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Interview: Shining A Light(house) on Wickies

Graeme Dalling on Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor

We all love a good ghost story, and better yet, one that has a foot firmly in true life events. Which is just what Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor promises us. It’s based on the the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers stationed on a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides in 1900. No trace of any of the men was ever found, which has lead to a century of speculation and folklore.

And now the story is coming to Park Theatre this December. Billed as a haunting ghost story, which does suggest which way writer Paul Morrissey is taking his twist on the tale. Wanting to know more, we grabbed some time with one of its stars, Graeme Dalling, who we will soon be seeing as one of the lighthouse keepers, Donald MacArthur.

What can you tell us about Wickies then?

The play explores one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries… what on earth happened to three men stationed on a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides who seem to vanish without a trace?? I think that’s all I’ll say. The less you know the better!

The play is based on true events, were you aware of the story before you auditioned?

Yes, absolutely, and its weirdly so present in the public psyche. So many books, songs and films have been inspired by these events. It’s captured people’s imaginations for over 120 years!

Have you done much background research into the story and your character? Or is it best not to delve too deep into such things in case it clouds how your director wants you to present the character?

I like to do a bit of reading, yes. I gathered quite a few books on lighthouses and lighthouse keepers to get into the world of the play. I also tried to get out to a lighthouse, but they are very hard to get to! I try and not get too bogged down in research and instead spend a lot of time with the script. All the answers tend to be in there!

How much of the play is based on what’s really known about the men and the events surrounding their disappearance, and how much is based on the folklore that has evolved over the years?

I would say it’s a bit of both. There are lots of written documentation from the time from the inquest and initial interviews into the disappearance, so quite a bit of the script is word for word what those people actually said. And obviously we will never know truly what happened on that lighthouse in December 1900, so Paul Morrissey does draw on folklore and superstition and ghost stories to fill in the gaps!

You’re playing Donald MacArthur, what do we need to know about him then?

That a lighthouse is the perfect place for him. He’s a stoic, brooding, quiet man who just wants to put his head down and do the work. Initially the isolation and loneliness fit him perfectly but ultimately becomes his undoing. There is an unpredictability to him, a lot of repressed rage and pent-up aggression which one character seems to unlock, unluckily for him….!  

And we need to ask, will you be growing (or gluing on) a nice big bushy beard for the play because surely all lighthouse keepers should have wonderfully unkempt beards? And a pipe permanently in the corner of your mouth maybe?

It’s all about moustaches in 1900! And I’m steadily cultivating a beautiful one.

Is there a different approach when playing a true-life character, do you feel a need to be honest to whatever you may know about them?

I haven’t thought too much about it to be honest, it’s so long ago, and not a lot is known about these men. Like I said before, when a script is this good, everything you need is there on the page.

The show opens 30 November, so still a couple of weeks away, but have you had the opportunity to see the set yet – how are you bringing the feel of a remote lighthouse on a deserted Outer Hebrides Island to Finsbury Park?

We’ve seen the model box and the set looks incredible, Zoe Hurwitz has really captured the essence of being in a lighthouse, it’s almost like we’ll be performing in the round, which kind of makes sense! There’s going to be a lot done with sound and lighting and costume which will hopefully make the audience feel like they are on the lighthouse with us!

Why do you feel ghost stories seem to be part of Christmas theatre tradition then? And is there much difference to acting in a ghost story like this as opposed to more normal dramas? Do you have to bring a different attitude to the rehearsal room to get into the right mood?

It’s about the night’s drawing in, the cold and the dark and us all gathering in together to tell stories of the past, which inevitably become ghost stories. I think A Christmas Carol has a lot to do with it also. It’s a time for reflection and looking back at the past and perhaps trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense! And we’ve just tried to keep the truth of each moment and scene. We can’t over play the scariness of moments because it then becomes too knowing. The characters don’t know they are in a ghost story, so you have to play it straight!

And now you’ve some time to delve into the story and your character, have you developed any of your own theories as to what happened to the three men? Or are we to believe they just vanished into the thin air on that cold night?

My mind keeps changing. My logical side of my brain accepts the most obvious answer, which is that they all got taken out by a storm, but my imagination wants it to be something else. Ask me again at the end of the run!

Our thanks to Graeme for his time out from rehearsals to chat with us.

Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor plays at Park Theatre 30 November – 31 December. Further information and bookings can be found here.

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