Scottish Plays Lead Edinburgh Festival

Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic trilogy is turned into thoughtful, engaging drama

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Edinburgh Festival is known for its internationalism. Orchestras, opera, theater, and dance companies descend on the Scottish capital each summer, along with a flood of visitors from around the globe. If the somewhat dignified and upscale official festival program suits many, it would appear that an increasing number of people find the multiplicity of entertainments "on the Fringe" (ranging from rank amateurism to the extremely professional) a more than adequate reason for risking the uncertain weath er.

But if the official festival likes to emphasize its international scope, it always tries to introduce its clientele to things Scottish. The annual military Tattoo up at the Castle, with its marching and kilted pipe bands, represents one kind of Scottishness. Probably more subtly, over the years a number of Scottish plays (including the "Scottish Play" written, however, by an Englishman), have shown the Scots to have a literature and imagination not to be taken with a pinch of salt.

This year, for the three weeks of the festival, a Scottish theater company offers a 20th-century view of Scotland as tough as it is lyrical in "A Scots Quair." A "quair," as several generations of Scottish school and college kids have by now been informed, is "a literary work of any length."

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"A Scots Quair," published as a trilogy of novels in 1932, '33, and '34, is on the long rather than short side. "Sunset Song," the first book, has become something of a classic. It summons up in rich flowing language, with a persuasively Scottish lilt and atmosphere, the life of a rural community in Aberdeenshire in the years up to and including World War I. The second and third books, "Cloud Howe" and "Grey Granite" extend to the Depression.

The whole work traces the disappearance of a sense of rural community in the face of increasing poverty and urbanization. It also explores the dissolution of the old patriarchal feudal attitudes and the development of socialism as a counter to capitalism. Also, the threatened confrontation of communism and fascism was divined early by the author (who died in 1935) in the third book. The question of class struggle in Scotland is the work's recurrent theme.

But "Sunset Song" is not just social documentation, it is a wonderful piece of imaginative writing as well, its prose original and compelling. Author James Leslie Mitchell was, to a degree, recreating his childhood, though the book is fiction, not history or autobiography. It is significant that Mitchell adopted a pseudonym for these books, based on his mother's names: Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The main character is a woman, Chris Guthrie, whose life is traced by the entire trilogy. Everything is seen from h er point of view.

It is here that a dramatization encounters its first difficulty. The narrative voice of the novels can only be lost in translation to the stage. The inner feelings and thought processes of both author and central figure are eroded, not to mention (as adaptor Alistair Cording himself does in the program) "a loss of much detail concerning countryside and community ... to serve the interests of clarity and pace."

But clarity and pace - fortunately - are not the only virtues of these memorable adaptations. In fact, clarity is slightly in question for audiences unfamiliar with the accents of Aberdeen and northwest Scotland. (Gibbon's prose is English brilliantly spiced with local words and cadences, but always perfectly readable.)

The 12 actors cast in all three plays sometimes speak in a dialect and accent so authentic as to be impenetrable. The uninitiated audience is therefore listening to sounds and rhythms rather than meanings. But ultimately this does not matter because the aim of the production has been atmosphere and interplay of character rather than speed and clearness. To achieve this aim, the actors are asked to be dancers, mimes, musicians, singers, comedians, tragedians, and quick-change artists.

THE result is a procession of striking and touching theatrical experiences that over three evenings build to an atmosphere and poetry that captures something of the original trilogy. The plays are accurate to the books, but never slavishly. Occasionally, as with the minister who marries Chris and Ewan Tavendale in "Sunset Song," there has been a temptation to lighten the dour mood of the novels. In the stage version, the minister becomes something of a comic character.

The main character, played with quiet, sharp conviction by a young Scottish actress with an old-fashioned Scottish face, Pauline Knowles, is the only one not to metamorphose into other persona: she ages somewhat, that's all. To this degree she is seen as the constant around which the action takes place. But in the second and third plays, she is more in the background than the foreground - a serious divergence from the books.

Tony Graham, artistic director for TAG (Theatre About Glasgow), the company responsible for "A Scots Quair," describes Gibbon as "a subversive with a roguish sense of humor; a revolutionary who wanted a people's Scotland; a cosmopolitan who relished asking the hardest questions (most of which remain unanswered.)"

The production as a whole presents this perception of Gibbon, never avoiding the "hardest questions" he asks in his books - and leaving them, as the best drama often does, unanswered. Humor peppers the plays, sometimes unexpectedly alleviating the grimmest moments. The need of revolution to establish a people's Scotland comes across with a startling degree of passion and is made to seem as relevant today as it was 60 years ago. Gibbon's moving eloquence is reinvented in terms of strong sincere acting, an d by means of the dance and song so effectively used in all three plays.

Maybe this is not the most astonishing or spectacular Edinburgh Festival contribution ever - but it will be remembered for its steady quality and fresh originality. It maintains the sound standards that make this annual extravaganza of the arts worthwhile, as well as frenetically alive and amusing.

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