Joyce McMillan: Drift by Vision Mechanics

Vision Mechanics' new production, Drift, is inspired by Betty Mouat, a 61 year old crofter, who in January 1886 drifted alone at sea from Shetland to Norway. Picture: Contributed
Vision Mechanics' new production, Drift, is inspired by Betty Mouat, a 61 year old crofter, who in January 1886 drifted alone at sea from Shetland to Norway. Picture: Contributed
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WATCH out for landmark work by major outdoor outfit, writes Joyce McMillan

If you go down to the beach today – or sometime soon, at St Cyrus near Montrose, or Laig Bay on the Island of Eigg – you’re in for a rare theatrical and sculptural treat. In a little grove of tents and pavilions pitched on the sand, you’ll find objects, rooms and artworks that conjure up the story of Betty Mouat, a Shetland woman who, in 1886, survived for nine days adrift in the North Sea after a storm that swept away her boat’s crew, leaving her alone in the hold with some milk, a few biscuits, and her strong religious faith, until she washed up alive and sound on the coast of Norway.

On headphones, if you decide to take the 40-minute walk around, you’ll hear a wonderful, evocative script by playwright Judith Adams, with a superb Shetland-inspired score by leading Scottish composer Eddie Maguire, sung and spoken by the great Gerda Stevenson. The experience is unforgettable, whatever the weather; and this work, Drift, is only the latest in the fine recent series of shows created by Leith-based Vision Mechanics, who are quietly emerging as a major force in Scottish outdoor theatre, following their decision, back in 2009, to adopt a new company name and identity to run alongside their established presence, since 1982, as Edinburgh’s Puppet Lab.

“I know this is in many ways a great time for puppetry in theatre,” says the company’s artistic director Symon Macintyre. “But I still felt that we were often being categorised as a children’s company, because of the word “puppet”; and although I absolutely love working with puppets and sculptural objects, we thought we would adopt a new name that gives us the absolute freedom to create whatever work we want.”

The change coincided with the company’s biggest project so far, the legendary Big Man Walking, a huge blue 26-foot-high puppet in a kilt, created by Macintyre’s partner and fellow-artist Kim Bergsagel, that walked up Edinburgh’s High Street from Holyrood Park to celebrate New Year 2010, and has been seen walking in communities all across Scotland from Kirkcaldy to Glasgow and Rothesay. Macintyre says that the Puppet Lab’s work had been moving more towards this kind of large-scale, outdoor and community-based project through years of work in Leith, including the Big Shop project which – ahead of its time – tried to reanimate neglected high streets and shopping precincts with site-specific theatre. Another growing influence has been the development of superb music and soundscapes, often delivered to the audience on headphones, which Macintyre believes parallels the power of puppets and objects to unleash the audience’s imagination.

Vision Mechanics is still funded entirely on a project-by-project ­basis, mainly by Creative Scotland; Drift is co-funded by the Nordland Figurteatret of Norway, where the show will appear next summer, and the company is now planning a multi-media, state-of-the-art family show called Dragon Quest, which will take place in Angus this autumn, and should generate some box-office income.

Macintyre is undaunted by this hand-to-mouth existence, though, and delighted by the growing response to the company’s work. “When I was just a kid in Nairn,”says Macinytre, “7:84 came to the local hall with The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, and I remember being completely blown away by the power of that show to change people, not least by coming and speaking to them in their own communities. And I think the impulse behind a lot of our current work is the same. If you take work to the streets and shopping centres and beaches where people are, then you can still have an impact, and hope to alter people’s perceptions of familiar things. Which, in a sense, is where puppet and object theatre begins; and what we’re still doing, even if we’re using a bigger, more exciting range of techniques and art-forms than ever before.”

• Drift is at St Cyrus Bay, 23-26 July, and Laig Bay, Isle of Eigg, 6-9 August