Clare English Now, my next guests are doing things to promote our indigenous Scottish culture. They didn’t have to learn a new language but they have come up with a fresh way of looking at our heritage and are making us heave with laughter along the way. Welcome to the world of Otter Pie by the acclaimed young Glasgow theatre company Fish & Game. The Otter Pie show is based on a tongue-in-cheek reworking of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s seminal Scottish novel Sunset Song. It sounds unlikely but intriguing and it sounds a bit like this…
Sound clip from Otter Pie:
Eilidh MacAskill There is an epidemic of suicidal bad feeling and depression spreading across the land.
Murray Wason How can this epidemic be explained?
Eilidh MacAskill The epidemic is not biological.
Murray Wason It is not ecological.
Eilidh MacAskill And it is not that life conditions are worse, in fact, they may well be better!
Murray Wason But a national ethos that builds unwarranted self-esteem, espouses victimology, and encourages rampant individualism has contributed to the epidemic we see all around us – this illness that blights the land...
Clare English A moment from Otter Pie there, addressing the question of how to be happy in the modern world. Artistic Directors Eilidh MacAskill and Robert Walton join me now. Robert, are, ahh poor man, choking to death…
Robert Walton I know. I’ve had a cold for the last few days and…
Clare English You’ve given it to Tom Morton which is very funny… anyway. Let’s let you talk and let him draw breath. Tell us about where you drew inspiration from for Otter Pie. The pursuit of happiness intrigues you doesn’t it?
Eilidh MacAskill Yes, we’ve been looking at happiness for a wee while. We did a show about Christmas-ness and happiness and various other happy things. We were looking for ideas for our next show and we decided to do something about Scotland, slightly in the hope that it would get us some arts council funding… but we were also very interested in it. We’ve been reading the book, The Scots’ Crisis in Confidence by Carole Craig and we were finding a lot of interesting things out about the Scottish psyche. And because we are based in Scotland we thought that we should look close to home rather than just thinking about further away.
Clare English So this, Robert, is about Scottish cringe and basically how we deal with our cultural identity and our issues?
Robert Walton Yes it is I suppose. I mean I am an English man as well, as you can tell by my voice…
Clare English I’m surprised…
Robert Walton …a coughing Englishman. And Eilidh and I have been working together for a long time. I moved to Scotland after we graduated and we’ve worked in Scotland all that time, so I was thinking, you know, when is it (and I don’t really like to say it)… when is it that I may be considered Scottish? You know I’ve lived here for a long time, I love Scottish culture, I pay my taxes here, yet obviously I can never be born in Scotland. And working with Eilidh it has been about finding out a little bit more about what makes her tick. And what are those things I just don’t understand about her because of something to do with her upbringing and where she comes from?
Clare English Well its interesting you’ve gone for Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ seminal work Sunset Song, because that’s quite a brave thing to do. Explain why you chose that Eilidh.
Eilidh MacAskill Well partly it was because we needed to find some sort of way that we could convey things theatrically. We had all the ideas and discussions but then actually, what could we put on the stage? And I remembered doing Sunset Song at school and thought, well, this is a very Scottish book. And then we found that it had been named the quintessential Scottish novel. It was Scotland’s favourite book. It’s also Gordon Brown’s favourite book. All these things were coming up and we started to ask, if this is Scotland’s favourite book, but its about this farming lifestyle from a hundred years ago, what does it have to do with our lives today? When you put it down into its constituent parts it becomes a sort of catalogue of disasters. This wonderful heroine gets brought down by her family, by her lifestyle, by the people around her, almost by the nation she lives in. I think that we were surprised and a little bit disappointed that those hang-ups hadn’t been let go of over the past 100 years.
Clare English Had you read the book Robert?
Robert Walton Well Eilidh got me to read the book…
Clare English She made you read it…
Robert Walton She made me read it… And then I was actually flabbergasted because it is such a beautiful book.
Clare English It is.
