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Val McDermid and Philip Howard - Message from the Skies

When Val McDermid was approached to write a new short story for Edinburgh's Hogmanay by the event's incoming producers, Underbelly, the result looks set to be illuminating on every level. Commissioned by Edinburgh's Hogmanay and Edinburgh International Book Festival, New Year's Resurrection sees McDermid move away from her crime-based novels to bring neglected nineteenth century writer Susan Ferrier back to life. Rather than being confined to the page, New Year's Resurrection will be told by way of Message from the Skies. This literary walking tour and dramatic promenade will the story's twelve chapters revealed across a dozen buildings using projections, music and recorded voices heard by way of an app.

Beginning at dusk, Message from the Skies will run every day from New Year's Day to Burns Night on January 25th, transforming the capital's city centre landscape after dark. The projections will be created by Double Take Projections, the Edinburgh-based duo of Steven and David McConnachie, whose work has previously been seen at the Merchant City Festival in Glasgow and Spectra, the Aberdeen Festival of Light. Music and sound will be provided by composers and sound designers Michael John McCarthy, Pippa Murphy and RJ McConnell, whose extensive credits have seen them work with most major theatre companies in Scotland.

The accompanying app will feature additional content about McDermid's story and the buildings, and will translate the story into French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Polish and Spanish. The app will also read the text in English for visually impaired audience members. Voices will be provided by leading Scottish actors Phyllis Logan, Sandy McDade and Andrew Rothney.

All of this will be overseen by director Philip Howard, former artistic director of the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh and Dundee Rep. Howard is one of the co-founders of the new Pearlfisher theatre company, who co-produce the event with Underbelly. This is done in partnership with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, and has been developed with support from Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government's Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund. Beyond the civic will that has helped bring Message from the Skies to fruition, the life and work of Ferrier forms the heart of McDermid's imaginings.

“In writing something that had a connection to Scotland's literary heritage, I started thinking about this woman, this great writer, who got forgotten along the way,” says McDermid. “Susan Ferrier sold more than Jane Austen, but today nobody's heard of her or any of her books, so that was a good unexpected starting point.”

Ferrier was born in Edinburgh's Old Town, but grew up on George Street. She wrote three novels, with the first, Marriage, originally published anonymously in 1818, eight years after it was written. A second book, The Inheritance, appeared in 1824, with a third, Destiny, published in 1831. It was twenty years before revised versions of the books were published under the author's name for the first time. Ferrier died in 1854 at her brother's house on Albany Street, and is buried in St Cuthbert's Churchyard.

“Val's story gives Susan Ferrier her voice back,” says Howard. “It's essentially written in her voice, and does a great job of resurrecting her.”

For someone who has worked primarily with new writing in conventional theatre spaces, the site-specific and multi-media nature of Message from the Skies is quite a leap. Or is it?

“I've actually treated it like any other play,” says Howard. “The two things really aren't so different.
It's a right old cliché, but it is really all about story-telling, and some of the technical tricks used along the way aren't that different from what you might do in a more regular theatrical context. And working in a studio with actors recording the app was a bit like doing a radio play. Having said all that, I am absolutely in awe of some of the animation work that's being made for the project. What they're doing is way beyond my ken.”

McDermid too is stepping out of her comfort zone.

“One of the great things about writing is challenging yourself,” she says, a few days after being announced as a judge for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. “Working with other people as well has been a treat. I spend most of my time sitting by myself writing, so to work with someone like Philip, who broke it down and made it work across these twelve sections was great. Everybody's been so flexible and respectful to the text. It's not a long story, but I think the projections will really bring it to life. You don't have to do it in one go either. You can go for a pint in-between each part. To have something on in January, when everyone's feeling a bit blue, I think that's quite good as well for it to be happening on these dreich and dreary days leading up to Burns Night.”

The choice of the buildings used in the show are crucial, according to Howard.

“It's almost as if the city becomes a character in the story,” he says. “The vast majority of the chapters can only really work with the buildings we've chosen, so it's all very location specific. Val moves things between both halves of the city, so it begins in the Old Town, moves to the New, then finishes in the Old.”

In terms of the event's execution, Howard points to Richard Long, the sculptor and land artist who has based many of his works on responses to walks he has taken which has led to reimaginings of the immediate landscape that inspired him.

“There's a whole thing about a walk being an art-form,” he says, “and maybe there's something of that going on here as well.”

The production of Message from the Skies coincides “absolutely delightfully,” says McDermid, with the publication of a new edition of Ferrier's first novel, Marriage, by women's literature publishing house, Virago Press. This will feature a new introduction by McDermid that will outline Ferrier's significance and subsequent neglect.

The run of Message from the Skies also marks the beginning of Scotland's Year of Young People 2018. To celebrate, from January 2nd, those following the route are advised to make an early start in order to view the work of the three winners of Edinburgh's Hogmanay's young writers competition. A short story by eleven year old Lucy Hutcheon called The Blind Watchmaker, twelve year old Maisie Dalon's poem, simply called Edinburgh, and sixteen year old Jemma Glover's story, Creatures of the Capital, will be projected onto three buildings an hour before Message from the Skies starts.

The three winners were selected from more than 200 entries by a judging panel made up of director of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust Ali Bowden, Edinburgh International Book Festival's children and education director Janet Smyth and Boogie and Arlene from Forth 1 radio's breakfast show. In this way, a new generation of literary talent can be seen alongside McDermid's take on Ferrier, spanning the centuries as they go.

“This is a really different way of experiencing a major writer's work in a different form,” says Howard. “People also get to experience Edinburgh in a completely new way.”

But what, one wonders, would Susan Ferrier make of it all?

“I think she'd totally enter into the spirit of it all,” says McDermid. “She had a great sense of humour and a really sharp wit, so I think she'd have some fun with it. There's going to be a few surprises along the way, so people can have a bit of fun with everything as well. I think she'd love that.”

The Herald, December 28th 2017

Message from the Skies runs January 1-25, dusk to 10pm. Meet at Parliament Square, Edinburgh.

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