11- 29 August (not 16, 23)
The Canadian novelist Alice Munro has Scottish ancestors – the Laidlaws from the Ettrick Valley, some of whom sailed from Leith to Nova Scotia in 1818. Over ten years ago Munro visited Scotland and spent time researching family history in the Borders: she then wrote a collection of short stories in which she imagined their experiences. Two of these have been used as the script for this performance in which we meet the family and join them on their voyage across the Atlantic.
As we enter the venue we hear a soundscape of the Ettrick Valley – sheep bleating, comments on the isolating topography and inhospitable climate, presumably from someone’s survey or report on the area, and a haunting song – The Broom O’ The Cowdenknowes – in which the singer laments their exile from the beloved broom-filled homeland.
We are introduced to the patriarch, James Laidlaw, his sons Andrew and Walter, his daughter Mary, Andrew’s highly-pregnant wife Agnes, and Andrew and Agnes’ son, wee James. Another son sailed to Nova Scotia some years previously and, though they’ve heard nothing from him for a long time, they hope to be reunited with him. It soon becomes clear that the Laidlaw men do not have a high opinion of their women: downtrodden Mary keeps very silent, lavishing all her devotion on wee James: Agnes, the daughter of a Hawick weaver, refuses to be cowed by her menfolk, though generally she keeps her thoughts to herself. James senior is the one who has instigated the emigration, but as preparations are carried forward, and indeed throughout the voyage, is constantly bemoaning the decision and prophesying the terrible things that are sure to happen when finally they arrive in the New World.
The five actors paint a richly coloured and detailed picture of the preparations, embarkation, voyage and arrival: they describe scenes so vividly you would swear you are there with them as animals are winched aboard, as the storm wreaks havoc on the passengers’ insides, as wee James gets lost, as Agnes goes into labour and is attended by two very genteel Edinburgh ladies: when the ship finally reaches the other side of the Atlantic you are strongly tempted to get up out of your seat and join in the exuberant celebrations.
The passengers arrive in their new country with visions of the amazing possibilities they feel are open to them. We learn what happens to the Laidlaws, and the strength of our involvement with them is revealed by our reactions to this. It’s a fascinating narrative which really brings home the hardships people were prepared to endure in the hopes of a better life – and in this deeply moving and brilliant script it is the women who stand out and whose voices are heard when so often they are merely a silent background to the lives of men, fit only to provide food and other comforts and bear children until they die from exhaustion.
The Laidlaws will stay in my memory for a long time. Stellar Quines give a truly stellar performance, and the audience gave them loud and prolonged applause. This is another sell-out show, so hurry and get a ticket if you possibly can.