Gerda Stevenson on filming George Mackay Brown's play, The Storm Watchers

Despite being based 200 miles away from Orkney and having to communicate with her actors via Zoom, Gerda Stevenson has directed a remarkable film version of George Mackay Brown’s “play for voices” The Storm Watchers for this year’s St Magnus Festival, writes Joyce McMillan

Scenes from The Storm Watchers, directed by Gerda Stevenson

In 1967, when the great Orkney poet George Mackay Brown published his first book of short stories – called A Calendar Of Love – it contained one text that came in the form of a play. Mackay subtitled The Storm Watchers “a play for voices”; and in the mid-1970s, around the time when Brown, the composer Peter Maxwell Davies, and others were coming together to found the annual midsummer St Magnus Festival, it was performed in Orkney, with the addition of some choral sections which made it long enough to qualify for a Scottish Community Drama Association one-act play competition.

For all its brevity, The Storm Watchers belongs to a mighty tradition of literature about women watching the sea, that includes 20th century works from JM Synge’s Riders To The Sea to Donald Campbell’s 1979 play The Widows Of Clyth. In this short play, Brown conjures up the characters and lives of seven women widowed one stormy night, in a supremely vivid poetic sequence; and this year, to mark the centenary of Brown’s birth in Stromness in 1921, the current director of the St Magnus Festival – the composer Alasdair Nicolson – commissioned the writer, director and actress Gerda Stevenson to direct a 30-minute film version of The Storm Watchers featuring a community cast drawn from around Stromness, which will be premiered at this year’s festival.

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“It’s been the most extraordinary experience,” says Stevenson, “because in the end, we had to create the whole film online, with the cast working mainly from their homes in Orkney, and me at home in the Borders. I had very clear images in my mind of the kind of background I wanted for each character’s monologue, and of the timeless look I wanted each woman to have – I didn’t want any big Victorian bonnets or anything like that.

“So there we were on Zoom, going round people’s houses looking for corners and places that would give the right atmosphere, and searching through their wardrobes for clothes that would work. We took a decision early on to film mainly in black and white, with just the odd gleam of colour, and I think that also helps to create a sense of history. So we would find a place in each performer’s house, and rehearse on Zoom – just the two of us – until the lighting and angle was right and she was comfortable with the character and the text, and then I would say goodbye, and leave her to record her own monologue on her phone, and send it to me.

“Then meanwhile, there was a cameraman in Stromness, Fionn McArthur, making films of the sea and the town that I wanted to intercut with the monologues, and down here I had another cameraman, Sean Fraser, helping me to create some of the images around my own house. There are so many images of hands in George Mackay Brown’s text – repairing nets, tying knots, cooking, cleaning, joined together in marriage – that I really wanted to capture that aspect of it, so intimate, and so human.”

Stevenson was also helped by the fact that although she was unable to visit Orkney during the making of the film, she knows Stromness and Kirkwall well, from previous connections with the islands. In 1992, she starred in Margaret Tait’s award-winning film Blue Black Permanent, partly set in Orkney; and since then she has returned many times, not least in 2019, when she delivered the annual George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture on the work of Margaret Tait.

“It was a strange feeling,” says Stevenson, “because although I was 200 miles away in the Borders, I could picture Stromness so clearly, and the exact streets and places I wanted Fionn McArthur to film. He also managed to film a wonderful distanced sequence on the shore, with all the women looking out to sea; and given all the pressures, including the fact that almost all of our cast have other jobs and calls on their time, I was just so pleased that it all worked out as I had imagined it.”

The result is an astonishingly powerful short film, full of haunting performances, and visual imagery that captures the spirit of place in Brown’s poetry with extraordinary vividness; and in introducing this year’s festival, director Alasdair Nicolson said he was delighted to have triggered this “remarkable project… much of it filmed on smartphones by the people of Orkney during the pandemic. It’s a special tribute to a much-loved writer, created against the odds, in many ways, by his own people.”

“I do think George Mackay Brown would have loved that aspect of this project,” agrees Stevenson, who met Brown on several occasions before his death in 1996. “He worried about the value of poetry, and I think he would be pleased to see the people of Stromness embracing his work, and performing it with such feeling, 100 years after his birth. I also think there’s something about the pandemic crisis that throws a sharp light on his work. He never experienced a lockdown, of course, and did travel occasionally; but he suffered from agoraphobia, and was always fearful of leaving his home in Stromness.

“Yet at home, in his flat, he was absolutely fearless in his writing; even in this short piece, he touches on issues like domestic violence and racism, and in his mind he could travel absolutely anywhere, in space and time. I hope this film does justice to that special quality in his writing; as well as to his female characters, who emerge so sharply in just a few words – and above all to his poetry, which just gleams with brilliance, in every line.”

The St Magnus Festival runs from 18-23 June, both live and online, https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/st-magnus-international-festival-events

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