Robert Walton And I was amazed that I hadn’t heard about it before. And when I speak to English people, most of them haven’t heard of it either. I mean, my mum is a complete convert now, she’s read the whole trilogy. I suppose as soon as I read it, it reminded me of magic realism in a way. It has a beautiful lyrical style, which you might think lends itself to the stage, but perhaps that gets us onto the next thing – the difficulty of doing this story on the stage in the first place…
Clare English Well let’s talk about that in a second because I’d like another little extract from the Otter Pie show which addresses the problem of easy shortcuts…
Sound clip from Otter Pie:
Eilidh MacAskill There is another factor that looms as a cause of the epidemic: the over-reliance on shortcuts to happiness.
Murray Wason This very morning for my breakfast, I ate a toasted bagel with butter and blueberry jam.
Eilidh MacAskill But you did not sow or reap the corn to make that bagel, or milk the cow for the butter or tend to a little blueberry shrub in your meagre back garden, did you?
Murray Wason I know nothing of farming - I wouldn't have the foggiest idea where to start.
Eilidh MacAskill You see, your breakfast is all shortcuts, requiring little skill and almost no effort at all!!!
Murray Wason What would happen if my whole life were made up of such easy pleasures, never calling on my strengths, never presenting challenges?
Eilidh MacAskill Such a life sets one up for ignorance and incompetence. You would know nothing of toil. You would turn into a big soft clootie dumpling of self-absorption.
Clare English I just love it! That is you in full pelt isn’t it? That’s your lovely dulcet tones isn’t it Eilidh?
Eilidh MacAskill That’s right yes.
Clare English Are we all turning into great big clootie dumplings of self-absorption?
Eilidh MacAskill Well, it’s complicated I suppose… I wouldn’t say everyone…
Clare English I never thought I’d ask a question like that in my life!
Eilidh MacAskill Obviously that part doesn’t really have anything to do with Sunset Song, its from the introduction. We were trying to think as young people in Scotland what the messages coming towards young people are. And it was the bombardment from both sides, from the past and looking backwards… the dour Scots not wanting to seem like they’re doing better than anyone else. And also coming from the present, the more global interests where you should just be thinking about yourself all of the time. Where everyone can be a star, everyone can win X-Factor, and they really deserve it… all these things really have nothing to do with finding happiness or simple pleasures and gratifications, like doing something well or getting on with life.
Clare English So it takes us right back to the previous interview… people living in the jungle… keep it simple and that way you’re happiest. Well it might not be simple for you, we were just talking about the challenges of putting something like this on the stage Robert, because it is a seminal work and a lot of people revere that book (Sunset Song). You have to be very careful…
Robert Walton Oh yes…
Clare English Yet this is intrinsically a very, very funny show.
Robert Walton Now the way it works I suppose is that Sunset Song is a show within the show of Otter Pie. It’s half an hour before Sunset Song starts in the show and so you get this weird effect as all of a sudden it just starts. Eilidh plays Chris Guthrie, and all the rest of the cast who’ve done all kinds of other things, all of a sudden pop on some costumes, then pop out and do Sunset Song. Then they blast through the first half of the book in a kind of traditional physical theatre kind-of-way. But I suppose that what’s difficult about it and what we found when we went to the King’s theatre to see the His Majesty’s Theatre version… we both went on a field trip... Although theirs was made after we had made Otter Pie, a lot of their decisions about the staging and how to represent this epic journey were surprisingly similar to ours. We were very surprised by this. It is an epic story with some seriously tragic events occurring very quickly. The death of Chris Guthrie’s mother, John Guthrie’s stroke, Will Guthrie leaving for Argentina never to return… well, he does return, but… All of these things are deeply traumatic and the only way to deal with them, as there’s so many of them, is to do them is a machine-gun like way. So we are left with this effect of not being able to get into the emotions of the story, because you have to get through the huge volume of material. It’s frenetic. So our version of Sunset Song hinges on the huge gap between the emotional depth of the scenes and the cold, stylised way in which we show them. Do you know what I mean?
Clare English Yes I’m getting it but I’m thinking I really must see this in action now!