First published in The Times, Friday August 19 2016
Over the past few years, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has included an increasingly ambitious theatre element in its programme. Previous productions include a starry staging of Alasdair Gray’s play Fleck and Letters Home, a co-production with Grid Iron, the site-specific company.
Now comes The View from Castle Rock, a free yet sensitive adaptation of a collection of short stories by Alice Munro, which depicts the lives of the Laidlaw family, ancestors of the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author, who migrated from Ettrick in the Scottish Borders to Toronto in the early 19th century. Created in collaboration with the acclaimed Scottish theatre company Stellar Quines, the adaptation, penned by the playwright Linda McLean, focuses on the gruelling transatlantic journey endured by the Laidlaws.
Pic: Alan McCredie
This journey is thick with incident, from a woman giving birth aided by genteel Edinburgh ladies to an exuberant dance breaking out as the ship comes within sight of Quebec. Throughout, the clear, spare narrative is passed among the excellent five-strong cast, who portray key members of the family headed by Old James (Lewis Howden), the conceited, superstitious patriarch.
Marilyn Imrie’s production is stark and elegant, employing simple-yet-effective techniques, including billowing sheets to represent waves and beautiful choral singing from the cast, accompanied by Brian James O’Sullivan, who plays various traditional instruments. The atmosphere is also greatly enhanced by the setting of St Mark’s Unitarian Church, with its fine acoustics and natural light filtering in through stained glass. Imrie and her cast delight in using every corner of this auditorium, with voices coming at us from all different directions.
Pic: Alan McCredie
The hour-long piece is replete with set pieces, including the family’s first glimpse of whales off Newfoundland and the tragic death of the youngest Laidlaw shortly after landing. Alongside these episodes, the piece also offers insight into the migrant experience more universally, including the hopes and hardships that drive people to leave home and the traditions and memories they carry with them to the new life. The show holds particular poignancy in light of the current refugee crisis – a major theme at this year’s book festival.