Brae Hall, Shetland, 21 March 2013
IT’S SAFE TO say the parents of Stuart Henderson, who died in a road accident in 2007, can have had no idea what they would set in motion when they suggested to director John Haswell that their son’s youth theatre should create a play in his memory.
FIVE years later, and with Shetland Arts and the National Theatre of Scotland on board, Ignition is the culmination of an islands-wide arts project on an unprecedented scale. Besides the innovative performances taking place in Brae, Bigton and Yell, there has been an extensive six-month programme of activity throughout the community.
Children have written songs with Hugh Nankivell, teenagers have sharpened up their parkour skills with Chris Grant, care-home residents have reminisced with choreographer Janice Parker, knitters have created giant woollen artworks with writer Jacqui Clark and designer Becky Minto, and drivers have shared stories with Lowri Evans as she hitchhiked across the islands dressed as the ghostly White Wife of local folklore.
It is from this vast store of material that director Wils Wilson has drawn to piece together the final production. Despite the project’s tragic inspiration, this is no didactic show about road safety. Instead, it is an impressionistic consideration of the motor car’s place in island life. Although some older residents have never learnt to drive and many younger ones think nothing of walking three miles home from the ferry terminal, it is impossible to imagine today’s Shetland economy without motorised transport. Not only is off-shore oil a major industry, but in a sparsely populated region, almost nothing happens without a car.
Ignition is a celebration not of cars in themselves but the things they make possible. Appropriately, most of the show takes place inside moving and stationary vehicles. Everyone’s journey is slightly different, but it will include a choreographed display of free-running and ballroom dancing set to a soundtrack of travel-related interviews played over your car radio. You will give a lift to a hitchhiker who will tell you their story (mine had come from the mainland in search of the home of his forebears) and you will get into someone else’s car for more tales of vehicles loved and lost.
The unusual format, involving long drives and precision parking, inevitably means it’s not as technically slick as a regular NTS show, but all the strands come movingly together when we return to the village hall. It’s laid out as if for a Sunday tea and, as we tuck into coffee and cakes, we join in with the choir singing songs written by children and other local people about the landscape they know and love. “All the journeys we’ve made . . . All the places we’ll go to,” goes one refrain as Lowri Evans reads out the dream destinations we have written down earlier in the evening. The effect is a big-hearted celebration of life as it is lived, a community looking at itself and liking what it sees.
© Francis McLachlan, 2013