Monday, August 27, 2007

27th August

The night before I last fell ill we went for a walk along a secret path. It ran through woods and fields beside the hill of Arthur's Seat, like a slice of unknown countryside in the heart of Edinburgh.

Somehow the secretive magical quality of the walk is connected with the theatre company we were on our way to see - Theatre Alba (
I first came across them many years ago, it must have been about 1983, because I was still reviewing plays for THE SCOTSMAN and I had been sent to review an utterly unknown play, THE SHEPHERD BEGUILED, by an unknown company (which turned out to ne Theatre Alba) at an unknown venue (a disused and shortly to be demolished cinema in Abbeyhill).
The play was written in Scots and told the (apparently true) story of a minister of the kirk who lived with the fairies for 12 years under the fairy hill in Aberfoyle.
Both production and play were stunningly beautiful, and filled me with the profoundest joy and happiness.

What is amazing about this company is that it still exists, and with the same director, Charlie Nowoskielski, the same composer, Richard Cherns, and even many of the same cast. Only now they perform every festival in the grounds of the manse of Duddingston Village kirk. It has to be one of the most beauitful venues in Edinburgh, as the sun sets of a summer evening.
This time the play was THE LASS WI' THE MUCKLE MOO a by now totally neglected Scots comedy by the utterly forgotten Alexander Reid, who flourished in the fifties. He also wrote an utterly beauitful and utterly neglected play called THE WARLD'S WONDER, which really deserves to be revived.

I'd forgotten all about him myself until I saw his name on the programme, and this play, too, is a gorgeous piece of work that it was a joy to see. There's a boy-meets-girl, or rather girl-meets-boy kind of plot to it whose comic potential is so skillfully exploited, all interwoven with a weird and very wonderful tale of Thomas the Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland, full of wonder and longing for a different, truer, richer existence.

All performed on a shoestring by a company that know each other well, operate without subsidy, and work for the love of what they are doing. That doggedly, skillfully and lovingly plough their own furrow without prestige or recognition, firmly on the fringes of everything, and give an enormous amount of pleasure in the process.

It's very hard to get less fashionable than Alexander Reid...except perhaps to do MARY ROSE by James Barrie. Characteristically, that's another of their productions this year.
In the Netherbow Theatre in the Scottish Storytelling Centre where their chronic lack of resources sometimes is painfully evidence; for Barries was very skillfully exploiting the resources of the London West End stage in the early twenties, and the wobbly scenery and lack of scenic effects is a kind of sad reminder of the price this company pays for their integrity and fierce independence.
In another way none of that matters; for this totally neglected and overlooked play is written with such superb skill. It's about a young girl who mysteriously disappears on a haunted Scottish island; and who, when she reappears a month later has no memory of anything strange having happens.
She marries a young naval officer, gives birth to a son, and then disappears again, on the same island, for twenty five years...
It's a kind of allegory of grieving and loss, and when it was written - soon after the First World War - it had the most amazing potency.
The cast respect that potency, and its sensitivity, its poignancy and its gentle humour, and they perform it with astonishing respect and skill.
Because I lost both my mother, when I was still a boy, and my partner so very recently, it had the profoundest emotional effect on me. I still dream of Susie: dreams in which our parting has somehow been a huge misunderstanding, and we are reunited as if nothing had happened. The play spoke so directly and powerfully to that so important part of us that inhabits such dreams.

The final act is one of the most beautifully written pieces of theatre you'll find anywhere; and I left feeling so grateful to the Company for their love and skillful respect of it.

Unappreciated as they tend to be, the world is so much the richer for them.


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