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Gaelic production hopes to break the language barrier

By Calum MacLeod

Iain MacRae (left) plays the dangerous title character in new play Shrapnel.
Iain MacRae (left) plays the dangerous title character in new play Shrapnel.

GAELIC theatre faces an obvious additional challenge when it comes to attracting an audience, the need to overcome the language barrier.

However, Gaelic language company Theatre Gu Leòr certainly believe a lack of knowledge of the language of Eden should not prevent anyone from seeing new production Shrapnel, which embarks on a tour of the Highlands and Islands after its opening run at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre comes to an end this weekend.

Shrapnel is based on the 2006 Gaelic language novel of the same name by Tormod Caimbeul from the Ness area of Lewis, and adapted for the stage by his daughter, actor, writer and director Catriona Lexy Campbell.

Catriona also appears in the play, alongside fellow actors Iain MacRae, Mairi Morrison, Artair Donald, Iain Beggs and Calum MacDonald.

Director Muireann Kelly hopes the play will do justice to the original writing by Campbell senior, who died just last year, something that provides a particular challenge given the need for an English translation to reach the maximum potential audience.

The language in the play is very heightened and Kelly fears that too literal a translational would suck the poetry out of it.

So while the play is subtitled, she makes use of other techniques, including music from the League of Highland Gentlemen, animation and projections to help tell the story.

"You have more licence to subtitle less and my opinion is that, if you are going to read every single word on screen, you might as well just read the book," she said.

"We try really hard to make it as creative a solution as possible because you are watching a theatre show. You are not at home watching the telly. But different people take different approaches.

A cast of new and experienced Gaelic acting talent brings Shrapnel to the satge.
A cast of new and experienced Gaelic acting talent brings Shrapnel to the satge.

"I know some people in Gaelic theatre have used headphones where you have simultaneous translation. I’m reluctant to do that because even if you don’t speak the language, you can hear the change in tone or voice. You can tell a lot even if you don’t speak the language, so by putting something in your ears you are kind of negating that, plus you are hearing another voice that is not in the play."

The success of television series such as The Bridge and The Killing on BBC4 or Channel 4’s recent Cold War thriller Deutschland 83 have shown that audiences are not necessarily deterred by subtitles.

In live theatre too, Kelly points out, foreign language plays also pick up a large audience on the Edinburgh Fringe.

"Generally, because there are a lot of visuals and movement, people don’t get caught up in the fact that it is in another language," Kelly said.

Yet even those fluent in the language might find themselves confused by Caimbeul’s story, which begins in 1970s Edinburgh with an exiled Gael on the run after being falsely accused of crime, with the title character, psychotic former detective Walter Shrapnel, in relentless pursuit.

"This isn’t a straight beginning-middle-and-end narrative. It is a very mad, surreal piece. There’s always the danger that people go out and say that it was a bonkers piece of theatre. But it’s also a bonkers novel." Kelly said.

"It’s very much about Edinburgh, but at the same time very Gaelic."

The urban setting and its thrillerish plot are, Kelly suggests, not things usually associated with Gaelic drama.

Which for Kelly, an Irish Gael from Mayo, is another of the main attractions. She sees no reason why drama in Gaelic should be seen as different from any other theatre produced in Scotland.

"It makes Gaelic real and not something you keep in a little box marked ‘Tweed’. Gaelic is just another language. It’s something that is spoken in the Co-op," she declared.

"We don’t ever want to be the poor relation. People have a lot of ideas about what a Gaelic drama is, like a historical drama about emigration, whereas I come from a background where what’s important first and foremost is: is it a good play?

"It’s about normalising Gaelic as well. It’s saying this is just one of the languages that happens to go on in Scotland."

Shrapnel, written by Catriona Lexy Chaimbeul and adapted from the novel by Tormod Caimbeul, can be seen at the following venues: OneTouch Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness, on Thursday March 17; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on Friday 18; Lossiemouth Town Hall Saturday 19; Strathpeffer Pavilion on Sunday 20; the Macphail Centre, Ullapool on Tuesday 22; Plockton Hall on Wednesday 23rd; and Seall at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye on Thursday 24.

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