Arts Review: O is for Hoolet

Ishbel MacFarlane, Arches, 15th – 17th April

Presented as part of the Arches’ BEHAVIOUR15 festival…

Ishbel MacFarlane’s one-woman show about the Scots language is a touching, thought-provoking and highly enjoyable piece. There is a friendly and communicative atmosphere which pervades the show, apparent from the very beginning when the audience is warmly greeted by Ishbel herself as they file into the performance space. This atmosphere is continued through the format of the performance, which is a type of Q&A – the audience read out questions about language that are on little cards they’ve been given and Ishbel answers them.

Not all the questions are for Ishbel, however – some are for linguistic scholars, some are for Scottish writers, some are indeed for Ishbel but aimed at her four- or seventeen-year-old self.  Ishbel answers each of the questions in character which adds a real touch of humour to the performance while also being highly informative. The show raises important issues about language and our perception of language, for example the fact that children were punished and are still reprimanded today for speaking Scots in school, but in a way which encourages the audience to be a part of the discussion.

As it is the audience asking the questions rather than simply being told the information it invites them to question for themselves all of the things they know and think and feel about Scots. This idea of unpacking issues of language to reveal their hidden complications is mirrored in the set, as Ishbel has placed many small ‘houses’ around the front of the stage which are made of cardboard boxes with open books for roofs. These book-roofs can be removed to reveal props which Ishbel uses when telling the different stories of her performance.

There is also a very emotive aspect of the piece as several of Ishbel’s stories are personal – for example she describes finding an old recording of her mother singing ‘Jock o’ Hazeldean’ for a Scottish folk festival, but not in the traditional way, and learning of her mother’s shame at being so out of touch with her own culture. A reading of Liz Lochhead’s poem ‘Kidspoem/Bairnsang’ and a performance by Ishbel of the same song her mother sang are also very touching moments, and highlight the effect language can have on us and therefore the importance in treating it properly.

O is for Hoolet succeeds in opening the audience’s eyes to the intricacies of Scots language and, while admitting there are questions which do not yet have answers, definitely inspires more questions to be asked.

[Caitlin Walker – @hirquitallient]

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