Performed in English and Scots and Irish Gaelic, this trilingual play from Scots Gaelic company Theatre Gu Leor in association with the National Theatre of Scotland looks at the hardship and prejudices involved in migration nearly a century ago, and places them in stark and disappointingly unchanged contrast to the troubles migrants face today.
Written and directed by Gu Leor’s artistic director Muireann Kelly – her debut as a playwright, although co-writer Frances Poet and Scots speech adapter Liz Lochhead are extremely experienced – the play tells the true story of a group of young male ‘Scotties’ (Irishmen and women employed as farm labourers) who died in a bothy fire in the Scottish town of Kirkintilloch in 1937.
The loose time-travel framing sequence which brings Ryan Hunter’s contemporary schoolboy Michael face to face with his great-grandmother Molly – one of the group of labourers involved – as a young woman feels somewhat contrived, but it does ultimately serve in pressing home the contemporary relevance of the tale. The dead boys and young men, finds Michael, remain only as a plaque in the town whose meaning is dimly-remembered, but the flowering of language and culture which their necessary movement brought is their strong legacy.
The staging finds its greatest and most haunting potency in the dreamlike physical elements of the piece, as Jessica Kennedy’s choreography transforms the mundane, repetitive nature of potato-picking into an earthy formation dance. Laoise Kelly’s traditional score – sung by the cast and played on Alana MacInnes’ pipes – is also as gorgeously melodic as the languages used.
It’s in this latter aspect which the play really shines, particularly in Faoileann Cunningham’s nearly all-Irish delivery of her lines, with her meaning becoming apparent without the need for supertitles. As a love letter to the languages of these islands and the people who spoke and still speak them, the piece resonates strongly.