A Little Bird Blown Off Course, South Uist, review
Powered by the gorgeous Gaelic singing of Fiona J Mackenzie, the National Theatre of Scotland’s latest show stretches the definition of theatre, says Mark Brown.
During its short, seven year existence, the National Theatre of Scotland has taken an admirably flexible approach in its characterisation of theatre. So much has come under its benevolent umbrella that it seems to have adopted the great drama critic Kenneth Tynan’s elastic definition of theatre as “basically a means of spending two hours in the dark without being bored.”
In some regards the company’s latest show, Gaelic title Eun Bheag Chanaidh – which is rendered in English as A Little Bird Blown Off Course (although it translates literally as A Little Canna Bird) – stretches that definition to its limits. Billed as a work of “music theatre” it might be better described as an illustrated concert.
The show is based upon the extensive archive of the Gaelic song of the Outer Hebridean island of South Uist which was the life’s work of the great, Pittsburgh-born musicologist Margaret Fay Shaw. Building her early-20th century collection of audio recordings, written music, films and photographs with the assistance of her folklorist husband John Lorne Campbell, Shaw made an immeasurable contribution to preserving for posterity the rich cultural traditions of this extraordinary island.
The Canna of the show’s Gaelic title is the small Hebridean island bought by Campbell, bequeathed to the National Trust for Scotland, and where Shaw’s friend Magda Sagarzazu maintains the archive. The piece – which is constructed from the archive by the revered Gaelic singer and teacher Fiona J Mackenzie – is a tapestry of projected films and photographs, recorded song and live performance by a superb five-piece band, led by Mackenzie herself.
To watch the show on South Uist, in a capacity audience of 113 (approximately five percent of the island’s population), is, in certain moments, quite moving. Flickering on the screens – whether dancing in Highland dress or working in the fields – are the ghosts of a culture and a language which are still, not least through education and music, fighting for their survival. Mackenzie’s own singing is a gorgeous manifestation of a culture’s pain, defiance, resilience and beauty.
For all its strengths, however, this production still seems like a slightly awkward combination of musical concert and archival research. Its hour and 20 minutes is, unquestionably, time spent in the dark without being bored, but it never quite feels like a coherent work of theatre.
Touring until September 14. For further information, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on September 5, 2013:
© Mark Brown