The Scotsman Sessions #84: Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With the performing arts world shutting down for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Elspeth Turner revisits an extract from Theatre Gu Leor's acclaimed show Maim, about a young woman determined to try to pass on her Gaelic heritage to her baby daughter, with British Sign Language translation by Evie Waddell

There are still people around, sadly, who cling to the long-outdated view that Scotland’s Gaelic language and culture is nothing but a relic of past times, and should now be allowed to die. As the climate crisis mounts, though - and our broken relationship with the natural world forces us to re-examine the attitudes and language that have led us to this point - indigenous peoples across the planet are emerging as innovators and leaders in the search for a new and more sustainable way to live; and if anyone ever doubted that Scotland’s Gaelic speakers and singers are part of that movement, their doubts could hardly have survived an encounter with Theatre Gu Leor’s recent show Maim, co-created with the Gaelic-speaking electronic rock band Whyte.

Maim - the word means panic or alarm - opened at the Tron Theatre on 10 March this year, and was scheduled to tour the country, before the Covid-19 epidemic intervened just a week later; and even before lockdown, there was something almost unbearably powerful about its sense of a civilisation running out of time - time to save the fragile marine environment of the Western Isles from ever-rising sea levels, time to save a million other global ecosystems under similar threat, and time to save those languages and cultures, now almost overwhelmed by an aggressive hyper-modernity, that contain almost all of humankind’s wisdom about how to live in a more sustainable way here on earth.

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Written by Alasdair C Whyte of Whyte, with writer/performers Elspeth Turner and Evie Waddell, and musician and composer Ross Whyte, the show was staged by director Muireann Kelly as an impressive piece of total theatre, also featuring powerful visual images by Lewis den Hertog, movement by Jessica Kennedy, and lighting by Benny Goodman; and it takes its place in a six-year cycle of work produced by Theatre Gu Leor since 2014, when the company was founded with the aim of producing Gaelic theatre of the highest quality in Scotland. Theatre Gu Leor shows have included Scotties (2018) - about the 1937 incident in which ten young Irish labourers from County Mayo were burned to death in a labourer’s bothy at Kirkintilloch - and Shrapnel, the company’s 2016 stage version of the novel by the late Gaelic writer Tormod Caimbeul; and they have all been characterised by the same complex use of all aspects of theatre, often given a further layer of complexity by the use of subtitles, integrated into the design, to help navigate the many languages used by Theatre Gu Leor, including Scots Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Scots, English and British Sign Language.

Elspeth Turner performing Maim, with BSL translation from Evie Waddell

In this extract from Maim, we catch a glimpse of the beauty of the filmed material used in the production, as well as of Elspeth Turner’s passionate and moving central performance as a young 21st century woman determined to try to pass on her Gaelic heritage to her baby daughter, and of Evie Waddell’s BSL translation, which was an integral part of the show. In this sequence, written by Turner herself, she sees her quiet Gaelic-speaking father suddenly moved to protest, in the effort to save the culture and language that has shaped his life. For those of us who are already persuaded of the beauty, power and importance of Scotland’s Gaelic heritage, it’s difficult to watch this beautiful short film without tears; and for those who are not - well, there is always the chance that writing and performance of this quality can open hearts, raise spirits, and change minds.

Maim’s tour of Scotland is now planned to take place in March 2021; find out more about Theatre Gu Leor on https://www.theatreguleor.com

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