MAIM means panic in Gàidhlig. This word can also mean “an outburst.” Theatre Gu Leòr’s collaboration with Gaelic electronica duo WHɎTE is both. Howls of grief interweave with the roars of activism to create a work which is thought-provoking and charged. Through fragments of individual histories, it links climate change to language murder, and the marginalisation of rural communities with the loss of Gàidhlig culture. Much to its credit, MAIM unearths the linguistic histories of Scotland, and in its performance, gestures to its potential multilingual and polyvocal futures. Perhaps more importantly, it really makes you care.
MAIM is easy and difficult to describe. Onstage there are four people. Three of them occupy a main performance space, framed by a wooden structure covered in stretched greying-white material. Behind them, on a slightly raised platform nestled within the structure, sits the fourth person adjacent to a laptop and a keyboard. Together they tell, perform and sing histories of the Gàidhlig language and the Isle of Mull. Behind them, projections of text, water and maps swirl, underscored by WHɎTE’s score. In a mix of spoken Gàidhlig, British Sign Language and English surtitles they recount a history of linguistic oppression, ecological destruction and cultural loss. The work ends at the present moment, linking the coastal erosion of Mull with the cultural erosion of its Gàidhlig communities in a rallying call against climate-emergency inertia. There’s a lot going on, yet MAIM always keeps its own head above water, moving with an admirable lightness between weighty topics. The result is eclectic and satisfying – MAIM gives you a lot to think about.
Some elements of MAIM are weaker. There are moments of choreography where the performers grip onto each other’s jumpers, holding in different balances and relations, finding support in shifting waters. While these images are clear and resonant, their performance is strangely uncertain and cumbersome – and not in a way where this uncertainness, cumbersomeness, is part of the choreography itself. Likewise, there is a disjointedness to the flow of the piece. Scenes have clear starts and ends, with short pauses in between them, often with the performers ending up with backs to audience. This isn’t necessarily a problem; sentences do need full-stops. Yet within MAIM the punctuation, these breaks, are neither held with confidence nor elided with stage craft. The result is a little stop-start.
Yet these criticisms must be framed within the context of what the work is doing, in the political act of telling these histories. MAIM isn’t shy about confronting difficulty, and the dangers of prescriptivist attitudes to language learning. While noting these histories of “preserving” Gàidhlig and “correct” pronunciation, it then makes a positivist case for Gàidhlig’s renewal and ongoing linguistic change. The work is nuanced. It deftly avoids clichés about linguistic beauty nor aim for some hazy point in the past, “way back when”. Instead it mourns, openly weeps for what’s gone and doesn’t apologise for the seriousness with which that loss is held. Then, from this place, it moves forward. The result is powerful, both mournful and angry. You could argue that MAIM is somewhat on-the-nose, but It’s never preachy. Grief is grief. Anger is anger. Dressing it up otherwise would serve only to soften the uncomfortable feelings of complicity in English-speaking audiences.
Moreover, MAIM should be lauded for its engagement with how its stories are told. It is joyful, frustrating and confusing to watch and try to understand a work in three languages. Sometimes I struggle to follow what’s going on, I definitely don’t get everything, but I am party to, and implicated in, dialogue between different people, languages and cultures. Multilingualism onstage isn’t ground-breaking but it is certainly refreshing to see work on Scottish stages which goes someway to representing the linguistic diversity of the country in which it is made. More of this please.
MAIM runs at Tron Theatre, Glasgow until 14th March, then tours Scotland until 28th March. More info here.