Eun Bheag Chanaidh/A Little Bird Blown Off Course
Seen at St Peter’s Hall, South Uist
Touring until September 14
Until September 21
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Margaret Fay Shaw. Whether or not that is a household name rather depends on where your household is. On South Uist, the American musician and archivist – who came to the Outer Hebridean island as a young woman in 1929 – is something of a local hero.
Together with her husband, the folklorist John Lorne Campbell, Shaw put together an extraordinary archive of South Uist’s rich Gaelic song and culture. The archive remains intact to this day, lovingly maintained on the nearby island of Canna by Shaw’s long-term companion Magda Sagarzazu.
The task of drawing upon the archive in order to make A Little Bird Blown Off Course, a work of musical theatre for the National Theatre of Scotland, has been taken on by the acclaimed Gaelic singer and teacher Fiona J Mackenzie. The result is a show in which an excellent five-piece band, led in beautiful vocals by Mackenzie herself, performs pieces from Shaw’s collection accompanied by and interspersed with visual and oral material from the archive.
There are moments – such as the playing of songs recorded by Shaw, in which we hear crackling, distant voices from the island’s past – when one is moved by the sense of a culture saved almost from extinction. There are others, however, when one wishes that the production was something more than a simple combination of archive material and musical concert.
There are more ghosts from the north-west of Scotland’s past in Victoria, David Greig’s sprawling three act play of ideas. The piece was written for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000, but is only now receiving its Scottish premiere at Dundee Rep.
Set, by turns, in 1936, 1974, 1937 and 1996, the play alights on such subjects as: land ownership, class relations and ecology in the Highlands; the great ideological clash between socialism and fascism in 20th-century Europe; and the strains between finding one’s own identity and “greed is good” individualism.
It’s an immense undertaking, and one which begins promisingly in Act One, in which the titular minister’s daughter (played with bold recklessness and barely concealed uncertainty by the superb Elspeth Brodie) seeks a way out of the social and religious strictures of her society. The soul-searching of David (a gratingly unsubtle Ali Craig), the heir to the Highland estate where the drama is set, has taken him in a very different direction; his conversion to Nazism is written with tremendous depth and sophistication.
However, any play which runs to more than three-and-a-half hours (including two intervals) has to earn its stay on the stage. Sadly, in this production by Philip Howard at least, Victoria does not. The interweaving of characters and stories through generations makes for an over-elaborate tapestry; one can’t help but feel that there is a sharper narrative struggling to emerge from Greig’s variable abundance.
Neil Warmington’s set – an unlovely, clumsy, maximalist effort (a revolve would, surely, have been better) – is almost a visual representation of the play’s need of a dramaturgical scalpel. Gavin Marwick’s live traditional music is a mellifluous accompaniment to a play which is as admirable in its ambition as it is frustrating in its creaking structure.
For tour dates for A Little Bird Blown Off Course, visit: http://www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 8, 2013
© Mark Brown