Putting Thora Front and Centre

Since 1977, St Magnus International Festival has been at the heart of Orkney's cultural life. Each year, in the weeks around midsummer, a series of events featuring music, theatre, art, dance, literature, and cabaret fills venues large and small, conventional and unexpected.

Visitors come from around the world to enjoy the combination of high art and the Orkney summer, with its round-the-clock daylight. Audiences stumble out of late-night events, blinking in astonishment to find that midnight is only slightly less bright than high noon.

Events that tell Orkney stories are particularly popular, and nothing in this year’s programme is exciting as much local interest as David McNeish’s play Thora, which will receive its world premiere at The Orkney Theatre on June 16th.

Thora was the mother of our St Magnus. Her name is mentioned in the Norse sagas, but little is known about her.  The playwright imagines her in old age, telling of her own life and its intersection with the story of her son before and after his martyrdom: the hardships, the violence, the duty and the pain.   This intense, powerful and poetic two hander, directed by Gerda Stevenson, adds a new dimension to a story that’s familiar to every Orcadian. 

We talked to David McNeish to find out more about the origins of his play.

‘Kristin Linklater played Thora in an opera about Magnus, the patron saint of Orkney, that was written by Ron Ferguson and Gemma McGregor and performed in 2017 in the Festival,’ he told us.  ‘As part of her preparations for playing the part she created a back story for Thora and wanted the chance to explore the character further in a new piece. I started very slowly in summer 2019 and a first draft was ready the following February 2020. We held a reading in Kristin’s house in March 2020 and six weeks later she died suddenly. I’m gutted she never had the chance to play Thora but also grateful for her encouragement and that she did at least get to read the whole play.

 Playwright David McNeish and director Gerda Stevenson


‘After a while I sent it to Alasdair Nicolson, the festival’s director, with a plea to let it come to life. Thankfully he agreed and asked Gerda to come on board, which brought fresh vigour and insight and, inevitably, rewrites! After further revisions from a very helpful actor’s workshop in Edinburgh in February, the script was finalised and ready for production in June 2023.’

We wondered what David hoped to communicate through his play, dealing with events in the distant past that have been explored in many works of literature: not just the sagas, but also modern retellings by George Mackay Brown, amongst others.

‘A play is never just about when it’s set - it always has one foot in the present as well,’ he said. ‘I wanted to give voice to Thora through Kristin, someone for whom voice was so important and who always championed women, without being patronising or one dimensional about it. There are so many Orkney stories that never make the official narrative but get passed down, women to girl, and I had the privilege of hearing some of them in my previous work.’ (David was the minister of the kirk in Dounby.)

‘I wanted to change our relationship to the Magnus story by placing Thora front and centre, putting a woman's concerns and experiences at the heart of it and seeing how everything changes as a result.’

Do we know much about the real Thora?

‘We know hardly anything about Thora, other than a scant few lines in the sagas, and so Kristin made most of the back story up. But it has a credibility about it because Kristin herself was the repository of thousands of stories of people's lives in her life's work as a voice coach and actor.  It’s just a story, but it’s a story that says, “These kinds of stories really matter.” In telling one of them, in some way we give voice to all of them.’       

Photos of rehearsals courtesy of David McNeish and St Magnus Festival.

  • The full programme of this year’s St Magnus International Festival can be found here.
  •  Ola’s St Magnus collection, inspired by the cathedral built in his honour, can be found here
  • Get your tickets for Thora here

More Posts


Leave a comment

All blog comments are checked prior to publishing