A hitchhiker’s guide to Shetland
The latest National Theatre of Scotland show takes us on a drive through the culture of Scotland’s most northerly islands, as Mark Brown discovers
Think of Shetland, and you think of boats. From fishing boats, to ferries and the Viking longboats which are burned so spectacularly in the annual Up Helly Aa festival, most Scots think of Shetlanders as seafarers.
But what of the islanders’ relationship with the motor car? That is the question posed by the National Theatre of Scotland’s ambitious new community project, Ignition. Directed by fine theatre deviser Wils Wilson (the woman behind the superb inaugural NTS show Home Shetland back in 2006), the piece incorporates the stories of more than 150 islanders and has a community cast of more than 60.
With a population of close to 23,000 people spread throughout 15 inhabited islands, Shetland relies at least as heavily on the car as it does on boats and ships; a fact which is appropriate in these times, when a comparatively booming Shetland economy is defying the global downturn thanks to its place in the peak oil economy. If you want to travel around Shetland in 2013, you do so by car and, if you’re venturing beyond the largest island (named simply Mainland), car ferry.
However, if the car has made travelling in Shetland infinitely easier, it is not without its costs. A slow way of life has got faster, threatening a centuries-old connection with the land. The relative purity of the Shetland air can’t hide the car’s role in global pollution. And then, of course, there are road traffic accidents, such as that which took the life of Stuart Henderson (a teenage member of Shetland Youth Theatre) back in 2007, and to whose memory Ignition is dedicated.
The Ignition project, which is a co-production between the NTS and Shetland Arts, is not focused upon Stuart’s death, nor is it a road safety campaign dressed as art. Rather, it is a wide-ranging celebration of the archipelago’s history and culture which begins from people’s relationship with the car.
Stuart’s friends from the Youth Theatre, such as former member Helen Whitham (now aged 22) think that a huge theatre project which attempts to reach out to people across the islands is a fine way to remember him. “Stuart got a lot out of the youth theatre”, says Helen. “He was one of the really good core members.”
Arriving in Shetland on Thursday afternoon, and talking with various islanders involved in Ignition, one gets a strong and immediate sense of just how wide a net the project has thrown over the islands. From the residents of the Wastview Care Home for the elderly talking of Shetland in the days before the roads were laid and the car acquired ubiquity on the islands, to the dozens of people engaged in knitting a huge “car cosy” for a Peugeot 107, to the young lads who practise the high-energy movement known as parkour (or freerunning), the sheer social breadth of the process is deeply impressive.
The show itself, which tries to condense all of this activity into a mere two hours, is only a window into this process. It could never hope to represent it in its totality. But it has a darn good try.
In the evening, after a traditional Shetland tea of sandwiches and scones (copiously supplied with fresh cream and jam), we are taken to the village hall at Brae. There the talented performer-cum-researcher-cum-archivist Lowri Evans is already in the character of the White Wife; the mythical, ghostly figure from Shetland’s most northerly island, Unst, who, folklore has it, accosts male travellers.
For two months, Evans’s White Wife has hitchhiked around the islands, interviewing people in their cars, on buses, on ferries and in their homes. “Lowri has been a huge asset”, director Wils Wilson tells me. “She found it incredibly exhausting. She’d go out hitching, and people would invite her into their houses, and she’d have two-hour conversations with them.”
Many of the stories Evans recorded have found their way into a show which offers each audience member a distinct experience. For my part, after a drive north from Brae, in the company of a silver garden gnome and its friendly owner (who was delivering the patio pixie to a friend in order to avoid a diplomatic incident with the Prime Minister of Norway), I found myself in a dilapidated car with a former merchant seaman with sad tales to tell.
Driving back towards Brae, we stopped to view, drive-in movie style, a performance by dancers young and old; the parkour boys giving us sharp moves on the roof of battered Volvo, while two pairs of ballroom dancers strutted their stuff. On the car radio sounds of the island combined with music and the remembrances of older Shetlanders; including a woman who remembers a childhood in which, in the absence of cars, she walked two hours to school, and two hours back each day.
Back at Brae Hall a community choir served another Shetland tea. Meanwhile, the White Wife integrated contributions from the guest book (where we have travelled from, where we want to go, and for what purpose) into the charmingly simple song All The Journeys We’ve Made.
As a theatre work, it is sometimes touching, sometimes thought-provoking, but rarely entirely cohesive. However, that, in a sense, is secondary to an artistic process which has drawn so many stories and so much creativity from the people of Shetland.
Ignition runs at various venues in Shetland until March 30. For further information, visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
A slightly abridged version of this review feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 24, 2013
© Mark Brown