After night falls in the woods at Brodie Castle, just west of Forres, something remarkable is happening. Among the trees, there’s light and colour and wonderful music, mixed with the sounds of voices speaking Scots; and there’s a cast of more than 50 community performers and professional actors, all passionately committed to bringing back to life the ancient Scots epic The Buke of the Howlat, written almost 600 years ago, in the woods around nearby Darnaway Castle, by Orkney-born clergyman and poet Richard Holland, a servant of the Douglas family.
The Buke of the Howlat, Brodie Castle ***
A Mile in my Shoes, Green at Orchard Road , Forres, ***
Extremely Pedestrian Chorales, Kinloss Church, ****
The Buke of the Howlat is a huge and complex creative project, in other words; and some stresses and strains are obvious in Morna Young’s adaptation of Holland’s story about a young owl who appeals to a parliament of all the birds for help in persuading Mother Nature to improve his looks.
The show begins with the four songbirds – nightingale, blackbird, thrush and lark, played with terrific flair by Andy Clark, Annie Grace, Angela Hardie and Gary Collins, in gorgeously-coloured costumes by designer Becky Minto – offering a 15-minute introduction in the forest, with much noisy argument about the book’s supposedly incomprehensible language.
The apologies don’t end, though, when we reach the main stage, in a beautiful woodland clearing; instead, the lark is given the job of interrupting proceedings throughout, with complaints that the audience doesn’t understand what’s happening. Some of this is fun; but too much of it undermines the story and lengthens it unnecessarily. And most frustratingly, the interruptions often come just at the moment when – in the hands of performers such as Grace and Clark – the sheer beauty and magic of Holland’s poetry is beginning to weave its spell, singing out across the centuries.
There’s no overstating the scale of what producer Kresanna Aigner, Young and director Ben Harrison have achieved in presenting this important and joyous show, as part of Aigner’s increasingly impressive Findhorn Bay Festival; it feels as though a fire has been lit in Moray that will not be extinguished, in terms of bringing Holland’s work, and the culture it represents, back to life.
If The Buke of the Howlat is to have a continuing life, though, it should cut the cackle about how difficult it all is and celebrate its belief in Holland’s writing; knowing that, through the magic of performance, audiences will also come to feel its power, whether or not the odd old Scots phrase passes them by.
This year’s Findhorn Bay Festival also marked the beginning of the National Theatre of Scotland’s month-long Futureproof project, to celebrate Scotland’s Year of Young People. A Mile in my Shoes, created by the London group Empathy Museum, was first designed to introduce people to strangers who had made their homes in their communities, by inviting them to swap their shoes for a pair belonging to someone whose story they will hear on a podcast, as they go for a short walk in the shoes.
In Moray, though, it often seems to radiate a different, youthful energy, as we pad around not only hearing about how some young people deal with serious health or social issues but also celebrating young filmmaker Brodie’s survival after a fierce electric shock, thanks to the yellow plastic crocs we are wearing; or young drummer Lewis who, thanks to his lucky drumming shoes, has now embarked on a music theatre course and discovered that to drum and to tap-dance are somehow very similar things.
And in one of those rare moments of festival synchronicity, I finished my visit to Findhorn Bay by watching a remarkable experiment by choreographer Karl Jay Lewin and composer Matteo Fargion, at Kinloss Church, in transforming the rhythm and melodic line of a series of Bach chorales into movement. The effect, in Extremely Pedestrian Chorales, is strange, sometimes comic, sometimes intensely moving. And the movement of the four dancers, including Lewin himself, is accompanied by a fascinating range of sounds, including blasts of the chorales themselves, snapping fingers – and of course, at climactic moments, the sound of the dancers’ tapping and stamping feet, perfectly capturing the rhythmic power and grandeur of the mighty JS Bach in all his exhilarating glory. - JOYCE MCMILLAN
The Buke of the Howlat, final performance this evening. Extremely Pedestrian Chorales, run completed. A Mile in my Shoes in Forres today, and in Elgin, 3-7 October. Joyce McMillan’s accommodation in Forres was kindly provided by Blervie House www.blervie.com