Saturday, 3 December 2011

Calum's Road comes home

I went back to Raasay last Friday (I know, twice in a week. Even though the island tried to devour me whole I can't stay away). There was only one place to be that night, come hire car or high water, and that was in the new hall for the last tour performance of "Calum's Road".

It lived up to the billing as an extraordinary night of drama. Theatre and location and people don't come together like this very often. Here's my West Highland Free Press review of the Comminicado/NTS production of Calum's Road

A play is nothing without an audience, but a play becomes something else when it is its audience.

Taking the stage adaptation of "Calum’s Road" back to its island setting demonstrates the inescapable, powerful connection between art and the places from which it springs. Landscape and memory have a pull strong enough to draw people from very far away, and to fill Raasay Hall twice over last Friday.

In fact the National Theatre of Scotland could have taken residence in Raasay for a week and, weather permitting, sold out the run. But a play is essentially ephemeral art, and different each time. Anyway, casting like Iain Macrae as Calum cannot happen twice.

"He had my father to a T," said Julia, Calum MacLeod's daughter in her own review of Macrae’s performance as the islander who defied the world with a wheelbarrow and a shovel.

That’s the real Julia speaking — in front of her eyes, on stage, she is seamlessly represented as a young girl by Angela Hardie and as a woman by Ceit Kearney, who also managed to slip into the role of Julia's mother Lexy.

Fictionalising real people and a real place and projecting that back to the most discerning audience is a pretty neat trick, if you can pull it off. Raasay was lulled and lilted by Alasdair Macrae's score and let itself be carried down the road again.

After their own long journey around Scotland, the cast have honed the parts into a lesson in ensemble acting, so that characters play off each other and not just out into the audience.

While Macrae is as energetic as Calum himself Finlay Welsh, as Iain Nicolson, is a counterpoint in paring back a performance until he delivers the intensity of his emotions with a glance or a twitch.

Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado Theatre has long experience of successfully adapting Scottish literature for stage. Roger Hutchinson’s book lends him some of the best lines, but it is the dexterous layering of a familiar tale by writer David Harrower that elevates "Calum’s Road", unexpectedly warming a slow-burning tragedy.

The gentle, unrequited love story cocooned in the play and the repeated motifs of the road saga — depopulation, the fragility of family and culture — are, like Calum’s struggle with the barrow against the county council, universal themes.

"Calum’s Road" is not just from our past. The question mark over end-of-the-road communities resonates through modern Scotland all the way down to the inner Clyde.

Even on islands like Shetland and Iceland, where they had money to throw at the situation, people continue to gravitate from the periphery to the streetlit centres.

But that is no reason to give up on places like Raasay. Even the new hall that hosted Calum’s homecoming is a symbol of hope. When it is not converted into an amphitheatre for the National Theatre of Scotland it hosts intense football sessions for the island’s youngsters. One day there will be enough kids for a Raasay 11-a-side team. There is, finally, a new pier in a sensible place, with a beautiful, working fishing boat moored to it. New social housing is being built, hopefully not too late.

And on nights like last Friday — when that rare thing happens and art, time and place combine to make huge emotional demands on an audience — it reveals a very special community at the centre of its own story.

Outside the hall winter’s wind rages and the complaints are all too real-life. They are much the same ones as Calum MacLeod might have made in a strong letter to Inverness County Council. The island’s roads are still awful.

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