In the year of both the Commonwealth Games and the Scottish independence referendum, Grit couldn’t be more timely. Directed and conceived by Cora Bissett and written by Kieran Hurley, it seems like the natural progression for Hurley, given that his show Beats focused on rave culture, the followup Rantin on folk tradition, and Martyn Bennett’s career fused the two. Bissett, meanwhile, has had a long term interest in folk music and dance music, and is a singer/songwriter in her own right.
Grit explores the outsider status of Canadian/Scots musician Martyn Bennett, a child prodigy on the bagpipes who won a scholarship to The Edinburgh RSAMD, got involved with the rave scene in the ’90s and subsequently became inspired by Alan Lomax, collector of field recordings. His mother Margaret,herself a singer, had a love of folk music and sang old Gaelic songs to him as a child. An epiphany came to him when he blended the genres of folk/world music and techno, initially sampling the voice of Sheila Stewart, the Blairgowrie-based traveller. Her rich, throaty voice opens the show in the wonderful pulsing tune Move.
Sandy Grierson, fresh from playing Ivor Cutler in The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler again takes the titular role. His portrayal is that of a young man with dreads and a bicycle, bursting with eccentric energy and naivete, which is endearing at first, a little grating as he gets older. Grierson, although fine, is possibly too old for the role.
His wife Kirstin (Hannah Donaldson) is somewhat underwritten, and seems to have little to work with but act as the theatrical equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, selfsacrificing to her maverick partner to the point of losing her own identity: it is problematic, as there is no sense of a relationship of equals.
A shortbread tin image of Scotland persists, as sweet and cloying as tablet. Hurley’s writing here is often sentimental. Yet there are many inspired moments: his first awkward meeting with Kirstin; the links to the Stewart travelling family and their music, Michael Marra’s gravelly timbre as an almost Biblical voiceover; the DIY scene, where Bennett creates a makeshift platform to carry his bagpipes around, in order to go out busking; his defiance in the face of his cancer diagnosis which killed him at just thirty three.
What really elevates the production are the robust dance sequences by Canadian choreographer Dana Gingras the ensemble pieces are athletic and elegant, the elegiac solo by Ruth Mills and aerial work by Steve Ryan and Maxime Yelle, nothing short of beautiful, with the dancers appearing to defy gravity, spinning and soaring as with Lizzie Higgins and Sheila Stewart’s otherwordly voices.
It is flawed, then, but a compelling experience. Grit at its best crackles with a hypercharged intensity and a soulful evocation of the power of music to transcend time and place. Martyn Bennett was a truly indomitable spirit and the crowd, rising to a standing ovation, concur.