Sunday, 24 March 2013

Drive-by theatre and ferry tales on the road to Unst

Against the black of night and in a shower of sleet, a gang of young men is picked out in car headlights, tumbling around an old Volvo. To the left and right, ballroom dancers spin to a rhythm, completing a surreal scene.

This is Brae harbour on a remote Shetland coast, as far from theatreland as is possible. Yet here, buffeted by an Atlantic wind, Ignition is being staged, a fusion of dance, drama and driving, exploring “our bittersweet relationship with the automobile”.

This ambitious project is a far cry from the road safety show first suggested in memory of Stuart Henderson, a local boy who died in a car crash in 2007.  Developed at a cost of about £170,000 by Shetland Arts and the National Theatre of Scotland, Ignition has generated exhibitions and songs, staged parkour classes and mounted story-telling sessions on local buses. It has even created a piece of public art, a knitted car made in sessions of “makkin and yakkin” (knitting and talking) proof that Shetlanders know more than one way of spinning a yarn.

The piece de resistance is the finale, drive-by theatre performed in and around a community hall, and requiring the audience to take cars between venues and even light the stage.
At the centre of all this artistic activity is the character of the White Wife, a latter-day legend brought to life by Lowri Evans, the project’s hitchhiker-in-residence. Rarely out of her ghostly costume, over the last six months Ms Evans has hitched rides by car and ferry all over the archipelago recording the 157 stories behind the show. Last September, her first night on Shetland ended with a hen party on Unst, the most northerly populated island.

I’d got on a ferry, because the last drive had taken me to Yell,” said Ms Evans, 30, a performance artist from Manchester. “I saw Scooby Doo walk across the deck. There were hens and stags going between the islands. The young girls were dressed as old grannies and I just squeezed in on the back seat beside them.”

In Lerwick she met   Nepalese waiters from the Gurkha restaurant. “They’d ping-ponged around the world and ended  in Shetland,” she recalled. “I gave them tea, fancies and sandwiches from a camper van. I danced in the rain with the manager. It was a really nice exchange.” 

Ms Evans even helped recruit the Ignition cast. Just before Christmas, in character as the White Wife, she encountered Barry and Wendy Broadbent on the No 9 bus from Walls to Lerwick. Now, clad in white, husband and wife are each spending ten nights acting out their own strange hitch-hikers’ tales, as they sit beside audience members during Ignition’s peripatetic performance. “Barry will kill me if get my lines wrong,” said Mrs Broadbent. “We must have rehearsed 600 times.”

If the cast all live on the island, key figures in the creative team are outsiders, recruited by the National Theatre of Scotland. Wils Wilson, Ignition’s director, is from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire; Rob Evans, is its Glasgow-based writer. Hugh Nankivell teased out the soundtrack from local song-writing sessions. Mr Nankivell’s home is Torquay, roughly 700 miles away.
Jacqui Clark, a Shetlander who has helped script the show, believes the outside help was essential.

There have been people brought in by NTS, but they haven’t inflicted their opinions on us,” said Ms Clark. “They have taken the time to listen to the folk who’ve engaged with us. As a local you can see the legacy, folk learning, picking up new skills. It’s important for a small community like this.”

Is the final production worth a round trip for a West End enthusiast? It is nothing if not striking and while some of the songs have the sound of the community workshop, the parkour is exciting; the car theatre is intense and unsettling.

Outside Brae Community Hall, Davy Cooper, one of the show’s story tellers, is delighted with the premiere. He reveals that the key to good drama is to base it on truth not fiction.

My uncle Charlie died in 1940, before I was born,” said Mr Cooper. “He was a whaler and had overwintered up north, when his ship couldn’t get back because of the wolf packs of U-boats. They finally sailed home in a convoy. But within a week he had died in a boating accident just 100 yards from the house. He was found standing up in the water, dead.

Now that would be difficult to make up.”

* Ignition, various venues, Shetland until 30 March.

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