Theatre review: O is for Hoolit, Arches, Glasgow

Ishbel McFarlane's linguistic 'exploration was more lecture than dramatic monologue. Picture: Ishbel McFarlane
Ishbel McFarlane's linguistic 'exploration was more lecture than dramatic monologue. Picture: Ishbel McFarlane
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THE SCOTS language: we all know what that’s good for, don’t we? It’s for flyting, fighting, and low comedy; it’s authentic, gritty, unpretentious and funny, where standard English is smooth, bland, beautiful, and often designed to conceal rather than reveal.

O is for Hoolit

Arches, Glasgow

Star rating: ***

Yet of course, none of the above is true. All we do, in recycling these stereotypes, is to reflect the standard perceived difference between a language that is associated with power, and a language that is not; there was a time, back before the union of Parliaments, when Scots was a language of lyrical poetry and high politics, as well as of stair-heid rammies. And all of these truths underpin Ishbel McFarlane’s new show O Is For Hoolet, winner of the Arches Platform 18 Award 2014, which premiered at the Arches Behaviour Festival before this week’s run at the Traverse.

In form, this 65-minute piece is more of a lecture than a dramatic monologue, and a slightly over-apologetic one at that; Ishbel’s inherited diffidence is one of her themes, but sometimes she just needs to stop talking about herself and her process, and get on with the narrative.

For those with an interest in the Scots language, though, this is a fascinating exploration – driven by more than 30 numbered questions, each one asked by a member of the audience on a cue from the onstage screen – of the linguistic life of someone born in the 1980s into a Scots-speaking home, who first rebelled against the language, and then began to rediscover it. In the course of an hour, McFarlane quotes from a range of linguistic experts as well as from Mary, Queen Of Scots, Robert Burns and Liz Lochhead; she also meets a schoolteacher who still sees Scots as nothing but an incorrect version of English.

And then finally, McFarlane sings a song, Jock O’ Hazeldean, in a wonderful full-circle reflection of a recorded performance by her own mother, more than 40 years ago. Are we any closer, by the end, to knowing what to do with this almost-lost language of ours, that’s nonetheless still so present among us? Not really. To reflect on it together, though, is a joyful experience; and Ishbel Macfarlane’s gentleness, and the beauty of her own Scots speech, travel on with us into a 21st century where we might once again hear the glorious lyricism and soaring heights of the language, as well as the hard-edged earthiness for which it is so often praised, and subtly dismissed.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-25 April.