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There's No V in Gaelic - Gaelic Theatre Now

When Cathy Ann MacPhee takes the stage next week in TAG’s production of There’s No V In Gaelic, it will be the first time she’s acted on a stage in Scotland’s central belt for 18 years. Then, with her roots as an internationally renowned Gaelic singer, and following stints acting with the Gaelic company Tosg and the late John McGrath’s original 7:84, it was with the late Jimmy Logan, in a production of Whiskey Galore at Glasgow’s Mitchell Theatre. Now, it will be in this new work written by Gaelic writer Seonag Monk. For Monk, also a veteran of Tosg, There’s No V In Gaelic will be her first stage play to appear for more than a decade.

Given the respective pedigrees of both McPhee and Monk, for such talents to effectively disappear from the cultural map seems a curious state of affairs. Then again, this is Gaelic theatre we’re talking about here, which, in terms of a written archive, appears to be one of the most undocumented pieces of cultural heritage around. Of course, given the fact that the Gael tradition itself is rooted in an oral culture, this perhaps shouldn’t comes as too much of a surprise. Without any concrete access to examples of documentation of that tradition, however, passing the mantle down to a younger generation of Gaelic speakers is problematic without such examples of context to hand. This is particularly the case in Glasgow, which has the fastest rising population of native speakers in the country. There’s No V In Gaelic, however, aims to open things out in a thoroughly modern manner.

“This is a bit of a first for Gaelic theatre,” according to Monk, “because, although we’re quite expressive in our language, we’re also quite reserved. But I think we’re becoming a tad more confident, and a bit more free. The language here I think will be a bit more earthy.”

What this means is a compendium performed by MacPhee and fellow veterans Kathleen MacInnes and Margaret Bennett alongside a group of young Gaelic speaking performers, all of whom will explore what it means to be a woman today. Uncomfortably marketed as a Gaelic version of The Vagina Monologues as it is, the title itself gives the game away in terms of the linguistic leap the play must make to be considered racy. An interesting return to the stage, then, for the now Canadian based MacPhee.

Contemporary Gaelic theatre is generally agreed to have begun with Fir Chlis (Northern Lights) and a flowering of writing in the 1970s by the likes of Norman Calum Macdonald, Iain Murray and Finlay Macleod. Only when Tosg was formed in the 1980s was any kind of funding pumped into a Gaelic theatre which attempted to be contemporary. While Tosg has survived, the creating of any kind of theatrical infrastructure has been at best sporadic, with little or no training or opportunities to showcase new Gaelic work.

“I was there from the start to the finish,” MacPhee says of her early days in Fir Chlis, “and it was like a family. Being able to take theatre to your own folk was unbelievable, but being based on Harris, the cost of getting from A to b proved increasingly prohibitive. So it was never going to last, but it was three and a half remarkable years.”
According to playwright Iain Finlay Macleod, whose Gaelic work has toured the Highlands and central belt in productions by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, much of this too is down to television.

“Some people say that the growth of Gaelic television was paradoxically detrimental to theatre,” he says, “as young people coming into the industry went straight into TV without spending time in the theatre first.”

The current attempt to give Gaelic theatre a profile was initiated by Rona MacDonald, Gaelic Arts Officer for An Lochran (Lantern), the Glasgow based organisation behind the There’s No V In Gaelic project along with TAG’s Guy Hollands.

“Glasgow has a lot of opt-in Gaelic speakers,” MacDonald observes, “with people coming here for education or employment. Up until now, a lot of Gaelic drama has been historical, but people have other concerns than purely there own history. Just look at the Polish and Asian communities here.”

“There was a clear dearth of Gaelic drama,” according to Hollands, who first worked with Monk at Tosg a decade ago, “but it’s an important area of the arts that needs to be tapped into. The bulk of the play will be in Gaelic, which in itself is important. Because, while we’re prepared to accept something if it’s done in Russian, there’s no reason why it can’t be the same with Gaelic.”

This raises the question of a Gaelic theatre as opposed to a specifically Gaelic language one, which Macleod observes that “a number of people have in the past tried to create. An example of this is taking the structure of a traditional ceilidh. I believe this has in fact been detrimental to Gaelic language theatre. Instead of proper plays, we are too often presented with extended sketch shows, with story-telling rather than dramatic intervention between characters.”

There’s No V in Gaelic may change all that.

“It’s funny,” Monk observes. “No matter how much you would want to translate something that’s really rude in English, when you say it in Gaelic, it’s not. When you try to say a bad word in Gaelic it doesn’t come across as being a bad word. There’s not anything really you can be coarse with. You can try. Now that’s really good fun.”

There’s No V In Gaelic, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 25-27

The Herald, January 23rd 2007

ends

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