In My Father’s Words
Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow,
Touring until July 26
The Yellow On The Broom
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Various dates until October 15
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The Culture 2014 programme for the Commonwealth Games has a double responsibility. Firstly, it must, in the spirit of the Games, speak Glasgow and Scotland to the world. However, in this historic referendum year, it can hardly avoid the palpable need to also contemplate our Father’s Words, which is being toured in its premiere production by Dundee Rep as part of incoherent ramblings are, in fact, his long-suppressed Gaelic mother tongue.
The exploration that follows Culture 2014, meets this twin demand excellently. The story of Don, an elderly Scots-Canadian who has descended into dementia, Louis, his son, a classics professor, and Flora, Don’s Scots-Canadian nurse, the piece is a clever, engrossing and affecting exploration of memory, language and identity.
Long since estranged from his abusive father, Louis is called to Don’s wooden house on the shore of Lake Ontario when the old man is found wandering in disorientation. It takes the hastily employed Flora to explain to Louis that Don’s seemingly nation’s identity, or, perhaps more accurately, our identities.
Justin Young’s play In My is, simultaneously, a powerfully universal expression of the migrant experience and a brilliantly particular window onto the history of the Scottish diaspora. The play draws a parallel between Don’s journey “home”, to his language and his memories of the Isle of Lewis, where he was born, and Odysseus’s great journey back to Ithaca, which Louis is translating from Homer. This is a slightly self-conscious, hyperbolical device, perhaps, but it is written with a redeeming style and wit.
Philip Howard’s handsome, beautifully weighted production boasts a splendid design of the interior of Don’s home by Fiona Watt and fine projections (including translations from Iain Finlay Macleod’s Gaelic) by Emlyn Firth. It also has a top class cast.
Lewis Howden’s Louis, although sailing dangerously close to a caricature of resentment and self-hatred, has a strong, underlying anguish. Muireann Kelly’s Flora is wonderfully no-nonsense, compassionate and clever (to say nothing of the actor’s lovely accent work with Canadian vowels). The piece hinges, however, on the character of Don, and Angus Peter Campbell offers a superb, nuanced and heartfelt performance as a man who, as his mind fades, rediscovers himself in his language and his past.
There’s a quite different contemplation of a painful Scottish history in John Durnin’s production of The Yellow On The Broom forPitlochry Festival Theatre. Based upon Betsy Whyte’s memoir-cum-novel of the life of a travelling family, Anne Downie’s play charts the travails of the barely fictionalised Townsleys as they travel and work around Perthshire and Angus in the 1930s.
The persecution they face, from schoolteachers and pupils, the police and landowners, is, sadly, all too reminiscent of events we have seen in the UK in recent years. It also carries the stench of recent, putrid commentary (not least from certain Ukip leaders) with regard to recent migrants from eastern Europe.
Whilst contemporary resonances abound, Durnin’s vibrant, often humorous production evokes Scotland in the Thirties excellently; not least by way of period props and live music and song. Karen Fishwick leads a talented cast, giving a lovely performance as young Bessie Townsley (the Betsy Whyte character), whose academic bent often clashes with her rage at injustice.
Sadly, however, Downie never quite gets round the difficulties inherent in translating a picaresque novel for the theatre. Consequently, despite its many strengths, the production begins to sag and, running to more than two-and-a-half hours (including interval), it fails to justify its time on the stage.
For tour dates for In My Father’s Words, visit: dundeerep.co.uk
Performance dates for The Yellow On The Broom can be found at: pitlochry.org.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 29, 2013
© Mark Brown