Nan Shepard: Howling at the Machine – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writer: Erlend Clouston

Director: Erlend Clouston

Raise your hand if you have an idea who the woman on the reverse of the Royal Bank of Scotland five-pound note is? No, not Boudicca. Nan Shepard, the ‘wildcard’ choice for the polymer note is a distinctly uncelebrated Scottish author, whose work rarely makes it into mainstream acknowledgement. Nan Shepard: Howling at the Machine by Erlend Clouston is one of the few tributes to the author of The Living Mountain, her magnum opus. An animated lecturette featuring a plethora of slides, videos and live performance, is the best representation for Shepard coming from someone who personally knew her, right?

Hopeful, the production begins from a lectern surrounding curios and oddities which serve as narrative tools, Erlend delivering an almost sermon-like recitation of the century which would shape Nan. Moving, fragmented it seems, not so much through her life, but rather the experiences which would shape Nan’s artform across the twentieth century. Conceptually engaging, the occasional trick of the trade or effect draws our attention.

Awash with a tremendously British form of art performance from the sixties, a cabaret of clutter erupts as Prof Walter Benjamin, Lord Curzon, Björk and some robot dancing stir together in a stupor. Standing between educational and beat-nic trip, Nan Shepard: Howling at the Machine, merits itself with a starkly inventive concept. Little is trustworthy, not even the person sat next to you. Transformative theatre, Erlend’s writing overstretches, wishing to incorporate vast sums into the text, at the cost of Nan’s presence. Routinely, volunteers will emerge from the crowds, to deliver monologues or interact with the team.

These volunteers capture the historical significance of the likes of Virginia Woolf, an interesting if wobbly conception. Praise must always be extended to those who will dedicate their time to the craft, especially unpaid, but this does not merit a free pass on ability. It’s mixed, to say the least, with the occasional performance raising an eyebrow, but others easily gain a laugh. Principally the issue of placing these volunteers within the audience results in an immersion break from the ‘lecturette’, as the clunks, struggles and people bobbing up and down begin to soil the effect.

Even the stamp of approval from three of the nation’s finest actresses; Karine Polwart, Gerda Stevenson, and Tilda Swinton don’t do enough to save a glaring flaw in Nan Shepard’s presentation. Onstage throughout, with whispers of lines, Su Clark wastes herself amidst the cacophony around her, as we cry to hear the story from Nan’s words. Subtle, carrying the role well, a real misstep is made in not allowing Clark more stage presence.

With a vast array of audience involving techniques, our voices unite, our hooves clatter together, as the room becomes one in an attempt to find clarity. While large issues erupt from the production, it isn’t without creative merit. Passion is in no question, with a profound desire to speak about this marvellous author.

Finally, an unsung champion of Scottish literature is provided a platform, who should be the one to deliver this marvellous woman’s voice but a choir of men, robbing stage time from an accomplished performer who seems silent to her story. Nan Shepard is a disappointing lapse in thought-process, a mismatch awkwardness of ideas built upon a solid foundation. Frustratingly, the lecturette design of the production, the intricacy of the lacing ideas tying Nan to Alice in Wonderland, Sigmund Freud and religion all seems for not, as a production with potential turns out to worth no more than the five-pound note her namesake rests upon.

Reviewed on 29 February 2020 | Image: Contributed

The Reviews Hub Score

A mismatch awkwardness of ideas built upon a solid foundation.

The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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