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MAIRI CAMPBELL: PULSE - Tron Theatre, Glasgow - 27 January 2016

For many folk musicians, Celtic Connections becomes a second festive period. It’s a bit busier than the first one - there’s no lazing in front of the fire eating mince pies, it’s more of a marathon. Everyone involved is constantly running between rehearsals, soundchecks, performances, the showcase Scotland trade fair and late nights at the festival club - catching up with old friends and making new ones in what is no doubt the most sleepless month in the life of the Scottish folk musician. And now that it’s all over, I’ve heard much more complaint about the post-Celtic blues than I ever have about the post-Christmas blues!

This year brought Mairi Campbell’s autobiographical one woman show, Pulse, to the festival. The show charts her musical and personal journey from a rigid, authoritarian course in classical viola at London Guildhall School of Music, to her family croft on Lismore, Mexico and Cape Breton, before returning to Scotland, in love with traditional music. The production combined theatre, live music, recorded sounds, spoken word and dance. My initial reaction to this was one of scepticism. Having never seen Campbell perform, I was interested to see how she’d manage, in a solo performance, to combine all of these elements in an engaging way. Running late and sprinting down a soaking grey Buchanan Street to try and make it on time, I found myself wondering how relevant this show would be to the rest of the Celtic Connections line-up.

Blasting in to the Tron Theatre and tripping up the stairs to the empty back row (the only empty seats in the house), I managed to catch a glimpse of the empty stage before the lights went down. It was a bare sight: a pendulum made from a lichen covered rock suspended from a tripod of hazel branches, a chair and a music stand doing little to fill the space. Soggy jacket off and crumpled under the seat, Campbell’s feet hit the stage. The minimal set providing no hints as to the setting, she assumes the role of narrator, announcing “Guildhall School of Music, 1988”. Switching back to her own character, she plays a complex piece of classical music, her foot firmly keeping time. Finishing the impressive passage there’s another personality change to her tutor, who barks, “don’t tap your foot”. Campbell’s frustration at this limitation quickly boils over, and she hurls the music stand across the room, telling her tutor: “I said you can get tae f**k!” She then switches back to narrator mode, telling the audience, “I got on the train back home to Edinburgh. I never went back.”

This outburst was the end of Campbell’s time of oppression at Guildhall, and what follows is the story of her 23 year old self finding her feet in traditional music (where toe tapping is allowed, even a must). As she travels, she falls in love with a Mexican priest, and then again, with the fiddle music and step dance of Cape Breton. It’s described, in the programme I read on the subway home after the show, as a “coming home”.

Campbell took the audience to these different places from the same stage, with the same minimal props. She might as well have had a cast of six or seven on stage with her though. She’s her 23 year old self, softly spoken (aside from her initial outburst at the Guildhall). She becomes the narrator, adopting a slightly pantomimic voice. Scrunching up her face gives the effect of ageing 20 years, and she becomes Lachie from Lismore. Hoicking her floaty blue dress up to her knees and speaking in an almost impenetrably thick accent, she becomes Esmerelda the Mexican temptress. They are all comically convincing.

I could feel my scepticism dissipating as the show continued. There is side splitting comedy when she falls in love with a Mexican priest and heart warming humanity as she learns her first tune, The Boy’s Lament For His Dragon, on the isle of Lismore. Her use of abstract movement (tumbling with her viola and bow floating round her, drawing the audience in to her state of wondering confusion) is captivating. This abstraction provided also the avenue for thought, the realisation that this autobiographical show is allegorically linked to much broader themes that relate to us all.

Her personal upheaval and confusion as she undergoes this great change is not so different to what has happened in Scotland over the past two years. Irrespective of the outcome, the independence referendum was a time of great questioning and upheaval; Scotland now is a very different place from 2014. In her own words: “Socially, culturally and politically, Scotland too is finding its feet, its pulse.” This idea of pulse is explained by the pendulum. As she sets it swinging, it comes to represent a “pulse” that she has tuned in to. From being at odds with her environment, she is now completely in tune: musically and personally. “The pulse is retained, irrespective of what’s happening around it.” To me, pulse seems like a reminder of the need for change.

Pulse took up the first half of the show. Throughout the second, Campbell played songs from her time as part of The Cast, some self penned and some traditional ballads. Throughout, her foot was firmly tapping. It was wonderful to see this side of her as a performer; her character shone. Her stories and gentle manner resonated with me and the rest of the audience.

With her final number, she told the audience: “I’m going to play something I’ve not written yet.” With her viola in her hand and microphone in front of her, there was no guessing what direction this would take. But I doubt there was a single person in the theatre not on the edge of their seat!

It started with a simple melody placed from the viola, to which a vocal line was added, continually increasing in energy. Eventually the audience was involved too, first of all mimicking this line, but as the momentum built, everybody found their own tangent. The guy sitting in front of me clicked his tongue on the fourth beat of every bar. Further down, there seemed to be a choir in the front row, all singing in harmony with each other. At the centre of it, Campbell sat on the stage grinning wildly, plucking her viola with great force. Everybody’s feet were tapping as one, she’d managed to make us all experience a collective musical pulse.

Throughout the show, the audience was watching a woman in her element. Campbell seems far now from her oppression at the Guildhall. One of her former tutors, Peter Renshaw, recalled: “Mairi had an independent spirit and was always searching for ways of expressing her creative musical voice. This search brought together her improvising, composing and performing skills that were never fully recognised or valued by the Guildhall. Mairi's voice was seen as a challenge to the system which, at that time (1988), had very little respect for anyone who was seen as deviating from the norm.”

Mairi’s independent spirit seems right at home where it is though. The overarching way in which she has used her understanding of the Scottish folk scene, music, and her own life, in the creation of Pulse makes it unique. Campbell agitates the forefront of this notion of combining art forms, at least in the folk world, developing what a show or gig can be. And far from being irrelevant to the rest of the Celtic Connections line-up, Pulse, to my mind at least, is also at the heart of it all.

Joe Peach