To tackle such a contentious topic as the 1937 Kirkintilloch disaster, which saw ten young Irish boys die in a Scottish bothy fire, and to further insist on Gaelic playing a central role in the play’s dialogue, requires deep sensitivity. Thankfully, Theatre Gu Leor’s latest production for the National Theatre of Scotland, Scotties triumphs both in its thoughtfulness towards those still touched by their Irish migrant past, as well its consideration for an audience of non-Gaelic speakers.
Strong emphasis is therefore placed on the physicality of characters and ensemble sequences of movement become an important method of storytelling; the daily rituals of the workers being translated into dance. All cast members move beautifully, and Molly (Faoileann Cuningham) in particular develops powerful, desperate gestures illustrating her fear and grief. Equally, the tragic deaths themselves are respectfully conveyed through sound and movement, with no overt depiction or reference to them on stage. Merely the crackling of flames and a beat pounded out on a table serve to confirm our worst suspicions.
Yet despite these moments of assault on our emotions, the play is counterbalanced well by its humour and celebration of traditional Celtic music. The initial antagonism between Michael and his parents, while a stereotypical depiction of adolescent angst, provides several amusing quips and reveals a convincing bond between the characters. Music, on the other hand, is the soothing balm to our frequent emotional distress and gives us a way into feeling and experiencing the migrants’ daily lives. Whether it is the song sung while picking ‘tatties’, during the funeral procession or after Michael’s final exchange with Molly, music remains a guiding voice and it is through this medium that the workers express themselves most fully.
As they fiddle and stomp at their ceilidh, we find ourselves enthralled by their energy but likewise sense the atmosphere of trepidation. We know that night will fall soon and so will our characters. The play thus takes us on a complex emotional journey, where we are forced to mourn those we have forged a close connection with. This cleverly scripted evolution is a testament to Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet’s writing.
Set and costume are kept simple, with a stark stage allowing for smooth transitions between past and present. Indeed the effortless shift from Michael’s home in Glasgow to the farm at Kirkintilloch gives a dream-like, at times nightmarish, quality to unfolding scenes. Characters to take on a certain fluidity; embodying members of the family as well as the Irish workers. Consequently, it is Michael, brilliantly portrayed by Ryan Hunter, who acts as our anchor while we navigate the past and by whom we are taught a greater empathy for it.
Scotties is a stunning storm of anguish, jubilation and self-discovery, showcasing the best of Gaelic culture. It reminds us all of the need to discover our roots, but also to make peace with the past. As Molly’s final words state, “You’ve brought me home. Now take home with you”.
Image: Mihaela Bodlovic