As tourists wander Edinburgh’s Royal Mile clutching Nessie ornaments and tartan tea towels, there’s a rather more nuanced reaction to Scottish folk traditions taking place in Elspeth Turner’s brilliant new play.
The gentleman recorder of folk traditions is a fascinating character, already dying out by the time of this play’s post-First World War setting; the island off the coast of Oban has a cultural climate and folklore all of its own which Tim Barrow’s Rathbone seems keen to record. Instead, he reduces the islanders to self-consciousness with his puppyish enthusiasm for all things Gaelic, while skirting the deeper issue of their feelings of betrayal as they return from fighting to the same cramped conditions they were promised relief from.
Sorcha (Lucy Goldie) is his assistant and translator, a sister made stranger in her own home by years of exile on the mainland, the affected little cough that announces her presence giving way to the deeper malaise of her alienation from her family. Gruff and mercurial John (Scott Cadenhead) adds to the tension, resenting Rathbone’s suave addition to the family fireside, while Angela Milton is delightful as the meddling Effie, bustling and wiser than she seems. Sorcha aligns herself with Rathbone at her family’s expense, her cleverly observed social pretensions driving a wedge between her and her sister Odhran (Elspeth Turner), buried in housework and tradition, and escaping only through stories and folksongs. As a love triangle emerges between the three, with a fourth point Rathbone’s dissolute brother in London, the convincingly childlike title character Uistean (Gregory Thompson) is troubled by strange visions that the family can’t help but give credit to.
There are big historical themes at play here, but considerations of cultural tourism, fate, and the constraints traditions place upon their preservers seldom overwhelm the simple folksong narrative this play is based on. Elspeth Turner’s script ingeniously provides a complex, human setting for the ballad’s fairytale logic, only undermined by the inevitability and grimness of its conclusion, thanks to the total investment of the script in concerns of fate and prophecy.
It’s refreshing even to encounter a Scottish setting in a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, let alone one brought to life by an Edinburgh-based company, in English and Gaelic; a strong sense of place really anchors and grounds the Hebridean island depicted here, ringing with Gaelic folk songs that intersperse the scenes with beautifully sung doses of local flavour. Authenticity is successfully courted, too, by the costumes (Rebecca McLeod) and set design (Eve Murray), which resist the glamorising sheen of the costume drama to present an earthily realistic picture of rural island life. As the action moves from harbour wall to traditional family hearth to riotous ceilidh, the sound of the sea is never far away, adding to an atmosphere of idyllic desolation. If at points the performances seem over stylised, unhelped by a large and echoey space, they still have a salty charm, undercut by notes of bitterness and frustration that provide a moving picture of Scottish life, without a cliché in sight.
**** – 4/5 stars
The Idiot at the Wall is playing at Bedlam Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the 25 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.