The premise is intriguing enough: two apparently-English people are on a boat to an unnamed Hebridean island; there’s a little bit of awkward sexual tension. We quickly find out that one of the English people is in fact herself an islander: her name is Sorcha Mackenzie and she is returning home to facilitate her companion, Lord Henry Rathbone’s, brief induction into the ways of the people. What follows is an anthropological rom-com about the dalliance between Rathbone and Sorcha’s sister, Odhran. Imagine Bridget Jones’ Diary, but with Colin Firth cast as the sea.
We are told that Sorcha is an honours student at some university in the south of England, so presumably she has only been away for a year or so, but somehow in this year she has managed to pick up an effete accent worthy of Clement Freud. This feeds into her character—at no point are we allowed to forget that she has betrayed her culture by leaving the island. In fact, she effectively caused Odhran’s death by her leaving. The plot is laden with dramatic clichés. Sorcha is knocked up by Lord Rathbone’s dandyish brother who has caught the Spanish influenza. Lord Rathbone is forced to marry Sorcha in order to maintain her honour, even though he is in love with her sister. All of this is predicted by the eponymous ‘idiot’, who has the ability to see the future.
Writer Elspeth Turner says in her introductory note that the play was inspired by Gaelic folktales. But these tales are suffocated by the arduous and long-winded nature of the plot. In fact there’s a real carelessness about how the island itself—and its culture— is treated as an artistic subject, especially in the way it’s compared to England, specifically London. In the world of the play England is a stifling place where impressionable young women can (and will be) taken advantage of by the aristocratic classes. Conversely, the Hebrides is portrayed as a place of magic and wonder where every disillusioned boy from elsewhere can find love. An artificial dichotomy is created between a world of superficial sophistication in which young women are sexually manipulated and a world in which women are safe but are expected to see to the dinner. This opposition is completely false, the deck stacked towards the latter exactly because of its virginal organicism.
Where is the authentic character of the island? My understanding of the Hebrides is that each island retains its own character and, crucially, its own stories. The island itself could have become a central character in the story, but instead the decision was made to paint upon a lilting tartan canvas.
Thankfully the performances are good across the board, with Lucy Goldie and Angela Milton the stand-out actresses. But the performers, though very capable of playing actual human beings, find themselves portraying stock characters. What is really needed, a friend suggested to me, is a bit of self-awareness, an understanding of the artifice of storytelling. At the moment Emily Reutlinger’s production relies heavily on caricature and there’s a failure of integration between the storytelling and folk mythologies as it stands. There’s promise here, if these stories were just given a little more breathing space. We know that the tale of the two sisters (you can hear Tom Waits sing his version here) is a good one: but its dramatic potential remains untapped.