Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Mairi Campbell takes the audience on what intially seems like trip into her personal biography, but turns out to be something of a more universal examination of finding your own voice, your own pulse, your own music
The stage is sparsely furnished with just a chair, a music stand and a rustic tripod with a stone pendulum hanging from it. Mairi Campbell appears wearing a loose dark dress and begins to tell the story of her life from her late teens to her early 20s – clearly a formative period for who she has become as a person and a musician – using spoken word, song, dance, live and recorded music and projected lights.
Initially Pulse seems like just a piece of personal biography. Campbell begins with her studying classical music at the Guildhall in London and struggling to fit in. Instructions are barked at her – ‘soften your jaw’, ‘stop tapping your feet’ – and something doesn’t resonate with her. Here the meaning of the word pulse becomes clear: it is both the pulse of your own life and the pulse of the music, finding your own rhythm or a type of music. This is echoed in the pendulum, which is could symbolise a metronome, the passing of time or a heartbeat, but in its rusticity suggests something primitive and ancient.
Returning frustrated and a bit broken to Scotland, Campbell spends some time on Lismore recovering and begins to discover folk music. Here she learns to play her first tune by ear, ‘The Boy’s Lament for his Dragon’, and her difficulty as a conservatoire-trained musician in picking this up highlights the difference between the two traditions. The biographical storytelling gradually becomes something bigger, more of a spiritual journey into music, and folklorist Margaret Bennett appears as a kind of guru figure – which if you’ve ever met Bennett, you can imagine – advising Campbell to go to Cape Breton to find herself.
While in one sense it is very specifically the story of Mairi Campbell’s own journey, in another it is universal. There are self-deprecatingly funny parts about her own immaturity that we can all recognise, her utter certainty, after ignoring Bennett’s advice to go to Canada and instead heading for Mexico, that Mexican Cesar is THE ONE and they will live happily ever after, then, having gone to Cape Breton after all, her total obsession with step dancing that in her enthusiasm she rams down the throats of everyone around her until told to stop in no uncertain terms by her sister.
Along with the amusing impressions, there is strong emotion, rage, frustration, confusion, joy, passion, and hints at times of crisis and possibly a breakdown. This variety along with a good pace and rhythm holds your attention. Her snippets of poetry, impressions and storytelling are accompanied by a soundtrack of original music and songs by Campbell and David Gray, live viola, voice and the percussive beat of step dancing. Rather like in musicals when the emotion gets too much and the cast break into song, when the emotion is strong Campbell expresses the feeling through the viola or song, sometimes with words, often with nonsense vocables.
For a piece of storytelling it’s unusually visual. Pulse is well choreographed with Campbell using her whole body, as well as the whole stage. Her movements are clearly carefully thought out. The bow often becomes an extension of herself, channelling her emotion, but also jokily used as a telephone. Projected lights on the backdrop are timed to complement and fit the music.
Campbell wears a baggy dark dress, which initially seems like an odd choice, but as the show progresses it is clear why this piece of clothing is a conscious decision not just something she happened to throw on. It serves as both a blank canvas for who she is at various periods of her life, it lets her at one point to blend into the dark background with only her face and hands highlighted by the stage lights and in its similarity to a cassock also gives a hint of some kind of religious role – she is a priestess taking the audience on a spiritual journey. This attention to the full visual experience makes this more than a spoken word performance and into a fully developed one-woman piece of theatre.
Pulse is much more than a piece of storytelling. You leave feeling as though you have been through a session of music therapy, but also with a sense of mystery, that there is something more left unsaid.