For the last month, Kieran Hurley and company have been touring a new play all over Scotland. This play is called Rantin. It is produced in conjunction with The Arches and the National Theare of Scotland. It is a ceilidh-play with an aim – namely, to explore and represent ‘Scottishness’ in its many forms. The self-inflicted remit of creating a fragmented portrait of a nation may seem a hefty undertaking – Hurley has even called it ‘impossible’ – nonetheless, this company have managed to produce a sensitive and engaging play that does justice to its charge. Part gig, part play, Rantin is a bittersweet tribute to the plurality of identities in Scotland. Bearing in mind this notion of plurality, I attended two performances near the end of Rantin’s run, one in Oban and one in Paisley, to see if I could spot the difference.
As I approached the Corran Halls in Oban, I was struck by an impression of incompleteness. The building showed signs of on-going repair; boards and scaffolding. Having arrived half an hour early, I was of course disappointed to discover that the bar was not in use. A weary audience began to assemble out of the cold, an audience that was mostly comprised of an older generation. People greeted each other with that universal familiarity that is ostensibly so typical of small coastal towns. I heard one lady tell another about the problems she was having with her storm-damaged house. A few folk were discussing the programme. A member of the front of house team was spreading the news that one of the actors was ill, but that the night’s performance would go on ahead without him.
Soon we entered the space. The 650-seater room had been altered so as to accommodate a more intimate atmosphere, its bare town-hall-ness augmented to resemble a living room. Kieran Hurley, Gav Prentice and Julia Taudevin, were all stood in the centre, singing merry songs and greeting the audience as we trickled in. As we found our seats among the small bank of chairs, the surrounding expanse of negative space was conspicuous; it certainly did not feel like a living room. The actors explained in their casual manner, “this isn’t the show by the way…we’re just singing a few songs while everyone gets settled.” We were asked if anyone knows the words to a particular song, and invited to sing along if we felt like it. Gav Prentice led and accompanied the tunes masterfully, switching between an acoustic and electric guitar. Anyone who has ever been to a gig will appreciate that some audiences are more vocal than others, and it soon became clear that the Oban audience was of the more reserved variety, timid and a little reluctant to join in. But this was not to the detriment of the play’s success – some of the most moving moments of this performance were when a coy voice or two would float from the back, tentatively humming in unison with the song. The ensemble’s ability to coax the Obanites from their shells, despite the difficulty of the venue, was evidence that they were doing something right.
As the play proper began, the three actors accounted for their ill friend’s absence and explained that they would continue on regardless. The decisively informal mood was in fact sharpened by Drew Wright’s absence, as members of the cast occasionally had to refer to the script-book for his lines. This felt like essential story telling, like being read-to. Over the course of 90 minutes the company took us on a tour of Scotland, requesting that we imagine that the stories they tell are happening in this country, “outside this theatre, as we speak.” This introductory request immediately set the standard for the rest of the performance, as it slowly became clear that this play was trying to give a voice to people on the outside. The characters drawn were all, in some way, on the fringe: whether it be the American man entering Scotland for the first time to rediscover his apocryphal roots; the wayward hermit drunkenly spewing garbled but poetic social critique; the Palestinian asylum-seeker who cannot understand the troubled faces of the native commuters on her Clydebank bus; the prospective student from Stornoway pondering the gentrification of his island community; or the disaffected young supermarket checkout worker entertaining some luddite ideas. These figures all inhabit the peripheries, physical and economic, of our Scottish society. These are outsiders who are either troubled by or actively seeking change.
One such outsider was Emma, a market-researcher who travels from town to town gathering “vital consumer data”. Emma represents the ensemble’s attachment to each specific town, as her monologues are altered slightly for each new audience. In this performance, Emma explains the isolation that comes with constantly being on the road. She has arrived in Oban, and peppers her speech with a few choice references to the town. She mentions the new Wetherspoons that has opened, and marvels at how the locals all seem to think it’s some great novelty. This gets a laugh.
