An Officer and a Gentleman’s Wife

Originally published in the Scotsman. Original article here.

The true story of a naval officer’s doomed wartime love affair with a married Scots aristocrat is being kept alive at the Fringe, discovers Roger Cox

ON 1 SEPTEMBER 1942, a 22-year-old Royal Navy Air Arm officer called Peter Medhurst wrote a letter home to his mother in New Zealand. It ended with a prophetic sign-off: “Just to say that (she] and I are frightfully happy together and if we do get sunk we’ll be together so what the hell.”

The woman Medhurst was referring to was a prominent Scottish aristocrat – married with children. The pair had fallen in love the previous year, and she was now four months pregnant with his child. Both of them were destined to die at sea just days after he posted this final missive, following the sinking of the Cunard White Star liner the Laconia by a German U-boat.

The story of their affair would almost certainly have died with them had it not been for some diligent detective work by Medhurst’s nephew, theatre producer Peter Christopherson, who uncovered his uncle’s last letter (along with 129 others) following the death of his grandmother in 2006.

Gradually, by reading between the lines of this wartime correspondence and tracking down first-hand accounts from those who survived the Laconia sinking, Christopherson was able to piece together the final days of these two doomed lovers, and their story is now the subject of a powerful new play by David Walter Hall at Edinburgh’s Hill Street Theatre.

Out of respect for the dead woman’s two sons, both of whom are still alive, Christopherson has opted not to name her in the play. He has been in contact with them, however. “I managed to get in touch with the younger one,” he says. “He’s just over 70. He was very sceptical at first, but I told him that I had letters, photos, the whole scoop. No-one in the family knew about the love affair, the pregnancy. In their eyes she was a complete saint. He then told his older brother, who wanted to sue us and close us down and all sorts of things, but the younger brother said, ‘No, you can’t.’

“I met the younger brother – I came up to Scotland and had lunch with him. I said we’d change his mother’s name and that we’d change the references to her father’s title, but we wanted to tell the story. I gave him a copy of the script to read and he came back with some useful comments – things like, ‘She would never have said that.’ Then I backed off, so I have no idea if they’re coming to see the play.”

At one point during our interview, Christopherson is showing me one of his uncle’s letters, written in beautiful, neat handwriting on Cunard White Star headed notepaper, when he realises the name of the girl’s family is clearly visible. But he is right not to publicly identify them: the story is just as remarkable whether you know the woman’s identity or not. In the play – titled Now is the Hour, after the famous wartime song – she is referred to simply as “Catriona”.

Catriona and Peter Medhurst met in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. He was a pilot, and evidently a very good one, as he was charged with flying Churchill around during one of his visits to the region. She was the wife of a senior officer in the British Army and, at 27, some five years Medhurst’s senior.

It is clear from his candid letters to his mother that Medhurst had fallen helplessly in love. In one, when Catriona enters the room, he writes: “Heaven has just walked in.”

“He would do things like borrow a plane and fly her down to Nairobi or over to Palestine for the weekend,” says Christopherson. “In one of the letters he took the husband as well and they all played golf together. He said it’s very strange having this mnage trois with someone who doesn’t realise.”

But the good times were not to last. By June 1942, German tank divisions commanded by Rommel had advanced beyond Torbruck and were rolling swiftly towards Alexandria. Preparations were made to evacuate civilians. As an airman, Medhurst could have caught a flight out of danger, but he had sworn to take Catriona to safety, so the pair embarked on the Laconia, which had been requisitioned as a troop ship.

As the Mediterranean was under Axis control, the ship would have to sail down the Suez Canal, around the Cape of Good Hope and then all the way up the west coast of Africa before finally docking at Liverpool. U-boats were a very real danger, hence the rather morbid tone of Medhurst’s last letter, which he posted in Durban when the Laconia stopped to refuel. A few days later, disaster struck. At 10:20pm on 12 September the Laconia was torpedoed by a German U-boat approximately 600 miles off the west coast of Africa. On board were 80 civilians, 136 crew, 285 British Army personnel, 160 Polish soldiers and about 1,800 Italian prisoners of war.

Almost immediately the ship began listing heavily to starboard, rendering half the lifeboats useless, but with difficulty four boats were launched from the port side, carrying around 200 survivors. Amid the chaos, Medhurst managed to get Catriona safely into one of the lifeboats along with a nurse called Dorris Hawkins, whom they had met during the voyage, and it is at this point that Now Is The Hour picks up their story.

