Theatre review: Ignition, Shetland

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KNITTING, free-running, ballroom dancing, choral singing, songwriting, and telling your story to an enigmatic figure from Shetland legend, suddenly brought to life.


Various venues across Shetland


These are just some of the means that have been used, over the past six months, to attract, seduce and encourage Shetlanders into involving themselves with the huge National Theatre Of Scotland/Shetland Arts Ignition project, which concludes this week. And if the number of islanders cheerfully aware of the project is any guide, then it must have come close to fulfilling its aim of reaching every one of the archipelago’s 23,000 inhabitants.

What’s more interesting, though, is the question of what a project like Ignition can add, to the life of a community which already knows far more about convivial lifestyles and rich, shared cultural experience than most places in modern Britain. Originally conceived following the tragic death in a road accident of a young youth theatre member, the project is supposed to reflect on the relationship between islanders and the car, in a place where the modern island economy is built around a huge petrol-driven oil boom. And it does feature some rich and remarkable car-related stories, as well as an entire car body knitted by a “mak and yak” group, and a gorgeous central character in the White Wife, exquisitely played by Manchester performance artist Lowri Evans, a legendary figure who haunts the long road north-south road from Unst to Sumburgh, climbing into the passenger seats of lone male drivers, and asking searching questions.

In the end, though, what emerges from the complex and flexible project, put together by director Wils Wilson and associate John Haswell, is more like a rich reflection on the emotional texture of island life over the past generation, loosely structured around composer Hugh Nankivell’s musical journey down “da long road”, which is itself enriched by original songs.

As for the show at the end of the journey, it’s impossible to make a final assessment of a strikingly diffuse and – in terms of creative synthesis – slightly hesitant and underpowered event, that takes audience members along a different route, and offers only a few glimpsed fragments from this project, including a gorgeous 20-minute harbourside sequence featuring parkour around a wrecked Volvo, some beautiful, elegiac ballroom dancing across generations, and the voices of 80- and 90-year old residents in an island care home, meticulously heard and recorded by choreographer Janet Parker.

Yet after we return from our night-time car-journeys for the great Shetland ritual of tea in the hall, there’s a moment when the youngsters and volunteers pouring the tea suddenly turn towards the band on stage, raise their voices, and form themselves into a choir, singing songs of their own composing, about Shetland, their home. It’s one of those moments of transformation that makes a project like Ignition just slightly magical; and whose impact on the life of the islands, and on the next generation of Shetlanders, is both impossible to measure, and potentially limitless.