Theatre review: O is for Hoolet (The Arches)

O is For Hoolet
O is For Hoolet

The Scots language has had a tough time of it over recent generations – a disservice that Ishbel McFarlane wants to put right.

In ‘O is for Hoolet’ (a hoolet is an owl for those less than familiar with the mither tongue) the award-winning performer examines what has gone wrong, why we should care, and drills down into the very core of what language is.

The ingenious structure for this wonderful lecture/play hybrid is to scatter a series of cards around the audience with numbered questions written on them.

Prompted by a televisual bingo caller the coopted cast members read out the cards, either addressing McFarlane (at various ages and stages) directly, or quizzing one of several historic figures and linguistics experts deftly portrayed by the performer.

The replies inform the discussion, while also taking the audience on a personal and emotive tour of McFarlane’s own experiences of language growing up.

It’s a very effective mechanism for skipping from character to character without further explanation. It also allows for the dissemination of fairly dry academic topics with ease and humour.

Have you ever heard of ‘linguistic habitus’? Probably not, but with the use of a few hastily-collected objects and a toy house, McFarlane manages to communicate a hugely abstract subject in a way that both educates and entertains.

What appears from the complexity of multiple dialogue arcs (all beautifully constructed) is the story of a language stretched to breaking point by a combination of snobbery and historic apathy.

The future isn’t so bleak though, not least because of artists like McFarlane and Scottish Makar Liz Lochhead. The latter is represented by a poem which in mere minutes scotches any lingering doubts as to the intrinsic value of Scots.

Heartwarming and cerebral, ‘Hoolet’ is a triumph of both style and content.