To say their odds of surviving were slim would be an understatement. The lifeboat had been looted of most of the essentials in Durban, including flares and a rudder, and with 66 people on board a vessel designed to carry 30, rations had to be spread exceedingly thinly, with each person receiving just one tablespoon of fresh water a day.

After 12 days of exposure to the searing tropical heat, Catriona died of what was then known as “privation” and after a brief service her body was thrown over the side. Two days later, Medhurst smashed the ship’s compass, drank all the alcohol out of it and stepped off the back of the boat, effectively committing suicide. Before he did so, however, he handed Hawkins a silver cigarette case to give back to his mother, and this same cigarette case now appears as a prop in the play.

After 27 days at sea, Hawkins and 15 others who had managed to keep themselves alive reached the coast of Liberia.

Medhurst’s cigarette case was returned to his mother in New Zealand and when she died it was discovered by her grandson. “It’s a really special thing for me to have found that case and to have it in the show,” he says, “to know the journey it was on and that that journey ends here.”

• Now Is The Hour is at Hill Street Theatre until 25 August, 4:05pm.

Ones to watch: stars on the rise

Excerpt from an article in the Belfast Telegraph. Original article here.

The arts in Ulster are flourishing; with festivals and venues springing up all over. It’s an exciting time for a new generation of film-makers, musicians and writers – although many of them still have to move away to establish their careers. 24/7 spoke to three promising, young self-starters who could be the big names of tomorrow

David Hall (24) is a playwright, originally from Belfast, now based in london

Former Methody pupil David Hall has caught the attention of the London theatre world with his dark, atmospheric play The Last Priest, based on 18th century French cleric and closet atheist, Jean Meslier.

The play has just finished a run at the well-known King’s Head in Islington, a small pub-cum-theatre that has nurtured talents like Kenneth Branagh, Steven Berkoff, Ben Kingsley and Joanna Lumley (who’s still a patron).

Hall is already in talks with an Ulster film production company with a view to expanding the drama into a screenplay.

Exciting times for Hall, who had barely graduated from Cambridge University when he got his first opening.

“I took a play to the Edinburgh Fringe the summer after I left university – purely for fun, not as a career move. But that play, Crossroad Blues, did extremely well, and a producer who saw it wanted to put on a large-scale production of it.

“Unfortunately, that same producer then went bankrupt, but by that stage I felt tied in to exploring a career in theatre.”

Hall studied philosophy at Cambridge, so when an opportunity came along for a commissioned play about Jean Meslier, the subject-matter drew him like a moth to a flame.

“I got very much into the story. The historical dimension really interested me, as I’ve never read a lot of history, but this was a great excuse to explore – I read biographies of Voltaire and other major figures to try and get a sense of society at that time.

“Obviously, as a philosophy graduate, all the ranting against religion and the absurdities of religious fundamentalism interested me hugely and had great resonance for today.

“There are obvious parallels between the behaviour of the Catholic Church in pre-revolutionary France, and aspects of political Islam today. But I didn’t want to overdo those parallels, either; I didn’t want the play, which already has a great story, to turn into an allegory.”

Hall is juggling a number of new projects, including trying to win the rights to adapt the novel The Master And Margarita into an opera. No less a figure than Andrew Lloyd Webber is rumoured to have considered the very same move, but was too busy with other projects.

The young Ulster writer is also putting the finishing touches to a “dark musical” called Voodoo Blues, which he was commissioned to write, and hopes to see at next year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Talented though he is, Hall is quick to point out he doesn’t compose the scores for his musical work. “You have to know your limitations, and when you need outside help.”

He credits the “fantastic” theatre department at his old grammar school, Methodist College, for getting him hooked on theatre in the first place.

“I was always involved in school plays. I was never a great actor, but I would take smaller parts.”

Of course, Cambridge University, with its Footlights society, and great investment in the arts generally, was another positive experience. It was during this time Hall abandoned acting for writing drama.

His first two plays, The Black Saint and Sinner Lady, reeled in five-star reviews at the Edinburgh Fringe, paving the way for later commissions.

Despite his successes and cautious optimism, Hall points out that disappointments go with the territory.

“If I counted all the projects I’ve been involved in over the last couple of years – probably around a dozen – only a couple have made it through. It is quite gutting when you have an idea and people seem interested, then six months down the line someone says, ‘No, sorry, we’re not interested any more’.”

