Edinburgh Fringe 2012
A first play from young playwright Elspeth Turner set in the Hebrides just after the First World War.
The Idiot at the Wall is set on an island in the Western Isles shortly after the First World War. Aristocratic Englishman Henry Rathbone comes to the island in search of folk tales, bringing with him Sorcha Mackenzie as his Gaelic translator.
Sorcha is originally from the island, but has been living in England for several years, and tensions abound as she returns to her family home to stay with her brother John, who has recently returned from fighting in the trenches, sister Odhran and brother Uistean, a simpleton and the eponymous idiot of the title.
Uistean has the gift of second sight, where he is privy to ominous visions of the future, and the family are constantly overshadowed by what he has seen. As Odhran begins to fall for Rathbone, a tension rises between her and her sister, the more so because a prophecy already hangs over the two sisters.
The play is based around the international ballad known as The Two Sisters or The Cruel Sister, as well as a legend about Maiden Island in the Firth of Lorn. It is the first play written by Elspeth Turner, who takes the lead role of Odhran herself, and also the first play performed by the newly-formed FirstBicycle Theatre Company.
The Idiot at the Wall weaves Gaelic song into the narrative, much of this sung beautifully from Turner. The songs are well chosen – working songs for action, songs of love and loss at moments of emotion – and the use of song to evoke a time and place is very effective and somewhat reminiscent of John McGrath’s The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil.
Turner gives a strong performance as Odhran Mackenzie and is ably supported by Tim Barrow as Henry Rathbone, creating a love affair that is believable and moving.
The rest of the cast is not as strong as the two leads though. Lucy Goldie picks ups the brittle selfishness of Sorcha very well, but the ambivalence that could have been developed regarding her feelings for her childhood home and family are lost, as she comes across as pure English aristocracy, more likely to have grown up in Downton Abbey than a Hebridean island. Angela Milton, on the other hand, plays Effie Nicholson as a parody of an islander, like a character from Whisky Galore.
Some stronger direction is needed. Uistean’s weak mindedness is primarily conveyed by mumbling his words, which is a problem in that it is important to understand what he is saying at various points in the play and the garbling is completely unnecessary at the end when he is acting as a narrator. At moments of great excitement the whole cast yell and scream over each other, drowning out the actual dialogue.
It is also difficult to tell what age the characters are meant to be. It seems from the dialogue that Effie Nicholson is meant to be an older woman, but there is nothing about her acting or appearance that suggests this. John must be older than his sisters to have made a decision about their future while they were young, yet appears to be about the same age as them.
Only Turner herself manages a consistent Gaelic accent throughout the play and it is clear from the varying pronunciations that the others who are playing islanders can’t actually speak Gaelic. A cast of Gaelic-speaking actors would have been better for a play that relies so heavily on the language. In terms of linguistic errors the name Uistean is spelt wrong (it should be Uisdean) and Odhran is an Irish man’s name. They’re minor points, but suggest a lack of attention to detail.
There are also inconsistencies within the play. It seems to be implied that the Mackenzies are crofters – John mentions that he had been promised land on return from the war and has an issue with Rathbone being rich gentry – yet his outfit is not that of a crofter, nor does his build suggest someone who has endured hardship either in the trenches or making a living from the land.
If they are poor crofters how did they have the money to send Sorcha away for a high class education in London and why do the entire family, including the mentally weak Uistean, speak English so fluently.
John is supposed to have brought home books of French poetry for Sorcha, but where did he get hold of them in the trenches and why bring them back for Sorcha, when she had left years earlier?
The play is also let down by a poorly designed set. The pieces that are meant to represent a dresser and a range look like they were painted by a child and it is distracting. It would have been better to have left it to the imagination with black boxes or use projected images than use something that looks so homemade.
The cast themselves move the set around between scenes singing working songs as they do so, and it is not clear whether this is actually part of the play and they are still in character working or whether the cast are simply doubling as stage crew and singing to cover the lull. Either way it could do with some clarity.
There is an overall sense of a lack of attention to detail and historical accuracy and of a lack of development in the characters or the plot to their full potential. The latter may be due in part to compressing what feels like it should be a longer play into a Fringe-length performance.
Nevertheless, there is much to like about The Idiot at the Wall and it is a promising start for a new writer and a young theatre company. If some of the weaknesses are worked on The Idiot has the potential to be an excellent play. It’s early days, but Elspeth Turner is one to watch in future.