HIORT: MAC-TALLA NA EUN/ST KILDA: THE ECHO OF BIRDS ****
STUDIO ALBA, STORNOWAY
THE FIRST time the natives of St Kilda were visited by a steamship, during the 19th century, they thought it was a ship on fire. What they might have made of the technology which enabled real-time images from their island to be incorporated in a stage drama about their precarious lives in Stornoway, 40 miles away, as well as in France, Germany, Belgium and Austria, is beyond speculation.
As it is, there were aspects of Mac-Talla nan Eun - the ambitious "Gaelic opera" staged simultaneously in five European countries on Friday and Saturday and combining elements of theatre, music, dance, pre-recorded film and, of course, webcam transmissions - which were magic in anybody's book. There were moments of startling congruence, as when a man fell with a terrible cry from cliffs, his body plummeting into the sea on screen, while the actor hung limply in the air, spread-eagled in a harness; or, at his funeral, a choir singing a Gaelic psalm, their plangent heart-swell of voices mirrored by the great wave surging on the screen behind them.
Developed by Proiseact an Ealan, the Gaelic Arts Agency, from an idea by French theatre producer Lew Bogdan, and directed by Gerry Mulgrew, the production was more music theatre than opera, effectively combining contemporary European, programmatic instrumental and choral music by Jean-Paul Dessy and David Graham (conducted by Andy Thorburn), with fine solo Gaelic singing by Cathy Ann Macphee and Kathleen MacInnes.
With a budget of around 1.5 million, much of it from Europe, this mind-boggling venture was simultaneously staged in Valenciennes, Mons, Dusseldorf and Hallstatt - all independent interpretations of the same script, but interleaving the live transmission from St Kilda, and each with its own Gaelic singer. A simple and timeless dual narrative intermingled the fortunes of two young lovers, Neil and Rachel (Calum MacAulay and Catriona Lexy Campbell), with that of their community.
So far as St Kilda's story goes, of course, we already know the outcome: in 1930, the remaining 36 inhabitants boarded a boat for the mainland, never to return. In this promenade production, at times it was as if Michael Powell's 1937 film At the Edge of the World was peeling itself off the screens and insinuating itself among us, as a boat was rolled out from the stage, and "rowed" through the audience, and grainy black and white and colour footage ran on two screens, with actors on stage one minute, on screen the next. The lovers embraced on stage, framed by their own, black-and-white on screen kiss, and the young Neil went through the island men's formidable rite of passage, standing one-legged in the wind rush of a giddying rock pinnacle, while his love watched from the screen. The men's hair-raising harvesting of seabirds from the sea stacks was transmuted into an aerial ballet pre-filmed on the cliffs of Uist with the French Compagnie Retouramont, their figures bouncing and whirling like gravity-defying spacemen while, onstage, actors uncoiled a rope and "descended" it horizontally.
Even amid the merrymaking of a wedding, the elemental presence of rocks, sea and sky, and the sense of impending tragedy was never far away, evoked by spooky sighings or vertiginous trombone slides.
The stumbling block for a non-Gaelic speaker like myself (and this isn't Anglophone arrogance, but regret at the nuances and poetry of the dialogue) was that virtually the entire production was in Gaelic, with English only appearing briefly towards the end, as the language of exile. Whether there should have been some form of translation or subtitling (a programme synopsis outlined the three acts) is open to debate - the constantly shifting nature of the action would have made subtitling well nigh impossible. Often, however, proceedings transcended language, as when the cast unfurled a white sheet, to reveal the ghastly, undulating silhouette of a drowned man in all too clear premonition.
In a striking ending, the evacuating villagers filed off stage to a poignant litany of place names, to reappear on screen like a materialising ghosts. Then, thanks to the magic looking glass of the webcam, there appeared their abandoned cottages, bathed in the evening light of that very moment, and Maggie MacDonald singing a last lament to a vanished community so astonishingly invoked on a 21st-century, pan-European stage.