Elspeth Turner's SpectreTown

Elspeth Turner talks identity, Scottish ancestry and homespun Scottish theatre.

Preview by Alice Lannon | 03 Aug 2015

A play about "cultural inheritance and how it shapes our lives", Elspeth Turner’s SpectreTown has been a long time in the making. Over the last few years Turner has been busy writing and researching, inspired by the folklore of her native North East coast of Scotland. Continually returning there to write, she became enthralled by the Bothy Ballad – an ancient folksong born of a turbulent political landscape. These songs were sung by men – "even if," Turner exclaims, "they were from a woman’s perspective! So, as a woman, exploring these songs gives a very interesting context." She was also intrigued by the city of Aberdeen and what life there has been like throughout history. What emerged from this was a play about the way our ancestors lived, worked and died, and how that shapes our personalities today.

Turner returns again and again to the theme of identity, "the umbilical cord running through the play." Although it may be set in the North East of Scotland, she is keen to stress that the themes it explores are universal. This is interesting, as she has lived and worked in both New York and London for several years. What made her so keen to return to Scotland? While living elsewhere, she began questioning the concepts of Scottishness and belonging, and that sparked her desire to return. Starting out as an actor, she turned to writing as a creative channel for her questions. When her first play, The Idiot at the Wall, was toured around village halls in the Highlands and Islands, she found it such a different and rich experience – so rewarding for the company and local audiences alike – that she wanted to stay and do more work in her native country. Audiences are "still hungry for homespun Scottish theatre," Turner says, and so is she.

That’s not to say she has ruled out travelling to more far-flung places in the future, but at present the show’s upcoming run at the Fringe is the most exhilarating and pressing thing to think about. A succession of shows at the prestigious Assembly Hall is a dream come true, but what she's most looking forward to this summer is sharing it with her collaborators. "This year we are in partnership with Cumbernauld Theatre so it’ll be great to have their support and go to the Fringe as a team. It's been a really fruitful union." You can tell it's more about the experience than the prestige as she gleefully says, "Do you know, I’m just really excited to get in the theatre and see the magic of the play come to life."

The language of SpectreTown is very rich, very poetical – and written in Doric. While non-Doric speakers could be made wary by this, Turner affirms that they'll still absolutely be able to understand the play. She wants it to be authentic, but they’ve been testing it out on non-Doric speakers to make sure it's accessible too and she assures that it won't be long at all before your ears attune: "The strong, guttural accent gives extra depth to the characters, highlighting their needs and wants." Although the performers will be speaking in a 19th century version of the dialect, it is very much a contemporary play complete with strong language. Turner passionately decries the way that regional dialects are not often portrayed by the media, and is pleased to be bringing them into the spotlight.  

With its exploration of identity encircling past, present and future, SpectreTown looks set to be a beautiful and eye-opening experience for audiences from Scotland and beyond.

SpectreTown, Assembly Hall, 6-31 Aug (not 12, 17, 24), 1.30pm https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/spectretown