Interview: Una Bradley
Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/entertainment/theatre-arts/ones-to-watch-stars-on-the-rise-13473546.html#ixzz1yuZ1dE7g

Meslier

A piece originally published on the website Textualities by the play’s director David Roylance. The original is here.

I would like, and this would be the last and most ardent of my wishes, I would like the last of the kings to be strangled by the guts of the last priest. Jean Meslier

roylanced01pic3.jpg There are two stories to the play Meslier. First the extraordinary story of Jean Meslier himself, a man virtually unknown outside his home country, France, and a man who unknowingly fanned the flames of a movement that would change the shape of Western Europe forever. Second is the fascinating story of how this play came about.

My name is David Roylance and I am a theatre director. Born and bred in Edinburgh, I find it a real treat and a privilege to be able to return home most Augusts and deliver a piece of theatre to my home city. This year I have directed Meslier by David Hall, from an idea by Julian Bird and Colin Brewer. It has been produced by Abreaction Theatre Company and will be playing in Sweet Venue’s Edinburgh College of Art in the Cabaret space every night at 8.30pm from the 14-27 August.

roylanced01pic2.jpg Jean Meslier (1664-1729) was a Catholic priest in the poor country parish of Etripigny in the Ardennes, where he remained until his death. He was a dutiful priest, beloved by his flock, living in virtual poverty through his entire working life – and secretly was the most ardent atheist.

He did not believe a word of the book he preached from. He wrote his own book, a Testament that he left us on his deathbed, having hastened his own death after finishing his work. His Testament is a vicious and uncompromising attack on all forms of organised religion and the divine right of kings and the aristocracy.

By his own admission, within the Testament, Meslier was a coward. Since the punishment for preaching atheism was burning alive at the stake this is perhaps something we can understand and empathise with. As the director of the play I find it interesting that we are bringing this story to Edinburgh, the home of Thomas Aikenhead, the last man in the United Kingdom to be hanged for preaching atheism.

Meslier died so his Testament could live. He spoke to us from beyond the grave, despite not believing in any afterlife at all. Eventually his work reached Voltaire, who was very impressed with its passionate fervour and sentiment (despite his criticism of the writing style). Voltaire bowdlerised Meslier’s Testament, turning it into a deist document rather than an atheist one and he downplayed the criticism of the monarchy. The text, as you guess from the above quote, provoked strong reaction and contributed to the French Revolution.

roylancep01pic1.jpgThe play has been constructed around understanding a man who lived one life by day and another at night. Unlike Deacon Brodie or any of his gothic literary offshoots, Meslier was a passionate defender of a moral code during the day and a fighter for the proletariat during the night. No hedonistic alter ego for this man. In the play we see him through the eyes of his closest friend, Father Claude Buffier, a career churchman and politician who was almost diametrically opposed to Meslier’s ideals. We also see him through the eyes of a woman we named Delphine, who Meslier took into his house as a teenager and educated. She was his housekeeper. We know that these two people did exist. Unfortunately we do not know much more than that. However, as dramatists that has left us a freer hand to create our own understanding of what this man’s life might have been like.

The second story in this tale is how the play came to be. My old friend Julian Bird came to me in January of this year with an outline of Meslier’s life written by fellow psychiatrist Dr Colin Brewer. Julian asked me if I thought the Meslier story had real theatrical potential. Julian is a psychiatrist who turned actor nearly four years ago. Having grown up in an artistic household with a mother who was an actress and father who was a painter, he felt the urge to return to his artistic roots, bringing to bear his unique professional insight. Colin Brewer is one of his closest friends; they have known each other since they trained as psychiatrists together, thus slightly echoing the friendship of two of our major characters.

I told Colin and Julian that the story oozed with potential so they decided to find a writer to turn their idea into a script. Eventually they met with David Hall, author of last year’s Fringe success Cross Road Blues, (a play that received a five star review in the Scotsman) and after an initial exchange of ideas and scenes he was commissioned to put flesh on the creation. It was immediately clear that David writes things for real human beings to say – we have been enormously lucky in finding a writer of this quality.

Three fine actors of talent also grace the play. Bird is playing Meslier himself, Angela Koo is Delphine, and Scottish actor Prentis Hancock completes the team as Father Claude Buffier.

Meslier’s story deserves to be heard and remembered. Politically and philosophically he played his part in a movement that has radically changed the way we think and live our lives. Perhaps without Jean Meslier, there would have been no David Hume.

© David Roylance 2006