The Buke of the Howlat (Review)

Brodie Castle, World Premiere 26.09.18

Good books always end up as a film or theatre production, but 600 years is a long wait for The Buke of the Howlat, written in Older Scots in the 15th century by Richard Holland.

As I walked away from the world premiere of the theatre adaptation of this cautionary tale, I can tell you it was worth the wait.

In reality, the excitement has only been building over the few months the modern translation has been available. And in another reality, it will be over in just five days.

The venue is the great outdoors, under a canopy of trees in the grounds of Brodie Castle. Two stages set purposefully apart, the cast illuminating the serpent-like trail between them.

An autumnal blanket of spent deciduous leaves makes the walk comfortable.

Written from the ground up

This is not bought-in entertainment to please the masses. The theatrical production of The Buke of the Howlat is written for this venue by playwright Morna Young. It’s directed by Ben Harrison, who has specialist experience in outdoor on-site productions, and of course it is produced by Findhorn Bay Festival’s artistic director Kresanna Aigner.

It has local context, local people and thought-provoking cultural significance. Not only does it carry a message of great importance to ane an a’, but it links the culture of the 15th century to that of the 21st.

Separating the first act from the second is an inspired way to set the tone, fill us in on the author’s life as a chaplain and his allegiance to the Douglas family, and then, rather comedically gauge the potential language barrier, before whisking off on a flight path through the trees to a second stage, a perfectly-formed natural auditorium and bird heaven. We’re surrounded by large, aged trees, woven together with twisted branches holding up the sylvanian roof, and stumps of ancient felled trees provide perfect perches for the birds who have something to crow about.

No language barrier

And speaking of language barriers, there was none. The use of Scots tongue is no more broad than you’d hear in a typical north-east high street. And in fact, it was cleverly balanced to ensure the story was told through a combination of story-telling, acting and movement.

The songbirds demonstrated this with their own on-the-fly translation, but soon concluded that they are a theatrical production not a reading, and performing the ‘buke’ would be a lot more entertaining than a narration in Older Scots would be.

The storyline is true to the original book though. An owl (howlat) is disgusted with his appearance. Blaming Mither Nature for punishing him, he demands the highest bird authorities to do something about it.

This is where the fun starts. A cacophony of birds of all ilks, a parrot, a dove, sparrows, pheasants, swan, peacock, magpie, partridge, plovers, and more birds than I could keep up with.

The forest stage was suddenly aflutter with every bird you could think of, flitting, flapping and flocking around the howlat and each bestowing a single feather on the disgruntled bird.

And while this is a delight to watch the closely choreographed flocking of bird-humans on the ground, it is the exquisite characterisation of each bird that is so cleverly done.

The cockerel pecks through the flock with a cocky strut dispersing the birds while he does so. The peacock finds a lofty perch and scans his territory,

And as if that weren’t entertainment enough, we are treated to parkour gymnasts, choirs, lighting projections and sound effects. Oh, and strawberries. Yum.

Beauty personified

And so the howlat is completely transformed into the ‘fairest fowl in all the firth’. He roams, ecstatic and high, he exclaims he is beauty personified, and his disdain for himself has been replaced by utter self-adoration. But all around him is dissent, the howlat has become impetuous, insufferable and intolerable.

All the other birds who wanted to help him, now hate him, and they mount a vicious, violent rampage to reclaim their gifts.

Yes, folks, FOMO was alive and kicking in the 15th century and you didn’t need Instagram to show the world you’re a self-centred idiot.

The Buke of the Howlat is a stunning and colourful interpretation of a 600-year-old tale of envy and retribution. Its message is just as relevant today, and if you don’t learn from it, you will certainly still enjoy it.

Perfectly-timed to start as dusk falls and finish before the night sucks up the last bit of warm air, the venue, performers, script, lighting and music, all combine to make this one of the most enjoyable outdoor experiences I have witnessed.

Five days is far too short. Package it up and take it to the rest of the world.

Marc Hindley

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