The opening moments of ‘The Idiot at the Wall’ promise well; a pleasing burst of traditional tunes welcomes the actors, and ourselves as audience, into the world of the play. It’s clear the tenor of life on a Hebridean island is to be disrupted by the arrival of those who would ‘preserve’ its tradition.
Incomer Henry Rathbone (Tim Barrow) and the returning Sorcha Mackenzie are in search of the traditional stories and songs which reflect the life of the island community, but find that rather than being impartial spectators of what they wish to study, their fates become inextricably intertwined with that of those among whom they find themselves.
The frustration of ‘The Idiot at the Wall’ lies in its efforts to do rather too many things, often all at once, and its failure to seize on at least one of its several themes and run with it.
Set immediately after the First World War, it points up the treachery of translation and the questionable motives of folklore study, contrasted with the practical concerns of those studied to survive with some shred of former dignity; it raises the ghost of the Highland land raids and the clumsily ignorant attempts of government to ‘solve’ the perceived and real problems of the Gaeltacht in an increasingly modernising world, but fails to provide either enough context to explain this concern, or enough narrative to justify its inclusion.
Behind and over-arching these issues, picked up and set down seemingly without relationship to the structure and world of the play itself, lies the near-global theme of two sisters in love with the same man.
Played out here, it ultimately fails to convince or to fully draw us into its tragedy. Although we recognise early on that Sorcha’s modernity is only skin-deep, her relationship with her island-dwelling sibling, Odhran (Elspeth Turner), becomes yet another barely sketched theme among the several.
Tim Barrow wrestles manfully with his character but, as with a number of others, the space available is both too much yet not enough for him to bring it fully to life. The cast undeniably work hard, but it nonetheless feels as if they have had to struggle as hard as actual islanders against forces they were unable to fully control.
It’s a great pity, for there’s obvious talent here, and a real effort to make ‘The Idiot at the Wall’ work as far as it possibly can. For this reviewer, it sadly did not, but one hopes very much to see these actors working on more rewarding material and the writer to find material in which she can find a more effective focus.
Show: 3 October 2013