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REVIEW: Team lovingly honours exiles' journey in centenary concert

By Margaret Chrystall

REVIEW: In The Wake Of Metagama: An Atlantic Odyssey In Story And Song

Eden Court


5 stars

'In The Wake Of Metagama reached back through time expressing the experience of exile from Lewis and the Islands across the Atlantic in a night of exquisite music and joyful storytelling at Eden Court. With Liza Mulholland, Donald S Murray and team it could evolve further to fulfill its true potential.'

The programme for the concert.
The programme for the concert.

That was the tweet I sent out about the show I had seen at Eden Court on Saturday.

It had taken me a while to try to say everything!

It is such a big story, the experiences of over 1000 people travelling on the liner across the Atlantic and many different outcomes – those who stayed, those who moved on to America, those who came home and those who died. Also those who were left behind on the islands worrying about them – and now the generations who have come after.

SS Metagama.
SS Metagama.

In The Wake Of Metagama An Atlantic Odyssey In Story And Song offers the facts of the story and why the circumstances in the world surrounding the voyage had encouraged young people to go looking for a new life at that time.

The loss of life after the First World War and the deaths caused by the Iolaire disaster had hit the islands, add the poverty and the breaking of the Government promise to those who fought in the war for land – and a country fit for heroes. Canada needed labour, largely on the land, and welcomed the influx of young islanders.

Liza Mulholland
Liza Mulholland

And the emotional side for the emigrants, going through the process of leaving their home to seek a new life – the conflicting feelings of the pain of homesickness and the excitement of following their dreams – was lovingly and meticulously presented in the music and stories of the concert.

It began with the recorded voice from 1972 of Murdo MacFarlane, the bard an authentic witness – and a welcome addition to the mix of ways the story was told in the show – music, prose, poetry, visually.

Then we shared the thoughts of fictional characters in presumably writer Donald S Murray's upcoming novel about the Metagama experience.

Dolina Maclennan and Donald read their words: Davie contemplates the new constellations he will see in the new country as he stares at the familiar stars of home; Christina, a young woman, looked at escaping the strict society governed by the church: "...to slip the confines of Sunday and the pointless rules ... binding her existence, of knotted headscarf that hid the darkness of her mood and hair".

Donald S Murray. Picture: Callum Mackay
Donald S Murray. Picture: Callum Mackay

Then at the start of the second half, Dolina Maclennan donned a headscarf herself to take on the role of Christina's mother who read out her daughter's letter full of details, the humour and the sadness of her new life in Canada.

The dramatic turn brought a welcome contrast to the music – and unleashed the imagination.

Could these characters – and others we were told about as the show progressed – lead to a follow-on production to the centenary concert, adding a literally dramatic dimension to the music and storytelling to create a stage musical?

For example, would the subject matter not make it a great fit for Eden Court as a second self-created production to follow their successful Highland-set musical The Stamping Ground, which returns to the theatre this week? For that, they collaborated with company RAW Material.

Possibly this time, it could be a co-creation with a company like Theatre gu Leor who have just brought us "Gaelic western" Stornoway Quebec a couple of weeks ago.

The work and the imagination and talents at the core of In The Wake Of Metagama suddenly made such a development seem incredibly feasible.

Maybe the team already have it in mind themselves – I hope so! The audience for such a show – as the centenary concert does – would include Scotland.

But surely too, both shows would be welcomed in so many locations in Canada and America which received the Metagama and her two sister ships' passengers!

A standing ovation for the Metagama team after the concert.
A standing ovation for the Metagama team after the concert.

After a first half making the most of the talents of the musicians and the arresting Gaelic vocals of Calum Alex Macmillan, the second half brought more focus to the contemporary songwriting talents and voice of Willie Campbell with Liza Mulholland too singing songs movingly expressing the longing for home. Liza and Willie's voices complemented each other beautifully in a song about homesickness for the Hebrides, where the Labrador region 'would bring that back to mind' – the landscape there echoing home.

Another song emphasised how language and identity are inevitably linked –"Sometimes I stumble when I speak" and "Then I'm back on the croft, not this factory floor .... Metagama take me back where I belong".

There was then the chance for the audience to join in with a traditional song in Gaelic, to be followed by an inspired passage of music from Christine and Charlie ending on faint harmonics, a black and white picture of a tumbledown corrugated iron house adding to the atmosphere. This was swiftly followed by Willie movingly singing in the words of a father who was setting sail for distant shores with his child.

And maybe it is worth saying that for future performances, it would be lovely if information about the music and its writers might be provided in some way, as I was left with tantalising questions by the concert. This is a show that speaks to the Gaelic community and is written by and for Gaels and that is absolutely right. But to reach out to those who don't have the language would bring so much more to the experience of the show with information about the songs.

From Liza came a sensitively sung 'homesick for home' song with its "call of the curlew" refrain and soaring strings from Christine Hanson on cello and Charlie McKerron on fiddle.

And a brilliant contrast to the story's inevitably downbeat feelings of loss and dislocation came with the speakeasy song where Bev Fraser, Liza's colleague in Dorec-a-belle, came on to add atmospheric saxophone, to transport us to a place where the words end "... now I'm really alive!".

Near the finish, Donald mentioned he had seen people in the audience from Ullapool, Lochcarron, the Isle of Skye, and named many more places. And, from the enthusiastic reactions to his various references across the island, Point and Tolsta included, it was probably safe to assume most of Lewis was there too!

This team know how to do an ending, a standing ovation was a given as the show left you with Donald's words adding a shiver as they conjured up the remaining presence of the Metagama and her sister boats. And the final music represented the poignancy and emotional pull of this show – and the humour too – as Willie and Calum Alex shared the vocals of traditional song The Parting Glass, both voices pure and heartfelt to guarantee goosebumps.

But the notes had barely faded away when Willie grinned and addressed the audience.

"Folks, shut your eyes and pretend you are in the Clachan Bar in Stornoway!"

The musicians started up an irresistible version of American classic Take Me Home, Country Roads – and everyone joined in with the gusto you might imagine Metagama's young exiles brought to their dancing and singing at Gaelic society ceilidhs in cities across the Atlantic 100 years ago ...

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