned assassination that will be made to look like suicide.
There’s certainly nothing wrong in having and expressing a strong view on what happened to Willie MacRae on Good Friday evening back 1985, but here it seriously hampers the drama.
McKay is a good natured man; true to his native roots, he does what he does even though he knows that the Secret British State he’s fighting against has, in his own words, become “trigger happy”. Given the love and affection shown by Kirstag, the young graduate and family friend who’s minding the petrol station shop and the clear menace personified by the supposed whisky-seller (or, according to McKay, MI5 agent) “Sinclair Oliphant Esquire”, if this was a completely fiction story, we’d be bound to be on McKay’s side —wouldn’t we?
Except, of course, George Gunn’s 3,000 Trees makes no apologies for being more than just a made-up story; it is, to all intents and purposes, a light fictionalisation of the circumstances around the mysterious death, in April 1985, of the lawyer and Scottish nationalist Willie MacRae. Indeed, it’s one of two plays on the subject which have popped up in this year’s Fringe. Nearly 30 years on, MacRae’s death in a car accident on a remote Highland road remains a subject of speculation and conspiracy, fuelled not least by the repeated refusals of British and Scottish officials to support a full and open public enquiry into what happened.
Undoubtedly, there’s lots to praise in this production. Gunn writes passionately, sharply, and often quite beautifully; though he also falls for the poetic fallacy that referencing classical mythology automatically makes your own work more meaningful. McKay, personified by Jimmy Chisholm (undoubtedly one of Scotland’s finest character actors at the moment) certainly engenders our sympathies – but then, he’s supposed to. Helen Mackay, meantime, is bright and powerful as the enthusiastic Kirstag Mackenzie.
Co-producer Adam Robertson as Fettes-educated 1980s spy Oliphant — think Midge Ure meets Freddie Mercury — gamely tries to suggest that McKay is simply delusional and suicidal.
Gunn writes from an opinionated perspective: he clearly feels MacRae/McKay was murdered by the State; that he was a noble, selfless man — beset by some personal demons, perhaps, though most of those were no more than post-mortem smears by a fourth estate which has proved itself just as corrupt as the other three. Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong in having and expressing a strong view on what happened to Willie MacRae on Good Friday evening back 1985, but here it seriously hampers the drama. The characters have little or no room to manoeuvre “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a character in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Still, that doesn’t mean the legend is true.