August 17, 2009 / 6:12 PM / 10 years ago

Birdmen of St. Kilda rivets Edinburgh festival

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - The “Birdmen’ of St. Kilda, billed as an opera at the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), provided a flashback to the past and a scenic panorama of the present in a 90-minute multimedia show and international cast in Gaelic, French and English.

The show looked back to the days of the unique way of life of the small isolated community on the tiny island group off the west coast of Scotland who made their living partly by harvesting seabirds and their eggs.

The Birdmen hanging precariously by ropes would seek their prey in the crannies and crevices of the highest sea cliffs in the British Isles as the incessant surf seethed and pounded hundreds of feet below.

“The feathers pay the rent, we eat the meat, the oil fuels our lamps.”

The riveting performance portrays the lifestyle of a disappeared people with contemporary music and haunting Gaelic song, with the cast of actors singers and acrobats telling the story of the “Birdmen’.

But the human action serves as a virtual backdrop to the islands themselves, Hirta, Soay, Boreray and Dun, formed by a volcanic eruption some 60 million years ago and the subsequent collapse of the caldera.

The group marks the westernmost point of the United Kingdom, some 40 miles off Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Two large screens framed the stage at Edinburgh’s Festival Theater, following the lifestyle of the islanders with archival film from 1908 to an eventual evacuation of St Kilda in 1930.

Interwoven with these emotional images and haunting Gaelic songs by Alyth McCormack is spectacular contemporary film of the island group, the only site in Britain designated as a dual World Heritage site for its natural and cultural importance.

The production is multi-national: director Thierry Poquet and the chorus and the acrobats, dramatically mimicking the Birdmen, were from France, the orchestra under musical director Jean-Paul Dessy from Belgium, choreographer Juha-Pekka Marsalo from Finland, and scriptwriter Iain Finlay MacLeod from Western Scotland.

St Kilda, now owned by the National Trust of Scotland, is inhabited today only by a small Defense Ministry team manning a radar station, which could itself be evacuated shortly.

The program for Birdmen refers to an idyllic way of life.

It was hardly that.

The community went back perhaps 2,000 or more years but lived a life of poverty and hardship. From birth to death, life was a risky business, and disease took its toll.

The name St Kilda remains as topic for speculation — there is no known saint by that name. But the spectacular cliffs, reefs and sea and bird life remain a potent attraction for the visitor.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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