First published in The Times, Friday November 13 2015
To the casual eye, Major-General Sir Hector MacDonald looks the ultimate pillar of the British establishment. Popularly known as “Fighting Mac”, he was knighted for his leadership at the Battle of Omdurman and during the Boer War and was reportedly Queen Victoria’s favourite general. His square-jawed, moustachioed image was even said to be the model for the Gordon Highlander soldier depicted on the label for Camp Coffee.
Yet, within a year of his posting as Commander of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1902, MacDonald was dead by his own hand, mired in multiple accusations of sexual liaisons with local boys. Questions have persisted down the years as to his guilt or otherwise, with the whole business made murkier by the fact that the case file disappeared following MacDonald’s suicide.
David Gooderson’s meticulously researched drama comes down heavily on the side of MacDonald’s defenders, making a persuasive case that the major-general was the victim of a conspiracy cooked up by Ceylon’s colonial masters, who were distinctly unwilling to accept someone they considered an arriviste as their military commander. In the opening scenes, MacDonald (Steven Duffy) is seen being spurned as a suitable dinner table companion for the governor’s haughty wife (Gowan Calder). “I expect to be partnered by a man with reputable antecedents,” she mutters, a reference to MacDonald’s origins as the son of a Highland crofter and native Gaelic speaker.
Pic: Peter Dibdin
At its best, this co-production from Eden Court, Comar and Ed Littlewood Productions captures the atmosphere of a colonial outpost, where sun-baked British sahibs pass the long hours with games of cricket and drinks at the club. Kate Nelson, the director, succeeds in injecting tension into what might have been too predictable a story. While some of the supporting roles skirt close to stereotype, Duffy does a fine job of capturing the doomed soldier’s mix of innocence, military bearing and puritanism.
For all the actor’s best efforts, however, Gooderson’s subject remains something of an enigma. The question of Hector’s sexuality is left unexplored, and nor does the play offer much insight into the merits and resolve of a man who left school at 15 and rose through the ranks of the military.
For all the play’s omissions, it remains a compelling, and at times rather chilling portrayal of establishment forces closing ranks against an outsider. Thanks to Gooderson and others, the tragic tale of Hector MacDonald looks unlikely to be shut away in the file marked “case closed” any time soon.
Touring to December 9. For details see edlittlewood.com