Theatre review: The Idiot at the Wall, Edinburgh Pleasance

WRITTEN by Elspeth Turner for First Bicycle, the bilingual English-Gaelic theatre company she recently co-founded, The Idiot At The Wall is a two-hour play based on a single, intense and chilling ballad song of the Western Isles.

It tells the story of a woman so resentful of her sister’s hold on the affections of the man they both love that she lures her to the shore at low tide, and plaits her hair into the seaweed on a rock, leaving her to drown in the rising waters.

Until the closing scene, though, there’s little of the dark poetry of this tale in Turner’s version of the story. Set in September 1919, at the end of the First World War, it often seems more like an awayday episode of Downton Abbey, as ambitious, gentrified young Sorcha returns to visit her island home with her kindly new friend, Lord Henry, who soon strikes up a tender romance with Sorcha’s island-bound sister, Odhran.

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If the storytelling tends towards soap-opera, though, the play has some immense assets, not least a confident, gripping dramatic narrative, and a magnificent score of Hebridean song and music, delivered by musicians Tim Du Feu and Murdo Turner.

There’s a glorious central performance from Turner as Odhran, a warm, clever young woman with a great gift for song and storytelling, whose terrible death has long been foreseen by her strange brother, Uistean, the wise “idiot” of the play’s title.

Rating: ***