Review: Message From The Skies, various sites, Edinburgh

In Message From The Skies, a new story by Val McDermid was projected onto Edinburgh's buildings and landmarks.
In Message From The Skies, a new story by Val McDermid was projected onto Edinburgh's buildings and landmarks.
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It’s a show with a subtitle, this powerful piece of storytelling combined with installation art, playing around 12 locations in Edinburgh city centre through the dark winter month between New Year’s Day and Burns Night. Its other name is New Year’s Resurrection; and its text, by the great crime novelist Val McDermid, is not only a tribute to a city famous for its dramatic clashes between elegant enlightenment and dark criminality, but a plea to resurrect the reputation of generations of women writers who have too often been forgotten, in the litany of Edinburgh’s famous male literary stars.

Message From The Skies, various sites, Edinburgh ***

So we begin at Parliament Square with a brief introduction to the dark-and-light horror story of Burke and Hare, before visiting the National Library for a list of male writers, suddenly interrupted. Then, at Lady Stair’s Close, we finally meet the central character of the evening’s entertainment, the 19th century novelist Susan Edmonstone Ferrier who – with some help later on from the inimitable Muriel Spark – leads us through a journey from the Mound (where we cheerfully watch the Scott Monument crumble), to Calton Road, York Place and the New Town, where Ferrier lived out the last years of her life.

Then it’s back to St Cuthbert’s Churchyard, the Grassmarket and Greyfriars for a rousing finale. Along the way, the story is conveyed to us through text projected onto some of Edinburgh’s most dramatic buildings and bridges, combined in different variations with music and recorded sound, fragments of film, dramatic animations of Ferrier cheerfully murdering the literary critics who dismissed her work, and – at the Scotsman Steps – some inspired subway-style graffiti.

It has to be said that there were some severe downsides to the Message From The Skies experience on New Year’s Day. Given the amount of expertise that exists in Edinburgh in promenade theatre, and the fact that Message From The Skies was the only cultural event available on New Year’s Day as part of the Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme following the demise of Unique Events’ wonderful Scot:Lands project, it’s hard to excuse the technical bungling involved in an app – designed to guide us round the locations – that packed up for many users within minutes of the start, or sequencing problems that meant arriving at many locations, on a chill winter night, to find sequences of text or film not running on a continuous loop, but timed to make us wait five minutes for the next instalment of the story.

Technical problems aside, though, Message From The Skies remains a rich and brilliant introduction to the city and to its literary heritage, as well as to a lost tradition of female writing long overdue for recognition.

And like all the best New Year’s events, this one casts its own special light on the sheer beauty and drama of Edinburgh’s urban landscape; from the towering mediaeval tenements of Lady Stair’s Close, to the final moment in Greyfriars Churchyard, where a chain of writers’ names, male and female, light up the night, and leave us with the sense of a wrong righted through the power of McDermid’s magnificent and humorous imagination, which both honours and enjoys the city’s literary past, and points the way to an even greater future.

Until 25 January