It’s appropriate that 3000 Trees: The Death of Mr. William MacRae does not explain its title. The one-man play presumes a level of familiarity with MacRae, a towering lawyer and politician in Scotland during the 1980s, self-described as a “legend” within the show. While it may inspire curiosity for those unfamiliar, 3000 Trees is slightly too vague and wistful, reminiscing over MacRae rather than fully recounting his life. Of course, MacRae’s soliloquy (delivered by Andy Paterson) features many anecdotes and facts, but it is their symbolic value that is the focus, rather than grounded drama. The heightened nature becomes especially clear in the musical interludes, Paterson singing original music that feels irrelevant yet emotionally resonant. So, 3000 Trees feels no need to mention how it got its name, that MacRae helped establish maritime law for Israel and so the country planted 3,000 trees in his memory. The play is too focused on the whole forest to branch out into the details.
3000 Trees is therefore only a small insight into a fascinating figure, with the play mostly focusing upon his career in national politics and “cultural patriotism”. MacRae’s flowing and poetic soliloquy touches upon his life and personality. Specific threads are highlighted, such as MacRae’s fervent campaign against the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and its planned dumping of nuclear waste in the Mullwarcher, famously stating that “nuclear waste should be stored where Guy Fawkes put his gunpowder!”. Although each significant event MacRae recollects weave around and through each other, such anti-establishment grit is constant. Even while he was in the Royal Navy, MacRae talks about his support for Indian independence, viewing India and Scotland as brother-colonies. This perspective is intriguing, especially when MacRae interrogates his own complicity in colonisation, but mostly it is blunt and direct. MacRae’s distrust and his independent vigour are frequently hammered in, the rambling threads meaning that points are often repeated.
However, the central focus of MacRae’s life is its end, when he was found dead in his car. While officially ruled a suicide, important documents of MacRae’s rallying against further nuclear waste dumping were stolen, and the killing gun was 18 metres away from the car without any fingerprints. The show is strongly concerned with this incident, and it only adding to layers of deception. Yet despite being so concerned with the truth, 3000 Trees is largely speculative and contemplative. MacRae alludes to “whispers” surrounding him, rumours including potential homosexuality or involvement with alleged “proto-fascist” elements. But such aspects are quickly dropped, being obstacles that would complicate the narrative of MacRae as a straightforward Scottish martyr. These small bits of nuance or indecision are the most engaging parts of 3000 Trees, making it disappointing and rather predictable when it returns to being blunt.
Paterson’s performance certainly helps in fleshing out MacRae’s character, embodying his with a wisened warmth, while still retaining a scrappy toughness. While being a single actor on a small stage, Paterson has enough confidence and presence to keep audiences engaged without descending into caricature.
3000 Trees is an intriguing and messy piece of political history. It is not a detailed lesson, but more of a eulogy, reminiscing over a public figure where many things are still not known. This mystery imprints upon the play itself, MacRae remaining spectral, not having enough to carry the entire play despite Paterson’s admirable efforts. Nevertheless, 3000 Trees embodies enough of MacRae’s musings and spirit to remain captivating, even if the play does lack a substantially structured body.
3000 Trees: The Death of Mr. William MacRae
The Stand’s New Town Theatre – Lower Hall (Venue 7)
Until 26 August
Image: BrunoStergodt via Wikimedia Commons