Angela Milton, Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, Elspeth Turner, Folklore, Gregory Thomson, Hebrides, Lovers, Lucy Goldie, Premonition, Scott Cadenhead, Superstition, The Idiot at the Wall, Theatre Review, Tim Barrow
[The following contains spoilers.]
“Welcome to the Hebrides!” For a show to truly make a home for itself at such a grand old theatre as the Bedlam, it has to impose a little magnificence upon its audiences. Even something by Samuel Beckett would need a bit of razzmatazz to belong here. It accordingly seems natural to find Elspeth Turner’s debut play “The Idiot at the Wall” in the Bedlam, encompassing as it does comedy and drama, folklore and psychological realism, and some live music which would in itself justify the ticket price.
Turner is one of those unnervingly talented artists whom you only seem to encounter at the Fringe and never in real life. She will probably return to live in some fairytale castle once the rest of us are traipsing back to work. She has written this play, she performs a leading role, and she sings in it as well. Yet “The Idiot at the Wall” is far from being a solo show: each of the cast is equal to Turner, and the parts ultimately complement the whole.
Lord Henry Rathbone (Tim Barrow), some species of anthropologist, has descended upon a lonely Hebridean island with his assistant, Sorcha (Lucy Goldie), who is native to these parts and can serve as a translator. They plan to record the island’s folk tales and superstitions whilst they are still around.
The Lord looks distinguished but somewhat shifty, a bit too nervy and quick with his jolly comebacks. Set after 1918, “The Idiot at the Wall” is sensitive to the thinking of the period. Rathbone will meet an “idiot” who receives premonitions of disaster, but following WW1 a belief in such powers was hardly confined to the “superstitious” periphery. Spiritualism was all the rage in Rathbone’s London, and it would consume one of the day’s most famous proponents of science and rationality, Arthur Conan Doyle. Soon any differences between the islanders and Rathbone are purely formal. Rathbone’s creakiness unstiffens, and we can even begin to imagine him marrying his assistant’s sister, Odhran (Turner).
A subplot eclipses the plot. An island prophesy has warned that one of the sisters will be drowned at the other’s hand. The sisters were consequently separated by their eldest brother John (Scott Cadenhead): one was confined to the island and the other was exiled. Jenni Davidson, writing for Fringe Review, bravely challenges Turner’s knowledge of Gaelic culture. She does not buy the premise that a poor “crofting” family could afford to “send Sorcha away for a high class education in London.” She is also surprised by the proficiency of their English.
There is admittedly some mystery behind the family, but I did not find it to be disagreeable or unfathomable. Sorcha could have always paid her own way and decided for herself to enter university. I thought that I caught a reference to the father of the family being an educated man, possibly suggesting that they are pauperised independent farmers, but their financial circumstances are never specified. As with London’s spiritualists, there is not necessarily any correlation between wealth and superstition.
Odhran has the kindness and understanding of a mother at bedtime, but the children are missing. Her brother John stamps about, a bull of a man, as full of inconsequential quarrels as a little dog or an old woman. Sparks seem to fly off him. One gripe after another passes over his soul like clouds, but he contains a fund of grandmotherly wisdom. Thousands of actors would have rendered the idiot a caricature, but in Gregory Thomson’s hands he is acutely realistic. Sorcha looks like a jaded Mary Poppins, with a creamy smile and a voice devoid of Scots.
There is a succession of powerful scenes. This story will be eventually salted in folklore, but we see it fresh and in the flesh. The history and social class of its characters recede, and we are left with lovers grappling by the sea, refusing to allow anything worldly to compromise their love.