JOYCE MCMILLAN on EUN BHAIG CHANAIDH/ A LITTLE BIRD BLOWN OFF COURSE at St. Peter’s Hall, Daliburgh, South Uist, for The Scotsman 6.9.13.
4 stars ****
iN THE SEVEN YEARS since the launch of the National Theatre of Scotland, the company has emerged as one of the chief inheritors of the great tradition of Highland theatre touring once championed by companies like 7:84 Scotland; not least because the flexible, open-ended definition of theatre embraced by the NTS has created opportunities to work with a tradition of song, music and storytelling which is not conventionally theatrical, but which offers terrific scope for performance and reflection, in a style that extends the idea of what theatre can be.
So it’s not for anything resembling a play, exactly, that a crowd of more than hundred people converge on St. Peter’s Hall at Daliburgh, this week, to see the very first public performance of the NTS’s new show A Little Bird Blown Off Course, created and performed by the Gaelic singer Fiona J. Mackenzie. The show – produced as part of the Blas Festival, and set to tour the Highlands and Islands over the next week – is inspired by the life and work of Margaret Fay Shaw, the great collector of Uist folksongs and folklore, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1903, and died on Canna in 2004, after a lifetime spent working with her husband, John Lorne Campbell, to record and preserve the living culture of the islands.
The show therefore takes the form of an 80-minute song cycle drawn from Shaw’s collection, superbly performed by Fiona Mackenzie with a terrific four-piece band, and accompanied by some powerful fragments of text, by fragile film and sound recordings from Shaw’s own collection; and at one level, the evening is not without its flaws. The small screens on which the films are shown are partly obscured on a crowded stage; and the show dwells on the old recording technology used by Shaw and Campbell in a way that gives it a slightly slow, hesitant and hand-knitted air.
The overall effect, though, is to create an increasingly powerful sense of the layers of memory and archive and decaying, technology through which this immense heritage of song has somehow made its way down the generations. In the hall at Daliburgh – where Margaret Fay Shaw first arrived in the islands, in 1929 – people strained forward in their seats to hear the old crackling cylinders on which the songs were first recorded, as if they might recognise the voices, or the families from which they come. Shaw’s soft black-and-white films of fishing and crofting bring gasps of memory and appreciation, as each sequence of images weaves into the texture of a song.
And at the end, when images appear of modern Uist people remembering and singing the songs Shaw saved, while the live musicians on stage respond to them, the performance acquires a passionate musical and emotional momentum. This is not an obviously radical show, in the 7:84 tradition. But if the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, then this is the story of a people defying the odds to retain the power of their own heritage; and of a woman who dedicated her life to making sure that they had the information, the records, the books, that helped make that survival a possibility, and a reality.