The Chariot, the Flag and the Empty, Empty Houses by Daniel Cullen. Reviewed by Catherine MacPhee.
The pairing-up of Skye-born playwriter Daniel Cullen and Skye-based campaign group Iomairt an Eilein (Listen to Us) erupted this July into a performance which mirrored the chaotic, moving, totally exhausting rollercoaster and riot it is to live in Skye. Exploring issues raised by groups of young folk worried about identity, housing, language, and culture, The Chariot, the Flag and the Empty, Empty Houses is belly-laughing, emotive musical theatre. The crisis of housing scarcity, cultural loss and identity erasure is often not apparent to the masses. It lurks under Skye’s ‘iconic’ status and excessive exploitation for tourism and second-home bolt-holes. But in Skye Gathering Hall this July, the crisis burst onto the stage.
The Chariot is not the result of a conventional theatrical commission. Following his long-term project for Creative Scotland’s ‘Culture Collective’, Cullen’s brief was to explore the message of Iomairt an Eilein without definitive pressure to produce an end-work. The production emerged after he spent several months embedded in community groups to see what would come out of the process. Focusing on shinty and football teams, Daniel ran a series of workshops with young people affected by a multitude of pressures. Everything we hear in the play had been expressed in their voices or those of people in their community.
With an all-Skye cast featuring Rhona Coogan, Peigi Nic A Phiocair, Josh Knowles and Steven MacKinnon, the performance was reminiscent of The Cheviot the Stag and the Black Black Oil by John McGrath. Using the format of a ceilidh, and with music parody central to the show, it combines a collection of stories, poetry, and music about the Isle of Skye. To kick off, we join a pantomime American tour-bus heading for a visit to the Skye Zoo – careful now, you might see a native islander! Stumbling across the local Clan Elections, we somersault between political candidates who don’t care what we think, as they know what is best for us – though it always seems to chime with central belt ideals! The village audience sing along to the Green Party representative leading ‘We’re implementing HPMAs’ to the tune of YMCA. HPMAs (Highly Protected Marine Areas), if they are eventually implemented, are likely to rapidly accelerate the demise of an industry that shaped and sustains the communities that are now so desirable to visit. Many Islanders have invested their lives in the local fishing industry and now are sharing the struggles that they face under the strain of overwhelming pressure and odds stacked against them that threaten their communities’ existence.
Breaking the fourth wall, the cast was witty and focused as it switched between characters. The elder crofters in conversation had the audience in stitches. Then, in one of a series of poems about identity and place, Pegi read Oidhche Na’ Mo Chadal Dhomh, a mournful poem by Neil McKinnon (Nellie Ruadh) that Daniel found in the local archives. Part of the translation reads:
One night as I slept my mind (spirit) was restless.
Thinking of all the humiliations and injustices suffered
by my country:
That the sweet warm-sounding language
of the famous bards
Was being put in chains like a robber or a bandit.
Today I can find no rest, nor a place to stay among
Then, witnessed from the tour bus window, we hear a local couple debate the entanglement of being Scottish. What is their language? Do they prefer Glasgow or Edinburgh? Clearly, the central belt view of identity is one they cannot relate to, yet they do not fully understand where they sit as Islanders.
Highlighting the dark shadows that linger here, the play punches hard and cuts deep, while maintaining its humour. The pain and humiliation of food poverty and the feelings it creates of being exposed were captured by Daniel playing the role of a young man facing the grind. He twists through the internal turmoil of being in need, apologising for shouting or speaking too loudly about his frustrations of having nothing, while solo tourists wander around complaining about how travelling alone makes them ‘exposed and vulnerable’. This scene lays bare his anger, silencing the audience. Food banks and poverty exist in rural Scotland. It’s not all fairies and magic mountains.
From HPMAs and food banks, the play turns to the wealthy escapees who don’t realise the amount of privilege involved in forsaking their city or southern suburban life and going ‘remote’, buying a derelict diamond in the rugged romantic landscape as a shiny monument to their capitalistic gains. The combination of Gaelic poetry and song resonated as a wish to return, unite, and fight for a positive future. The night ended with the cast enticing the audience to sing the chorus of the final song, drowning out the alternative lyrics of the landlord, bragging about the money harvested from Airbnbs.
Bare-fisted and grappling with many of the issues faced by people who come from or live on Skye, as well as celebrating some of what’s good about it, The Chariot is an entertaining, fun and almost-raucous kind of play. Cullen has given artistic form to the conditions we exist under, the desires we harbour, and the discontent that stirs us to passion and reminds us of our love of this place. It has made me embrace the island’s capital more – who knew that poems of appreciation and childhood memories of the complicated town of Portree would make me shed a tear? Like many, I have been wondering about what happens to a community when you remove its housing, language, and identity. Where will we be and what will be left if this continues?
Catherine MacPhee is an archivist and activist in Skye.