Gruesome subject for play is just what doctor orderd

A PLAY about grave robbing in 19th century Berwickshire might sound gruesome, but it could be just what the doctor ordered at Coldingham Hall next week.

Wednesday, 28th April 2010, 12:36 pm
Updated Wednesday, 28th April 2010, 12:36 pm

And the doctor in question is Michael Fenty, who worked at Eyemouth Health Centre for 30 years before retiring four years ago.

He has written a play 'The Resurrection Man' about Doctor George Lawrie, who was tried for grave robbing in 1821.

Not a subject that immediately strikes you as a good one for a play, but Michael has drawn on letters from the man himself as well as articles from the time to ensure that his foray into playwrighting packs a real punch.

Prior to starting work on 'The Resurrection Man', the only writing Michael had done was for medical journals but he said he has thoroughly enjoyed writing for a different audience.

"It's been a brand new experience for me although I had written an article about Dr Lawrie for Scottish Medicine," said Michael.

"Living in Coldingham, I'd heard all the stories about him. The problem is that I think many people's opinion of Dr Lawrie is quite distorted.

"Yes, he was a grave robber but he certainly wasn't a ghoul; I prefer to see him as a a bit of a lad who went a bit wild, rather than a monster.

"Grave robbing was quite common back in those days and was written about in everything from journals to novels - it was even mentioned in 'Tom Sawyer'."

Writing a play about something that actually happened meant that Michael had to make sure he was staying as true to the facts as he possibly could, and he said reading letters by Doctor Lawrie gave him a real insight into what was going on in what was clearly a troubled man's head.

He continued: "There is a lot of mis-information associated with Lawrie's case, such as a common assumption that others were involved and I want to try to give a true picture of events.

"Reading his letters was almost like speaking to him in person. Not only did I get a real understanding of what he was going through but I also got a real flavour of the times.

"It appears that grave robbing back then was like the black market during the Second World War - everyone knew it was happening and that it was illegal, but many turned a blind eye.

"And there are similar ethical debates going on today when it comes to stem cells and organ donations etc."

Michael said he couldn't ignore the fact that grave robbing was a gruesome subject to try to transform into a play but with the help of local theatre director, James Urqhart, he was able to achieve his goal and even makes things quite light hearted.

Michael continued: "As with everything, there were some quirky and humorous incidents involved with grave robbing and I've tried to weave these into the play.

"James has been a big help along the way and the play is being staged by his theatre company New Strides, so all of the actors are jobbing professionals apart from one talented local, Graham Sinclair.

"There is one particular scene that involves a lot of local dialect and although the professionals could grasp Scots they couldn't quite manage Borders.

"It's been interesting to see these people from hundreds of years ago brought to life again on stages. Colin Moncrieff, who has previously appeared with the Rowantree Theatre Company, makes a terrific Dr Lawrie and the remote, grand figure of Professor Munro is an interesting one too."

As well as using some local talent, Michael has also included some local references in 'The Resurrection Man' and he hopes that the play will appeal to a wide audience.

"I do make reference to a number of Berwickshire things in the script, such as the smugglers in Eyemouth and I think these mesh quite well into the play.

"I hope the fact that the play focuses on things that happened locally will attract some local people along.

"They may think they already know the story of Dr Lawrie and everything that went on but I'm sure they'll learn something new."

And then there's bound to be more than an air of curiosity about how successful Michael, who was many people's GP over the years, is at being a playwright.

Michael said his family and friends were also interested in how things pan out on stage.

"When I first said I was writing the play everyone was very intrigued and they still are - I think a few of them will come along out of curiousity more than anything.

"I worked at Eyemouth Health Centre for 30 years and met many people so I'm hoping that'll help ticket sales, although I understand they are already doing quite well."

As he casts his eye over last minute rehearsals and prepares for opening night, Michael is able to reflect on what he described as "a real learning experience."

"Doing so much research into the subject, the temptation was there to try to include all of it in the play but I quickly realised that I wouldn't be able to do that. Greek tragedy aside, it isn't typically common place to have a narrator on stage, so the challenge was to set the scene with the dialogue and get all of the facts in."

"The thing I have particularly enjoyed learning more about is the technical side of things. A lot of the action on stage is done in shadow which requires synchronsation. It's been interesting to see just how theatre works."

This is one appointment with a doctor that you won't want to miss. Tickets for the performances on Friday, May 7 and Saturday, May 8 are priced at 7 and are available from www.coldingham.info or from the box office at Coldingham Post Office.