Until 8th September 2021
Available to stream from Dundee Rep Theatre
Light spills from a door at the back of the stage inviting us into the theatrical space. The camera pans across a ghost light, an empty auditorium. From backstage, through the door, Bethany Tennick wheels a box onstage and begins setting up her microphone. Her co-star Kirsty Findlay joins her. There are mic tests, snatches of chatter from the cast and crew. A close-up on the script: Islander, a new play from Stewart Melton, with music and lyrics by Finn Anderson. Directed and reimagined for film, the credits tell us, by Amy Draper.
And then the show starts.
I did not have the fortune to catch Islander when it premiered in 2019. I am sorry to have missed it, though it is hard to imagine a version other than the Rep’s filmed reimagining. Jump cuts allow the cast of two, Tennick and Findlay, to fill the auditorium as the chorus. Some of the sequences filmed outdoors felt almost superfluous. The small world created within the auditorium feels so alive that the outside sequences break the spell, and do more to remind the audience of the artifice of the story. Then again, perhaps this is deliberate. Indeed, occasional shots of the script or close-ups of the actors’ recording equipment would suggest so. Despite being a new musical, Islander has the feel of a timeless myth. The filmed segments provide an opportunity to highlight its status as a new Scottish folktale, all lovingly fabricated.
What does tie in with and elevate the story is the music. The songs of Islander are predominantly acapella with Tennick and Findlay looping their voices to make an ephemeral choir of two. The music ranges from catchy to haunting, but it is always stirring, heightening the energy of an already enrapturing story.
The story of Islander follows Eilidh (Tennick), a restless young girl who longs to see the world beyond her small island community – a community facing the difficult choice of whether to leave their home, or stay and face financial ruin and a dwindling population. Against this backdrop of tradition versus modernity, profit versus nature and the island versus the mainland, Eilidh meets Aran (Findlay), a girl washed up on the shore who may belong to the islanders’ mythic cousins, the Finfolk. Music effortlessly brings out the heart of the play, from the wonder and sorrow Eilidh feels upon finding a beached whale to the playful bass of the score when she finally makes a friend her own age.
The unique circumstances of this particular production provide an opportunity to emphasise the emotional beats of the story. The empty auditorium makes clear Eilidh’s sense of isolation; the recurring faces of Tennick and Findlay as chorus suggest the almost claustrophobic familiarity of the insular group that has surrounded Eilidh all her life.
And then there are Tennick and Findlay themselves. Together, the two of them carry the weight of the story as effortlessly as if it were air. Seamlessly they move between their roles as the two young deuteragonists to all the other islanders. This host of characters calls for performances ranging from stoic to playful, wilful to world-weary, matching the writing’s careful balance of humour and pathos. Tennick and Findlay pull it all off with enviable flair.
As it reckons with rural Scotland’s past and future, Islander puts forward a tentative but hopeful message. A moral on the power of opening and maintaining dialogues – not only externally, but internally, with our own land and heritage, as well as with newcomers to that land; a moral befitting a folktale, though it is never delivered patronisingly. With captivating songs and an irresistibly charming cast, Islander cements itself as a new cornerstone in Scottish folklore, representing the very same harmonious marriage of past and present that the story proposes as Scotland’s aspirational future. And this filmed production takes the opportunity to heighten the emotional weight of the tale, with the camera as narrator.