As the echo of the No vote still resonates around Scotland, it’s difficult to hide from the elephant in the room – especially in a play by David Greig (a vocal member of the Yes campaign) set on a Scottish Island.
In the prelude to WWII, young ornithologists Robert (Martin Richardson) and John (James Rottger), travel from England to a remote Scottish island to conduct the “first” survey of the area’s wildlife. Their hosts are the miserly Kirk (Crawford Logan), leaseholder of the island’s grazing rights, and his quietly reserved niece Ellen (Helen Mackay). After not long at their posting, it becomes clear that “The Ministry” down south aren’t so interested in the indigenous fauna, as they are in exploring the military practicalities of the remote location.
Written in 2002, Greig’s play is a bit of a slow burner. At first it appears to have a straightforward old-versus-new, nature-versus-technology thematic structure. These ideas certainly occur but not in a straightforward manner. Greig subverts the typical roles, and this twisting of expected tropes pulls you into the narrative. While the scientists might be studying the birds, the isolated setting creates a microcosm around the characters and, as if in a petri dish, we watch their differing ideals and personalities interacting with one another.
Each character is surprising. It’s ageing Scottish highlander Kirk who embraces the forward march of modernism. In contrast, pompous Robert, who lusts after Ellen with casual sexual lecherousness, defies his own government with vocal protestations to protect the island. And while Ellen is supposedly the naïve village-girl, she appears more worldly-wise than John, who is riddled with apprehension, nerves and a great dose of prudishness. This idea of unexpectedness is also reflected in the trip itself; outwardly a conservation mission there’s duplicity to its purpose.
This running idea of things not being what they seem, is perhaps most apparent in the title. The stereotypical image of an outlying island is somewhere cold and barren but Greig questions this. The habitat he conjures up happily supports life whereas it’s the ominous approach of Westminster that brings the promise of desolation. The ambiguous, almost sinister way the characters repeatedly refer to the powers that be as “The Ministry” further dehumanises them, similar to Big Brother circa 1984: an ever present, never seen authority.
The setting’s stark isolation is emphasised through Ken Harrison’s fractured outline of grey rock protruding from the stage, as though just broken off from the cliff face. Interior decorations are equally monochrome and cement the mood of a frugal existence. The opening scene of John breaking down the door is a visual demonstration of the overarching old-versus-new theme; the young scientist bursting into an undisturbed bygone era. There’s something statuesque about the sweep of stone and wood, as if the abandoned chapel they’re housed in is a memorial to an old way of life. The script injects colour into the drab visuals: weather and wildlife tumble about together in a verbal churn of natural symbiosis, made vivid through Jon Beales’ squawking soundscape.
There’s some humour, mainly as the character’s differing world experiences collide awkwardly but moments of slapstick (probably in reference to mentions of Laurel and Hardy) are poorly executed and feel forced, sitting at odds with the ambience. Although John is reportedly from Edinburgh, his accent is as English as Roberts, amplifying the differences between themselves and their hosts. Scotland is currently bandaging wounds, furtively checking the lay of the land, working out what kind of devo-hybrid-country it will become. A month ago a performance like this would have been buzzing with electric anticipation and, although there isn’t an obvious political leaning, now, it just feels a bit late to the party; what does it add? Perhaps it would have felt different after a Yes vote? Still, this is a well considered production from Richard Baron, whose simple but absorbing direction allows Greig’s intelligent text to wash over you. It will keep you thinking long after you rise from your seat.