The View from Castle Rock
The stark simplicity of the wooden pews in St.Mark’s Unitarian Church created the perfect atmosphere for the story of Alice Munro’s Scottish ancestors leaving for a better life in Canada. Smoke curled around the solid wooden props like shrouds of distant memories, and the call of disembodied voices began to take us back in time. To the eighteenth century, to be exact, to tell the story of plucky migrants, the Laidlaw family from Ettrick Valley in the Scottish borders. The exuberant band of five actors from local Stella Quines Theatre Company began to emerge from all corners of the church, clutching Nobel-prize winning Canadian author, Alice Munro’s ‘The View from Castle Rock’, ready to bring two of the stories to life in front our eyes. They tossed the books aside as they launched into embodying the tale, taking it in turns to piece together their dramatic journey across the ocean in search of a better life.
As in many old churches, the acoustics heightened the beautiful sound of the choir, the Castle Chorus. All of the members were talented actors and singers, and each came to the fore in their own unique way. Lewis Howden was the most memorable as old James, the grouchy, heavy-set patriarch of the family, intent on making this journey and dragging along everyone with him. Bearded and red-faced, his rants were almost comical, with his heavy accent and his obdurate, domineering ways. The audience laughed, most of being them Edinburgh folks, when he takes his son up to Edinburgh Castle to see the enticing view of ‘America’, when of course, it’s only Fife!
Agnes, played by Sally Reid, took the limelight next, with her ‘pregnancy apron’ quickly transforming her into the expectant sea voyager and feisty wife of Andrew. She came into her own in this scene, heavily pregnant and frustrated, and full of speeches about men with ‘such a great notion of themselves’. Alice Munro is well known for bringing a women’s perspective into her stories, and this is highlighted by the fact that the members of the Stella Quines company and their associates are almost all female, except for the male actors themselves. From the award-winning playwright, Linda McLean, who has adapted the material for the stage, to the designers, the producers and the directors. We see the inner turmoil of Agnes, and feel her pain as she gives birth on ship, attended by a weirdly convincing pair of ‘Edinburgh ladies’, complete with an upper-middle class Morningside accent delivered by bearded Lewis Howden himself . A hush descended as we witnessed an unexpected intimate moment snatched between Agnes and the doctor attending the birth, as he stands behind her and lovingly strokes her hair.
The energetic physical antics of the members kept us enthralled and entertained. They used the space of the church really well, and surprised us by popping up in unexpected areas to shout, sing or create a network of dialogue or chorus between them all. They wove an invisible net of words around us all, giving us a very visceral sense of being wrapped up in the story along with the characters. They had limited props, but used them in conjunction with the sound effects to create magic. One ancestor was a famed runner, and there was a hilarious scene when his trousers fell off to the sounds of sheep bleating. When Young James disappears on board ship to Mary’s utter despair, we all share in the search for him, as they frantically run shrieking into the audience.
Alice Munro’s beautiful descriptions of Newfoundland enchant us as they reach their long-awaited destination, sharing their excitement on ‘the day of wonders’ at reaching ‘Nova Scotia’, indeed their and many others’ ‘new Scotland’. We’re disappointed but understanding of Old James now terribly homesick and feeling out of place. They display the typical adjustment to a new land, with its concomitant culture shock and generational conflict; Old James disgruntled and threatened by his grandson Young James, with his unfamiliar accent and mannerisms. The new environment affects them all in different ways; especially Agnes, now disappointed she has held herself back with marrying unromantic, uninspiring Andrew, when there are so many handsome officers anxiously seeking a wife. Mary, particularly, transforms from a wilting, skittish young girl with bizarre facial expressions, to a lively if quirky young woman. I grew to love her character, with her fierce loyalty and affection towards her nephew, James, and her extreme facial contortions that perfectly expressed her disposition.
When a baby dies on board, the solemn procession holding the tiny corpse underscores the precariousness of these long journeys, and how many tragedies must have happened, and indeed, still happen. So many talks and performances I’ve seen this year have been linked to the present refugee crisis in some way, attempting to bring some historical perspective and evoke a sense of empathy in the audience by likening it to the similar trials of their own ancestors. Scotland’s diaspora numbers more than 50 million people who claim Scottish ancestry. This unusual collaboration between the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Stella Quines Theatre Company created an impactful personal tale of migration that we can all relate to; wherever we’re from and wherever we’re might be going.
Reviewer : Lisa Williams