Nan Shepherd: Howling at the Machine

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Three stars

One of the by-products of the belated recognition of Nan Shepherd’s seminal poetic memoir, The Living Mountain, has seen the Aberdeen-born author’s image immortalised on a Scottish five-pound note. What journalist Erland Clouston calls his animated lecture is a similarly off-kilter homage. Drawn from his own first-hand experience of Shepherd, this is fused with a wild dramatic collage featuring an array of audience plants bounding onstage as real-life historical figures.

With Clouston expounding from a lectern as if giving a sermon in this presentation under the banner of The Dynamite Club, his study of Shepherd puts her presence at the centre of the twentieth century that shaped her. This is the case whether expounding the upheavals of war, or else hiding away her unpublished manuscript of The Living Mountain for thirty years.

Clouston uses a kaleidoscope of projections running alongside depictions of the likes of Walter Benjamin and Sigmund Freud, performed by a pick and mix of performers culled from his address book. With a game Su Clark onstage pretty much throughout as Nan, Clouston casts his subject as a kind of Zenned-out pre-Beat hippy. This puts her work in an anti-establishment tradition of Lewis Carroll, Allen Ginsberg and Jefferson Airplane, with some robotic dancing and extra-added Bjork thrown in for good measure.

The trip that follows is rooted in a very British take on 1960s performance art that is both madcap cabaret and part of an ongoing attempt to give a major artist her due. While Clouston and his circus of performers inform and entertain, there are moments beyond the recorded contributions from Karine Polwart, Gerda Stevenson and Tilda Swinton that you’re willing Clark to grab the spotlight so we can hear more of Shepherd in her own words. Despite this, the cavalcade of energy and imagination that flows from Clouston’s construction is well worth a fiver, and a whole lot more besides.