First published in The Times, Saturday September 30 2017
A rocket filled with letters fired from one island to another sounds like the premise for an offbeat fairy tale or children’s fantasy. The image is a resonant one, combining benign public service with a technology more commonly used in warfare. The idea is all the more intriguing when you consider that Lewis Hetherington’s new play for young people is based on true events.
The eccentric real-life figure that inspired the story is Gerhard Zucker, played in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production by Gavin Swift. Zucker was a German engineer who brought his vision of transporting mail by gunpowder-powered rocket to Scotland in 1934. The tiny (now deserted) island of Scarp seems the ideal launching pad for Zucker’s invention, much to the curiosity, bemusement and, in some cases, downright hostility of her few inhabitants.
Pic: Eoin Carey
One of those willing to offer Zucker the benefit of the doubt is Bellag (MJ Deans), a young woman with her own dreams of escaping the island’s limited horizons and her claustrophobic existence in a rundown croft with her Gaelic-speaking mother. Bellag’s brother has already taken the route of so many impoverished Scots in the interwar years, departing for a new life in Canada.
The scene appears set for a tale of idealism and determination overcoming scepticism, with possible romance thrown in for good measure. What is refreshing about the show, which Hetherington also directs, is that it keeps wrong footing our expectations. Zucker is depicted as a heroic failure: the question of whether he is to be admired or pitied for his many abortive attempts is left open. It is Bellag who embarks upon the more compelling journey, her encounter with the inventor opening her eyes to the possibilities that exist for her in her own life. The playwright also throws in the odd ironic reference to the ways in which methods of communication have developed over time, with the technology almost supplanting face-to-face interaction.
Pic: Eoin Carey
The tone here is resolutely gentle. Even Gerhard’s encounter with an antagonistic veteran of the Great War at the local ceilidh feels somewhat restrained. Yet the simple story is made enjoyable by a spirited staging that requires the versatile cast of five to sing and play a variety of instruments as well as operating Ailie Cohen’s characterful models and puppets. The show, which is touring small venues around the country, succeeds in the most important sense, in that, without recourse to fireworks, it makes us lift our eyes, the better to see Gerhard’s rockets arching through the air.
Touring Scotland to October 21. Nationaltheatrescotland.com