Raising Ghosts at Panmure House

theatre edinburgh, scotland enquiry concerning hereafter panmure house

November 20, 2023

Adam Smith (Dougal Lee) and David Hume (Mark Coleman) at Panmure House 2023

Blair Barrows of Adam Smith's Panmure House tell the story behind their production of Enquiry Concerning Hereafter as part of the 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Panmure House was the final home of Adam Smith. He lived there between 1778 and 1790. 
Not long after taking up my role as Programme Executive at Panmure House, I read a script by American playwright, Duane Kelly, called Enquiry Concerning Hereafter. A project long in the making following a meeting between Duane and our Director Dr Caroline Howitt in 2018. The story explores the deep friendship and mentorship between Adam Smith and David Hume, two titans of the Enlightenment era. After reading, I was immediately excited to know that I was to produce the play as part of Panmure House’s 2023 Edinburgh Fringe Festival programme. 

The connection between Smith and Hume impacted both their lives and work. It was Hume who enabled Smith to become a man of letters when he proposed to Charles “Turnip” Townshend that Smith become the tutor of his stepson, Henry, the 3rd Duke of Buccleuch, a position that guaranteed Smith an income for life. 

Although Hume died before Smith moved into Panmure House, part of the play imagines Smith being visited by Hume’s ghost on his deathbed, giving the house a central role to play. Reading the script within the actual walls in which it was set transported me back in time to consider the conversations that could have happened right where I was sitting. I wanted audiences to experience what I was feeling. 

I wanted audiences to feel the intimacy of the play’s dialogue in a setting that put them physically close to the actors - a feeling that could feel uncomfortable due to its private nature but would have viewers on the edge of their seats, waiting to discover what comes next.

As we put our collective vision into action, I had the pleasure of meeting Duane Kelly as he staged another of his plays at the 2022 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Over coffee, we discussed what could be achieved in a year’s time. Thanks to Duane’s generous manner, his devotion to his work and the interest we both shared in Adam Smith, I was confident we could work well together to stage Enquiry Concerning Hereafter in the very rooms he set the story. 

Over the following few weeks, we brought director, Andy Corelli-Jones, on board. Andy is a skilled and experienced trained actor and director with many stage successes under his belt. I had worked with him before and he knew Panmure House’s advantages and disadvantages as a theatre space. 

Andy saw the importance of the house as a character and was committed to staging the production there.  He also loved the script and wanted to ensure the writing had room to breathe, opting to limit the theatre tricks he employed and simplify the stage design. This format gave the cast nowhere to hide and forced them to rely on their skills. 

It was only when auditions commenced that I fully appreciated the magnitude of bringing Adam Smith – or a character of him - back to Panmure House. It was remarkable to hear words attributed to him echo around the rooms where he once kept a vast library of over 3,000 books. Seeing him move from the writing chair to the fireplace as he pondered death evoked a certain feeling that can only be concocted by the human imagination. Working from this beautiful and historic building every day is an honour, and a pleasure to see Adam Smith return home in another form. Seeing the characters take shape imprinted on me the magnitude and importance of what happened within the four walls of Panmure House. 

Once the rehearsal and performance schedule was set, it was down to our cast and director to make the script theirs. We had detailed conversations in which we discussed language, meaning, pace and intonation. We asked questions like, would Smith have pronounced his publisher Strahan as “STRAY-HAN” or “STRAWN”, and other such nuance and intricacy, up until show time. 

The cast, Mark Colman, Dougall Lee, and Ian Sexon, had 25 performances throughout the month-long Fringe. The play, like the house, was an entity of its own. It grew and matured wonderfully and found itself in the space quickly. The reviews were outstanding, and we look forward to staging the play again in the future. The production photos and audience comments will give you a small taste. 

Duane has written a piece about ghosts elsewhere on this site and it was true for us here. Panmure House is a building where the past feels tangible, which sits in a city flooded with history. For me, it is completely charming.

I often wonder what Smith would have made of our production. I like to think he may have raised a wry smirk at the thought of an actor portraying him in his own home some 230 years later. He probably would have eschewed the notion that his life was worth memorialising in such a way and been more interested in how his house has changed over the years. He might have laughed at the jovial entrance and exclamation of the play’s version of Hume, revitalised by years in the afterlife discussing philosophy with the ancients. When imagining what Smith might think, I am reminded of his words:

To feel much for others and little for ourselves, that to restrain our selfish, and to indulge our benevolent affections, constitutes the perfection of human nature.’ 

Since its ancient birth, drama and theatre has taught us empathy, sympathy, and our understanding of self. I believe Smith would approve of his house being used as a theatre and a place for us to reflect on the complexities of human nature.