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Issue 79 - Rough Magic

Scotland Magazine Issue 79
February 2015


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Rough Magic

Susan Nickalls meets up with the Highland Shakespeare Company

f William Shakespeare were alive today it’s likely he would thoroughly approve of the Highland Shakespeare Company’s approach to his plays. Eschewing the conventional four walls of the theatre in favour of the great outdoors – which demands chutzpah in spades given Scotland’s reputation for ‘weather’ – the company’s performances are tantalisingly elemental
and enchanting.

Since it began, the Highland Shakespeare Company (HSC) has used some of Scotland’s most beautiful and dramatic scenery as a backdrop to their productions: touring The Tempest to Belladrum Estate near Inverness and Fingask Castle in Perthshire and seasonally transforming A Midsummer Night’s Dream into A Midwinter’s Dream at Cambo in St Andrews and Fingask, complete with snowdrops and snowstorms.

For the most recent incarnation, The Dream performed on Incholm Island in the Firth of Forth at the end of the 2014 Edinburgh Festival, the company steeped the play in the fairytale world of Thomas the Rhymer.

It is fitting that director/actor Sunny Moodie formally set up the HSC this year, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, as he believes there are more connections to Shakespeare in Scotland, than many might think. Shakespeare is said to have travelled north to Perth, the Highlands and Aberdeen as part of a company of players, around 1599 – 1601. It makes sense. How else did he know about Saint Colme’s Inch (Incholm), which he refers to at the beginning of Macbeth when the King of Norway has to pay a ransom to bury his warriors on the island.

It’s also not impossible that Shakespeare might have read Walter Bower’s legendary Scotichronicon, written while the Scottish cleric worked on Incholm in the early 15th Century. But the connections go beyond history because the Highlands are still a place of ‘rough magic,’ to quote from The Tempest, and as I look out of my window, Puck’s lines about a ‘spangled starlight sheen’ make so much
more sense.

Quotes from the bard trip off Moodie’s tongue with the ease of an actor twice his youthful 26 years. But then he, and his sister Siannie – musical director/composer and costume designer for the company – grew up in a theatrical household. Lizzie McDougall, the siblings’ mother who worked as a lighting director in London with Lindsay Kemp and David Bowie in the 1970s, is the HSC’s producer and stage manager. The three members of the family, along with dancer/choreographer Natalie Ulman, form the core of the company.

Moodie recalls catching the acting bug at a young age after seeing numerous theatre productions and joined the Mermaid Theatre in St Andrews while he was studying International Relations at university. His dissertation title couldn’t have been more apt given the world stage upon which nations strut: ‘The Edinburgh International Festival’s aesthetic and the flowering of the human spirit that formed the foundation of the festival in 1947.’

No one encapsulates this ethos more than the remarkable Professor Richard Demarco, whose name is synonymous with the Edinburgh International Festival and Edinburgh Fringe. Demarco is also president of the HSC, which is significant for a number of reasons.

Lizzie’s father, Victor McDougall, while he was alive, was a great supporter of Demarco’s various enterprises and Moodie has very much picked up the mantle of the impresario’s outdoor promenade performances which he pioneered in the last century. People still talk about Demarco’s productions of Macbeth on Incholm in the 1980s, and the Belarus version at Ravenscraig Castle in the 1990s.

Demarco realised that there was something special about Sonny when the actor appeared in one of his most recent productions of Macbeth. “The following year we did The Tempest at Hopetoun House and Sonny was a tailor-made Prospero,” he says. “At the end of that extraordinary performance on the beach and in the woodlands around Hopetoun, I said: ‘This mustn’t end here.’”

And it didn’t. For Demarco, the HSC’s most recent ‘one night only’ Macbeth on Incholm
is what the Edinburgh Festival Fringe should be, but rarely is, all about. “Instead of crowding into a grubby blackened space in the centre of town, the audience were transported by boat to the glory of the River Forth and the world of these incredible coastlines and islands.”

“This was risk-taking at the highest level, the company only got on to the island to rehearse a few hours before the audience arrived. It was a total loving commitment to the genius of Shakespeare and the most beautiful manifestation of theatre and music; that incredible mixture of the clarsach, the pipes, and the sound of the carynx. Everyone attending such a version of theatre is never going to forget something that binds together the audience and cast in such a way.”

Moodie believes that many people compare this intimate experience to that of being on a film set. “Sometimes the audience feel that they are sprites, sometimes the court, sometimes the players, or just themselves watching and following as a tangible presence. Each step they take takes them further into
the play.”

The Dream was very much a journey in which the surroundings added context and dramatic texture to the play. Among the many unforgettable moments were a seal popping its head out of the water to listen to Siannie’s ethereal melodies on the clarsach, the sun setting on the pairs of star-crossed lovers lost in the forest and the hair-bristling sound of the carynx played by John Kenny in the upstairs refectory of the ruined abbey prior to Puck softly crooning Titania to sleep. Indeed, music plays an important part in the HSC’s productions, with Siannie’s melodious compositions and arrangements very much in keeping with the period and style of Shakespeare’s plays.

For Sunny Moodie the landscape is a far more real canvas to work with than
the restrictions of traditional theatres and he is already looking to potential productions next year, not just in Scotland, but further afield. “The possibilities are endless. We’re considering Twelfth Night at Ballone Castle; Romeo and Juliet at Loch Ness and Incholm Island, and Julius Caesar at Hopetoun House.

And why not Hamlet in Denmark; Romeo and Juliet in Verona, and The Tempest in Malta? As Shakespeare himself said, ‘the whole world is
a stage.’