Written and Directed by Izzy Gray
We’re a morbid bunch, aren’t we? If it isn’t a murder mystery, court drama or reality television, there’s one thing audiences flock towards – a disappearance. And few, if any, in Scottish history can rival the infamy of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse’s disappearance in 1900, where its three keepers were never seen nor heard from again, abandoning their post in peculiar circumstances. The lamp extinguished for ten days, an unsettling scene for those who arrived to relieve them.
And with nought but the whistle of the wind, the crash of waves, and the eternal spinning of the Lighthouse lamp – would it come as a surprise to any that something more malevolent was afoot in these keeper’s heads? Writer and director Izzy Gray’s Keepers of the Light may initially evoke the perceptions of a ghastly tale, adapted with a newly constructed narrative which finds three technicians visiting the Lighthouse in contemporary settings to carry out maintenance.
But this production is much more, Gray’s writing could quite easily have rested on the laurels of a Ghost story, of the myth surrounding the disappearances, but instead takes initiative to craft additional elements, admirably seeking to further the narrative in less traditional means, but also to envelope the story in an aura of understanding not only the facts of the Isles history, but our own curious obsession, and reluctance to see anything other than spectres and myth, rather than the men who vanished.
But what a tale to be a part of, bringing a voice to the past, a recognition not only of the myth but of the lives these men had – imparting aspects of their lives many leave from the tale; families, youths, previous lives at sea, it all goes into fleshing out the mortal coil. Breathing life into these gentlemen, as well as a reflection of their future counterparts (in essence) Rhys Anderson, Fraser Sivewright, and Garry Stewart do a tremendous job in capturing all aspects of the story, as the three technicians are forced to spend a night on the Isle, in similar straits to those three men over a century ago.
Young seadog Anderson, as both Donald and Mac, is subject to the capers of his crewmate’s tricks and chuckles, and while Mac may be less responsive to these antics, poor Donald struggles on a more profound level – his insecurities and worries playing on him. Anderson’s Donald has stringent limits, and when crossed pulls back from any concerns of a pale dimensionless character, lending credence to both the pressured aspects of the story and an explosive encounter with Sivewright. Anderson’s roles are balanced out by Stewart’s more experienced mentor-like figures with Jim and Davie, Jim (Ducat) taken from the most senior of the Lighthouse Keepers in 1900, is the sepia-tinted and optimistic ‘hero’ of our story, lamenting the difficulties of the job for a young Keeper, and attempting to fend off the aggressive remarks and actions of third Keeper Tam.
But Sivewright receives the honour of opening and closing the tale, bookended with the glittering oil lamps the men swore their lives by. As ex-navy sailor Alec, and the more brutish and belligerent Tam, Sivewright poses the rightful question of the place of a villain in this story, whether it’s a necessity or an inevitable result of curiosity. And regardless of where audiences may fall on the subject, one thing is for certain – with a dangerous edge of gallows humour, Sivewright makes sure that if you need there to be, there is a rogue to this tale.
Claustrophobic, bouncing around the shafts of light to transition between the past and present, Danny Main’s set design does much to suggest the confines of isolation, the small space these three men inhabit, and serves as a stupendously effective way for quick changes for the cast, occasionally without any break in momentum.
A vital momentum, recognised by Gray maintains the audience’s investment in a story which takes its time to flourish and ferment. But what separates the storytelling mechanics away from a traditional spooky tale of disappearances is Ana Norrie-Toch’s movement incorporation, where the men wrestle with the figurative waves of not only the torrent of the currents but their frustrations and hyper-masculine aggression with one another. And while the fight choreography is limited within the space available, the explosive roars of emotional trauma – Kit Willmott’s Sound Design and Ewan Watson’s original composition are a triumph, reinforcing the men’s mental instability, conjuring an ocean around the audience – transferring this sense of isolation from stage to seats.
Ghosts on the water, Keepers of the Light may capture elements of the superstitious nature but is equally a character study in isolation, and masculinity, developing a layered production of storytelling which goes beyond the spectral. Fear not though, or perhaps do, Gray’s production encapsulates a degree of horror – enough to make one grip their seat, never knowing just how bleak the tale may turn for these technicians and just who, or what is lurking behind the Lighthouse door. Keepers of the Light projects a sense of hope into the darkness, a marvellously conceived piece with plenty of legroom to progress those sealegs and tighten its rigging into spectacularly original production with wit, delicacy, and just the right amount of brine.