Imagine a ceilidh that could wake the dead. That’s exactly what Gaelic-language-based theatre company Theatre Gu Leor have done in Ceilidh, a new play by Catriona Lexy Campbell and Mairi Sine Chaimbeul, which the company take out on an extensive cross-country tour from this week as its biggest work to date.
Despite the implications of the show’s premise, the dead are only stirred from their celestial slumber to reclaim a once spontaneous social gathering which has been hi-jacked by big business types. Such shameless profiteers are intent on shoving out the local villagers on Harris to make way for luxury bothies and an exclusive golf course to entertain the high-end tourist trade. Only flame-haired 17th century poet Mairi Ruadh, it seems, can stop such cynical efforts to co-opt culture as a means of gentrification and social cleansing.
“In the Gaelic landscape she’s pretty much an icon with legendary status,” says Ceilidh’s director Muireann Kelly of Ruadh Mairi Ruadh, or, to give her full name, Mairi nighean Alasdair Ruadh, which literally means Mairi daughter of red-headed Alasdair. “She was supposed to have been buried face-down, and when she was alive had been banished to Mull because of some of the things she wrote. She’d been a nurse to the MacDonald clan, and wrote a poem to one of them. The way she wrote was quite emotional, and that wasn’t the done thing, especially as she was a woman. There was a thing as well that she wasn’t allowed to write indoors, nor outside in the village, so she had to write on the lintel of the door, effectively balanced precariously between these two worlds.”
This is something Gaelic speakers are probably used to. It is also something Kelly and Theatre Gu Leor are trying to address through a wide-ranging series of schools and community workshops and access programmes to go along with the show itself, which is performed with English surtitles.
“This is much bigger than just getting the show on the road,” says Kelly of a production that opens in the Tron Theatre’s Victorian bar, the same venue that David Greig’s globe-trotting ‘ceilidh-play’, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, began its life. “We wanted to go back to the original meaning of the word, ceilidh, which is about being a social thing, or just having a bit of a gossip. As a Gaelic theatre company as well, we didn’t want to be labelled as a company who just did work about Gaelic. We want to do contemporary work that’s accessible to everyone, but just happens to be in Gaelic. It’s important that we’re part of a wider Scottish network. You can’t just exist in a bubble. You need to bring people in.”
As an actress, Kelly has numerous stage credits, including playing Molly Bloom in the Tron Theatre’s production of Ulysses, and she has performed an Irish Gaelic version of Pauline Goldsmith’s Bright Colours Only. Kelly is also learning Gaelic, as is Ceilidh’s director Lewis Hetherington, whose partner is a native speaker, and who has cast Kelly as Mairi Ruadh.
“She’s a really interesting character to use as a vehicle to explore all these questions,” says Kelly. “There’s obviously a connection to the past, and to story-telling, and it raises questions as well about a woman having a voice. That’s juxtaposed with how culture is being bought up, and what the word ceilidh means now. My kids are Gaelic speakers, and I want to know what it means.”
Theatre Gu Leor (Theatre Galore) was formed in 2014 by Kelly after being approached by David MacLennan, the late founder of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint lunchtime theatre programme.
“David wanted a Gaelic play for Oran Mor,” says Kelly, “but he didn’t want a traditional historical one. He knew my kids went to a Gaelic school, and said if I ever had a more contemporary thing, then we could maybe look at putting it on.”
The result of this was Doras Duinte (Closed Door), a contemporary thriller by Catriona Lexy Chaimbeul, which ended up being a co-production between A Play, A Pie and A Pint, Theatre Gu Leor and Mull Theatre. Following its Oran Mor run, Chaimbeul’s Hitchcock-style two-hander went on an extensive Highland tour.
Next up, aside from some puppet-led yoga at the Mod in Stornoway, was Shrapnel, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Tormod Caimbeul, and long regarded as an iconic piece of contemporary Gaelic literature.
“If it had been translated into English, it would probably have a much higher profile in Scottish literature,” Kelly observes of the book, an existential thriller set in 1970s Leith. “It has the same sense of anarchy about it as Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. Doing something like that, again, it turns what people might presume Gaelic theatre to be on its head.”
Shrapnel was dramatised by Chaimbeul, who also happens to be Caimbeul’s daughter. Keeping it in the family even more, Chaimbeul’s co-writer on Ceilidh, Mairi Sine Chaimbeul, is her mother.
The tour of Ceilidh has been enabled by Bord na Gaidhlig, the public body set up under the Gaelic Language (Scotland Act) to promote and develop the language. Significantly, Kelly says that Theatre Gu Leor is the first theatre company to be championed by the organisation.
Ceilidh’s concerns about the commercialisation of culture comes at an interesting time for the company. The recent round of decisions from Scotland’s national funding agency Creative Scotland saw the company become a Regularly Funded Organisation (RFO) for the first time. Given the controversy over some of the other decisions, which saw all children’s theatre companies and disabled companies lose RFO status, only for Creative Scotland to be forced into an embarrassing U-Turn as five of the companies had their funding reinstated, the experience has been bittersweet for Kelly.
It was, she says, like “winning the lottery at a funeral.”
The feeling was heightened by the fact that Theatre Gu Leor share an office with Fire Exit, David Leddy’s remarkable company, who were cruelly cut from Creative Scotland’s RFO portfolio, with no U-Turn forthcoming.
“Obviously, we were delighted to get RFO status to try and establish the company in the wider landscape of Scottish theatre,” says Kelly. “We didn’t get everything we asked for, but what we did gives us three years of some kind of security, because in order to plan anything long term, you need that sustained investment. I’m totally conscious of the challenging time other companies are having. Fire Exit gave us space in their office and mentored us, and we’re really grateful for that. These are my pals and it’s been really difficult.”
With the relative security RFO status brings with it, Kelly and Theatre Gu Leor are currently developing two new shows. The first, The Book of Pooni is a collaboration with Puppet Animation Scotland about a curious cat who lives on Canna. The second, Scotties, has been commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, and, with a script by Kelly and Frances Poet, fuses Irish Gaeilge, Scottish Gaidhlig, Scots and English to tell a story of migration and loss through the depiction of Irish tattie howkers in Scotland during the 1930s. If all goes well, it will tour in the autumn. In the meantime, Ceilidh is intent on making a noise.
“Choosing to do the play in cabaret style is a quick-fire way of getting in among people, looking them in the eye and talking to them,” says Kelly. “All the big questions are there, but this is a narrative of family ties and not speaking to each other enough. That’s the crux of it. If we’re not doing that, then what are we doing?”
Ceilidh, Tron Theatre, Glasgow until Saturday, then on tour.
The Herald, March 8th 2018