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Anything That Gives Off Light review at EICC, Edinburgh – ‘exhilarating’

Anything That Gives Off Light. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic Anything That Gives Off Light. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic
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Raw, heartfelt and messy on several levels, the Team’s continued collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland sprawls along in its explorations of national identities and ongoing environmental destruction, but still manages to land some considered punches.

In Scotland, Brian Ferguson’s Brian and Sandy Grierson’s Iain (Martin Donaghy in some performances) are setting about a weekend of remembering Brian’s late grandmother. As wakes go, it’s on the late side, but Brian has a small jar of her ashes and, given that he missed the funeral and the fact that he and Iain haven’t seen each other for almost a decade, is intent on a proper send-off with the childhood pal who knew her as well as he did.

Into the bar where they are drinking tumbles Jessica Almasy as the American woman they come to call Red. Exorcising her own demons of marriage and failed responsibility, she hooks up for their road-trip north to Gran’s old caravan out on the West Coast. And as the three drink and drink on the way, they tell the cliched highlights of history and retell them to understand what really happened – not what the winners want us to think.

It’s a journey of cultural clashes, of digging up the myths perpetrated about the histories of both Scotland and Red’s native Appalachians. It is about re-examining contexts in which the tropes of history occurred, notably the Scottish clearances, covering similar historical ground – with similar political leanings – to John McGrath in the Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil.

Except that where the recent Cheviot revival struggled to bring in an appropriate contemporary relevance, Team artistic director Rachel Chavkin uses the Appalachian connection with the destruction of the land in the ongoing extraction of coal by increasingly mechanised means – culminating in fracking processes.

It’s this looking through the lens of the Highland clearances to frame and understand the contemporary displacement of people in America in which this works best. While Brian and Iain talk of the harsh realities of the clearances, of old women whose children were killed at Culloden driven out of their crofts by the factor, Red tells of the destruction of groundwater sources and de-facto driving off their land of people who thought that they had owned it for generations.

The telling of all this is boldly theatrical. The trio of Annie Grace, Cat Myers and Maya Sharpe are on stage throughout giving a vibrant musical drive, decked out like a band of warriors. There’s no doubting the back stories of Grierson, Ferguson and Almasy’s characters, while their play-acted retelling of history is efficient and sweeps the whole along.

Ironically, the least successful thing about this is its obsession with Scottishness, which feels like a framing device too far. It’s fine as a route to find out differences and similarities, but just as this uses the difference in the way Scotland and Hollywood end their movies, it could have stuck to the traditional cinema running time of 90 minutes.

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Exhilarating yet infuriatingly sprawling examination of contemporary displacement and environmental destruction