Inverness theatre company takes play on tour which includes city this weekend
THERE was a lot of excitement when it was announced Kevin NacNeil’s book The Stornoway Way was being made into a play by theatre mavericks Dogstar Theatre.
The story has been described as “an alcohol-fuelled rollercoaster ride to the heights and depths of human emotion”.
Inverness-based Dogstar has presented plays on everything from the scandalous story behind Scotland’s long-running infected blood tragedy in Factor 9 to the Syrian refugee experience in The Sky Is Safe and the horrors climate change will bring in Let’s Inherit The Earth. Artistic director Matthew Zajac's play and book – later also a documentary film – about his father's war and post Second World War story has played all over the world with Matthew winning an award for his own performance in the one-man play.
Already this year The Stornoway Way has been presented in its heartland – Lewis, where it played to sell-out crowds.
Now, as it heads for Eden Court this weekend, the play’s director Matthew Zajac – also the artistic director of Dogstar – talked about some of the challenges of getting the production from book to stage.
In the romantic tragicomedy Roman Stornoway (Naomi Stirrat), a struggling musician, and his best friend Eilidh (Rachel Kennedy) use alcohol to delay dreams of escape from their Hebridean island – “we do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond …” Making it to the city, Roman is smitten by mysterious Hungarian student Eva (Chloe-Ann Tylor), and things go terribly wrong.
The play is written in English and Gaelic, with a cast of three young female actors Rachel Kennedy, Naomi Stirrat and Chloe-Ann Tylor.
Matthew said: “I’ve known the writer Kevin MacNeil for some time – he wrote our 2007 production Sweetness – and a vague plan to turn The Stornoway Way into a play for Dogstar has been around since not long after it was published. I knew he had already done some work on the novel as a piece of drama – he worked on a screenplay for a proposed feature film.”
Kevin went on to adapt his book into the play himself.
Matthew said: “The thing about the novel is that I thought ‘There is so much brilliant language that evokes the world of his character Roman Stornoway so vividly’. I considered the first 80 per cent of the novel brilliant, but I didn’t like the ending. My main criticism of the book was that the female characters in it were severely underdeveloped. Partly that’s because the novel is written very much from Roman’s point of view. So when I got down to talking seriously about it with Kevin, he said he wanted to write something that would be an improvement on the novel in some ways.”
Roman is played by a female in the play – and Matthew explained: “On one level there is the simple response I have which is ‘Why not?’ because for centuries we have had all-male casts with men playing women.
“When I was first casting the play I wanted a Gaelic-speaking man who was around 30 and was a good guitarist.”
Matthew did a lot of research to find the perfect actor for the role, but failed. A female cast did the first reading of the play last March which worked well, now repeated for the official staging this year.
The play opened in An Lanntair in Stornoway in August: “We had two very supportive full houses who responded pretty ecstatically to it.There had been quite a lot of nerves about us taking a story that was in a sense theirs – to them. But people in the audience said things like ‘Superb production’, ‘Thank you for representing us’ and really touching things like that.”
One criticism about the world Kevin presents, is possibly a positive. His book showed the hold of alcohol in the lives of his young characters, reflecting his own youth on Lewis.
Matthew said: “I think one or two people felt the world of alcoholism among young people which is portrayed in the story is past, to some extent, in Stornoway. But alcoholism among young people is a Scotland-wide issue and remains one.”
Highland issues will be in the spotlight if Dogstar is successful with its next production: “We submitted an application for funding to do Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca,” Matthew said.
“And there is a relevant land ownership aspect to it.”
The play would be set in Sutherland – and presenting diverse and Highland voices has always featured in Dogstar's work.
It has not always been easy to get the funding they need to fulfill their ambitions. Despite presenting its work in New York and Sweden and staging co-productions with other countries' actors, writers and directors, the company has never had core funding.
Matthew said: "The fundamental problem we have in Scotland as a whole is that arts funding is low. Itis something like half what it is in Scandinavia, Germany, France, Belgium – and imagine the difference it would make here.
"We have been turned down for our last four applications and it is not getting any easier."
Creative Scotland has supported individual productions in the past but has not provided core funding.
Matthew said: "The essential reason for that is that they don’t have enough money to fund all the things they would like to fund."
The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil is almost a sell-out , just a couple of tickets remaining at Eden Court, Inverness, tonight (Friday), but is also on tomorrow (Saturday); Latheron Village Hall, Caithness, on Tuesday and Reay Village Hall on Wednesday. Details: www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/