Sunday, 16 August 2009


15/8/09, Festival Theatre (Edinburgh International Festival)

1hr 30 mins. Described as "an opera in three acts", performed in Gaelic, French and English (though I thought I caught snatches of Flemish as well), with choir, acrobats, aerialists, extensive video inserts and a five-strong band (piano, cello, trombone, accordion, percussion, plus conductor).

It had two composers (David P Graham, born in Stratford, based in Germany for Act I; Jean-Paul Dessy, Belgian, who also conducted, for Acts II and II). The original concept was by a Frenchman. The writer (Iain Finlay Macleod) was from Lewis; the choreographer (Juha-Pekka Marsalo) from Finland; the director (Thierry Poquet) from France. The two leading on-stage performers were a francophone Belgian (Alain Eloy) as a narrator speaking accented English and a singer (Alyth McCormack) from Lewis who sang Gaelic songs in a beautiful, high, bell-like voice.

The film, directed by Finlay Macleod and Poquet, featured an all-Scottish cast with "cliff dancers" from the Compagnie Retouramont, which sounds Belgian or French (presumably French: do they have cliffs in Belgium?).

The programme lists four co-producers (all francophone organisations) "in partnership with" the Gaelic Arts Agency and two French (?) organisations, "with the participation of" an Italian outfit, "and the support of" two French regional arts bodies.

A spectacular Europudding in other words, and like so many Europuddings it ended up an ambitious, intriguing but ultimately disappointing mish-mash, less than the sum of its parts.

The starting point was the island of St Kilda, abandoned by its people in the 1930s. Some of the best bits were the film clips shot at the time of a primitive, isolated community, swaddled in tweed against the Atlantic winds, whose economy revolved around birds. There was a story of sorts: a young couple; he goes off with others bird-hunting to a nearby island; the boat slips its knot and they are stranded for some days, perhaps many; when a rescue boat arrives he falls to his death from the cliff. But I would not have known that unless I'd read the synopsis.

The story is told simultaneously by the narrator and the singers on stage; on video; and by the activities of the aerialists, both on stage and (rather breathtaking this) on the cliffs of St Kilda itself.

The music was spiky but inoffensive. At the end the musicians joined the exodus, abandoning their instruments to walk up on stage and into the wings, leaving the cellist alone to reach a dying fall. My chief objections: every time Alyth McCormack came on, singing a Gaelic lament unaccompanied, after a few stanzas the band would strike up with something which seemed to come from a quite different sound world and gradually drowned her out; and the dirge-like quality of much of the music made it hard to stay awake (we were tired: we'd only just arrived from London).

The singing and narration were amplified. The stage was bare but for one huge screen at the back and another, smaller one hanging to one side of the proscenium. There were occasional moments of visual beauty: a woman in a white dress swinging from a rope from side to side; two aerialists behind a great plastic sheet, swinging into and away from it, like great sea birds on the cliff face (the sheet fell to the floor when they'd finished and was later rolled up and carried by the cast to the front of the stage, like a giant version of the bundles the islanders carried when they finally left).

The audience seemed appreciative, except for one couple just in front of us who chose to leave just as the islanders were preparing to do the same, the video screens showing pictures of the book of Exodus in a Gaelic bible.

At the end I was left wondering what the point was: a powerful story, and powerful imagery and powerful Gaelic music, muddied and obscured by the modern musical overlay and Belgian touches.

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