Stornoway, Quebec – Traverse Theatre

Written by Calum L. MacLeòid

Directed by Muireann Kelly

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A pair of outlaws, trapped in a horrendous snowstorm: a nod to Tarantino – with a rich command of the multi-lingual language, and a firmer footing in expanded narrative truth, Theatre Gu Leòr’s Muireann Kelly and playwright Calum L MacLeòid’s co-production with An Lanntair arts centre newly concocted genre of the “Gaelic western” has placement in a settlement within the Lac- Mégantic region of Quebec, populated by frontier folk from the Western Isles of Scotland, and France. Loosely orchestrated from the accounts of Donald Morrison, ‘The Mégantic Outlaw’, Stornoway, Quebec finds tensions swell through a billowing snowstorm outside a failing hotel saloon as an ensemble of characters come together to hide out from the blizzard.

Language is instilled through a variety of forms throughout the production, which takes pride in lacing in English, French, Gaelic and for this Traverse performance BSL from an aethereal Catherine King. It’s a triumph, with subtitles aiding the audience throughout. Though moments are keenly hidden from the audience to offer limitations in understanding – as with Màiri MacNeill’s opening address which flips between Gaelic and English – Elspeth Turner has no issues imparting expression and intention with the wording, regardless of audience understanding. From the onset, it’s clear MacNeill’s performance matches the desired impact of MacLeòid’s narrative intention, MacNeill’s rhythm and voice work well for visualising emotion as they reveal their character’s past complications with Morrison, portrayed with reservation and quiet contemplation by Dòl Eòin MacKinnon.

Working as a bounty hunter, McNeill initially visits the hotel/saloon in hopes of a room before continuing the search for an old friend, now foe, Morrison. Welcoming her are owner Jean Baptiste Bouchard and his wife, Uilleamina. Sam James Smith has less to do with his character, but still conveys the weight of a man with a failing business who eyes the opportunity to save it, while MJ Deans’ Uilleamina manages to channel an inner strength which comes over as naturally, their vulnerability maintains an interest in the character without removing their fight with a complex pregnancy, and all as they struggle with the nostalgic spectres of Scotland. The women on stage have a more rounded edge to their construction, MacNeil’s fierce independence a stark contraction to MJ Dean’s more placid, though fleshed-out Uilleamina, their motivation far in excess better than that of the men’s dawdling.

The initial opening of MacLeòid’s production sets the stage delightfully – measured and tight as the grudges and grievances of those involved begin to swell in reason, personal or politically concealed. But as the players act upon their motivations in the second act, the snowstorm outside leaves some of that frosted confusion over the storytelling, which loosens somewhat as interactions overlap.

Underpinning the entire production, inescapable, is the strong ties to the Gaelic language and culture – a rich storytelling language of poetry, community, and heritage. Carrying it is Matt Padden’s sound design, enhanced by MJ Dean’s vocal performance. Bookended with two framed slogans hanging from Becky Minto’s roughly cobbled bar set to confirm and reinforce the setting for those still unsure: one reading the Quebecois motto, the other a Gaelic idiom promising generosity to the downtrodden. It’s all drawn to accurate focus with Emma Jone’s lighting which never intrudes upon the stage, they make for ample atmosphere, the desired impact achieved without distraction.

Performances have merit and speak plainly to a rhythmic, even poetic expression of language – but elements struggle to go as deep as possible into the historical elements of toying with the truth (particularly with Morrison) or reflective elements later into the show. Stornoway, Quebec draws new blood from the Western thriller – bringing a far lesser performed genre of theatre to audiences and infusing a much-required revitalisation of Gaelic culture and storytelling, helping to achieve precisely what director Kelly set out to do.

Much-Required Revitalisation

Stornoway, Quebec continues to tour, with a performance at Eden Court on April 11th. Performances at the Tron Theatre on April 13th and 15th.
Running time – Two hours and twenty minutes, including one interval. Age rating: 12+

Photo Credit – Mihaela Bodlovic


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