Sex and death – selling theatres

Mar 18 2013 | By More

A little publicity goes a long, long way

Traverse Theatre, Traverse, Colette O'Neil, Mythology,

The Traverse grabbed the headlines from the outset.

By Thom Dibdin

There’s nothing like a good story to set the pulse racing. Especially one that promises sex, absolute peril or triumph over adversity. Or even a combination of the three.

Last night on BBC Radio 3, Joyce McMillan’s fantastic little homage to the Traverse Theatre – which you can’t really escape noticing is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – had all three. Although being in the rather esoteric Sunday evening feature slot, it didn’t boast about the fact.

What it was all about was telling stories. That thing which theatre exists to do. Without stories to tell there would be no theatre – and in some ways. without the theatres to tell them in, the stories of our culture – stories which we need to make sense of our place in a changing world – would become lost and less distinct.

And over the last fifty years, Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre has become the place for people to tell stories, as Joyce so eloquently drew out through her various interviewees.

They ranged from the trio who were there at the beginning, John Calder, Richard Demarco and Jim Haynes, as well its first secretary, Sheila Colvin, through to those who are continuing to make it great today, such as artistic director Orla O’Loughlin and playwright David Greig.

There was Simon Callow’s delicious tale of playing the Voice of God, when the theatre’s bandwidth becoming intertwined with the local taxi firm’s, so the audience thought that God spoke with a taxi driver’s voice. Greig’s tale of sitting in the Traverse bar, making an espresso last all afternoon as he wrote The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union.

And a brilliant found clip from Jenny Lee, the then Minister for the Arts, as she opened the second Traverse in the Grassmarket: “Let us hope that we are not going into the kind of society where the elders of either church or state can tell a younger generation how to think, how to dress, how to produce their poems or their music or anything else. If you want me to give a definition of decadence, that would be my definition.”

“It stuck in the hapless Colette’s midriff…”
The cover of Joyce McMillan's

The cover of Joyce McMillan’s “The Traverse Theatre Story” published by Methuen in 1988

But the biggest story of all is that the first Traverse was created on the site of a brothel. A story, because it was actually a doss house. As Sheila Colvin recalls in the programme, one of the jobs in making the first floor space in James Court on the Grassmarket suitable was painting out the numbers above the bed-spaces.

But there again, it was in the Old Town, so anything might have taken place in those ancient rooms. James Court was here Boswell had lived and out of the back window you could see Gladstone’s Land, the very first Edinburgh tenement.

Then there is the lovely tale that the Traverse – irritatingly pronounced with an accent on the second syllable, to rhyme with “reverse” by the plum-voiced Radio 3 announcers – was named by mistake. Terry Lane, the first artistic director, thought to name it after the transverse seating arrangement, but simply got the name wrong.

The best story, however, the best and the most enduring one, is of the near fatal accident on the opening night when the opening production of Jean Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, with Colette O’Neil, Rosemund Dickson and Clyde Pollitt in the cast, was almost the Traverse’s last.

Without enough money to invest in proper props, a real knife was used and when, ten minutes from end, Dickson advanced on Colette O’Neil and feinted with the knife, it stuck in the hapless Colette’s midriff, going through her clothes and piercing her abdomen.

According to one of the McMillan’s interviewees, at that point: “Everyone was ringing their hands back stage going ‘what do we do! What do we do?’ And I said: ‘You ring up the press!’.”

How close to death O’Neil really was remains a matter of some dispute, but her name – and that of the Traverse – was all over the following day’s papers.

As Sheila Colvin adds: “I heard this person saying ‘Call the press! Call the press!’ You’ll never get better publicity, he said, and I thought ‘Oh my goodness, how awful,’ but of course that did get the headlines. It was a sell out after that.”

Theatres are places where stories are told. But if the theatres have their own stories, then selling the stories they are telling is a whole lot easier.

Joyce McMillan’s feature: 50 Years of the Traverse Theatre is available to listen again until Sunday 24 March on


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