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Iain Finlay Macleod - The Pearlfisher

There can’t be that many playwrights who are tweed manufacturers. Then again, as his play The Pearlfisher has already proved, Iain Finlay Macleod is no ordinary playwright. Not for him the crash and burn excesses of hungry young playwrights desperate to make their mark. Rather, his most recent play for The Traverse Theatre which this week plays the final dates of the theatre’s 2007 Highland tour is, as with his other outlet, more classically cut.

Charting the legacy of a young woman’s dalliance with the Travelling community, The Pearlfisher resembles a hand-me-down Folk ballad tragedy transposed into dialogue form. After a long working relationship with The Traverse’s outgoing artistic director Philip Howard, including three previous full length works, Broke, I Was A Beautiful Day and Homers, The Pearlfisher is Macleod’s most accomplished work to date. As Howard’s final production, the story’s elegant telling has more than achieved both parties desire to make something special.

“I made a documentary about a pearl-fisher for television,” Macleod says of the play’s roots. “The play is in no way based on her, but she was a wonderful story-teller, in a way that’s a cultural store. As a community they’re completely different from the Romany tradition, and when they move into a place they consider themselves very much a part of it. She was quite open about talking about all that. Some of the places we’re playing will have experience of living with Travellers, and some of the things the play says about land is something highland audiences will recognise.”

Coming from Lewis, Macleod will be more conscious than most playwrights of both the differences and the nuances of recognition between a central belt audience and a Highland audience.

“I’ve become aware in the past that we’d be playing in village halls,” he says, “and I think people enjoy seeing plays about the place where they’re from. Everyone on the tour is really fond of The Traverse tour. Before that there were community plays, but because this has been so sustained over such a long time now, people really look forward to it, especially when we go to quite remote areas.”

Without such initiatives it’s doubtful whether something like the recent Drama N’Alba festival of highland theatre could have happened. As well as this, Highland touring is on the agenda for many theatre companies today in a manner pioneered by John McGrath’s original 7:84 company with The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil. For the last sixteen years, though, it’s been The Traverse who’ve led the Highland charge. With home-grown fare only coming out of the Highlands sporadically via companies such as Tosg, Grey Coast and Theatre Hebrides, the presence of the tour has been a vital part of developing audiences as well as encouraging on the ground involvement. Indeed, it was by taking an acting role in the very first Traverse Highland tour which led to Macleod becoming involved in professional theatre in the first place.

That was in 1991 in Stuart Hepburn’s play, Loose Ends. Macleod was 19, and had first encountered Howard aged 16 during a stint at the National Gaelic Youth Theatre in Benbecula. Moving into writing and directing, one of Macleod’s early bi-lingual plays played as part of The Traverse’s Highland Shorts compendium. Novels and TV documentaries followed alongside the plays.

As for the newly acquired tweed business, it’s already something of a family affair, with Macleod’s Mum and Dad manning it on a daily basis. Macleod himself divides his time between Glasgow and Lewis in-between setting up meetings with voguish fashion designers wanting to buy in to a bit of tradition.

This seeps into Macleod’s writing as well, which goes beyond its immediate geographical locale to embrace an epic universal as well as a rural sweep. Macleod would be a fine writer wherever he was from, and he shouldn’t be judged as a keeper of some archaic flame either in his writing or his business ventures. His background, however, can’t help but be an influence.

“People talk about the great American novel,” he says, “which is something to do with the scale of the place and all the wide open spaces in it. Scotland’s like that in a way. There are all these things that haven’t been written about here yet, so you wonder whether there’s a validity to writing about them or not. But there are writers coming out now who don’t have any restrictions about that, and it’s great to have a clean slate.”

The Pearlfisher, Community Hall, Ardross, Tonight; Community Centre, Gairloch, Tomorrow; Sabhal MÒr Ostaig, Isle of Skye, Thursday;Village Hall, Ballachulish, Saturday. Tickets available in advance from Eden Court Theatre, Inverness
www.eden-court.co.uk
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, November 20th 2007

ends

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