The play closes up in calculated symmetry, taking us through the characters again in reverse order, leading us back to where we had begun. Our first and final character, Howard the American, takes his Scots language phrasebook and muses on the variants of the word ‘rant’. As it turns out, ‘rant’ means both an expression of anger and a song of joy. The show closes on a song that is, as Kieran explains, an expression of anger and a song of joy, all at once. The Obanites sing the chorus in unison, they seem more self-assured at this last refrain, more comfortable. Once the play finished and the audience was dispersing, I hear someone say, “Aye, you could really see 7:84 coming through.”
The structural idea of the show is that these are stories that happen outside, now, across Scotland as we speak.”
In Paisley the situation was quite different. The play was put on in Paisley Museum, a grand looking building in the heart of the small but metropolitan town. Like the Corran Halls, this venue had no bar. The foyer was the museum gift shop, where a more demographically diverse audience buzzed with anticipation around plastic dinosaurs and gemstones. Unlike the Obanites, this crowd seemed like seasoned theatregoers. But there was, in the gift shop, the same degree of collective familiarity that I had found in Scotland’s ‘seafood capital’ only a few days earlier. People seemed to know each other. Whether this was a symptom of a close-knit Paisley kinship or the fact that this was the final night of the Rantin tour, and consequently peopled by friends of the company, it was difficult to tell.
Even before I entered the space (a more appropriately sized room this time) I could tell that something was different. From just outside, the music sounded fuller and more colourful. Upon entering I saw that the band was complete. The effect that four actors instead of three had upon the performance was unquantifiable. Drew’s use of effects pedals, the fact that there were now two guitarists instead of one, renovated what had been a folk accompaniment in the Oban performance into a rich and dynamic soundscape in Paisley. The audience were vocal, participating in dialogue as well as in song, a key highlight taking place during an invective of anti-Trump sentiment when an impulsive cry of solidarity was heard from a woman a few rows back. The subsequent song was popular, and the crowd ardently chanted the refrain “Donald you’re a loser!”
There was no script-book involved this time, but this did not impair the sense of storytelling. Even when assuming the dramatic persona of a particular character – the tartan hat for Howard the American or the headscarf for Miriam the Palestinian – the actors often spoke in the third person, or even took turns speaking on that particular character’s behalf. Weaving narratives in the omniscient way common to the best folk tales, the actors distanced themselves from their characters without diminishing their predicaments. By these means, the company kept these characters outside the theatre but not outside the audience’s sympathy.
Julia Taudevin steps forward as Emma, in her Paisley incarnation. She explains the isolation that comes with constantly being on the road. She has arrived in Paisley, and peppers her speech with a few choice references to the town. She speaks of the big statue outside the Paisley university campus, apparently of a man called John Witherspoon. She wonders, aloud, if he’s related to the guy that owns all the pubs. This gets a laugh.
Rantin again wound cyclically towards its bittersweet peroration. Kieran introduced the last song of joy and anger, and the Paisley audience sang along with their usual enthusiasm, sealing the evening with a healthy applause. There was even a standing ovation from a few zealous members of the crowd. As we passed out of the space and into the foyer/gift-shop there was a merchandise stall, with scripts and CDs for sale. I then felt more like I was leaving a gig, not a play.
The band has now finished its tour. In each of the 21 towns that the company have visited, they have in turn taken the locals on a virtual tour of Scotland. They have shown the marginalised, the side-lined, the people you might not ordinarily expect to represent “Scottishness”. This drawing of outsiders is matched, on the other hand, by the ensemble’s ability to keep the audience wrapped in an atmosphere of community. If there was a difference in demographic or sensibility between the Oban and Paisley audiences, it certainly did not affect this feeling of collective identification. The two venues I visited, the dilapidated town hall and the grand museum, epitomised the adaptability of Scottish theatre, which often operates with limited resources and under makeshift conditions. It was an unorthodox theatrical experience, but it felt like the sort of thing a national theatre should be doing.
Dominic Di Rollo
Photographs by Eoin Carey