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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Theatre review: A Little Bird Blown Off Course

Published in the Guardian
Three stars
 
Last month in the Edinburgh international festival, the Bang on a Can All-Stars used field recordings as a jumping-off point for a series of modernist compositions. In most cases, the new scores were less interesting than the source material which, even worse, was exoticised in the process. No such complaint here in the Outer Hebrides, where singer Fiona J Mackenzie is evoking a living tradition of Gaelic song in a production by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Blas festival.

The little bird blown off course was Margaret Fay Shaw, an American woman who took an unexpected migratory path from Pennsylvania to South Uist in 1929. While at school in Helensburgh, she developed a passion for Gaelic song. Having travelled to South Uist to do some research, she dedicated her life to the preservation of an oral tradition that would otherwise have been lost. Here and on neighbouring Canna, where she lived with her folklorist husband John Lorne Campbell, she built up an invaluable archive of photographs, cine films, recordings and scores, until her death in 2004.

The stage world inhabited by Mackenzie is consequently one of scratchy 78s, crackly phonograph cylinders and black-and-white images of sheep shearers, fishermen, crofters and guisers. Accompanied by a superb four-piece band, playing Donald Shaw's bright and inventive arrangements, Mackenzie runs through a repertoire of work songs, laments and lullabies, her voice soulful, melodious and pure. As a musical experience, one with deep and considered roots in the culture, it is exquisite.

Theatrically, however, the show is under-developed; it tells us little about Shaw and nothing that isn't already in the printed programme. It is honest in its excavation and celebration of the island's culture, but makes no pretence to be dramatic: splendid as an enhanced gig; too cautious as theatre.

© Mark Fisher 2013
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