Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more. “Do you believe?” he cried.
Peter Pan: JM Barrie
With the lightest touch, David Greig raises the spirits of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and their maker, JM Barrie, in the opening sequence of the National Theatre of Scotland’s magical haunting film My Light Shines On: Ghost Light.
A ghost light, in theatre lore, is the light left on by the last person to leave the building and switched off by the first to arrive. “Its constant illumination,” says NTS, “represents the enduring spirit of theatre in dark times.”
In the 30 minute film by Hope Dickson Leach the light flickers through every nook and cranny of Edinburgh’s empty Festival Theatre, the old Empire on the Covid-cleared South Bridge which should be heaving at this time of year. It teases and tantalises Afton Moran’s Peter Pan, casts offstage shadows on Thierry Mabonga, throws a dazzling halo behind Siobhan Redmond performing Jackie Kay’s Waiting in the Wings.
Spellbound, you follow the trail round the building through dressing rooms, up lighting tower, along corridors, into cupboards, foyer, prompt room, and back on to the stage. As Thom Dibdhin’s fine review for the Stage observes, the NTS which has mastered the art of creating ‘theatre without walls’ now rallies us to the cause of buttressing those theatre walls by getting “right into the fabric of a theatre building – its bones, as it were.”
How to support this cause? Peter Pan knows how. Tink will survive if children believe in fairies. “If you believe,” he shouted, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” Many clapped in JM Barrie’s version though “some beasts hissed”. In Ghost Light, Afton Moran’s heart-tuggingly solitary, echoing, clap seems to revive the waning Tinker Bell and we are drawn towards the morning light streaming through an opened window.
We can do more than clap
In real life we need to do more than clap. The EIF YouTube channel is fast filling with a treasure trove of talent: music, theatre, ballet. There’s more still – poetry, dance, plays – via NTS YouTube channel and so many others on different platforms: The Stand Comedy, jazz, piping via Inner Ear to pick just one more. But we have not yet acquired the habit of paying online for what we crave in real life. In our new Neverland, big tech Captain Hook grows ever richer while lost boys and girls of theatre, music and all performing arts struggle for survival as we gorge at home on good things ‘free’ to view. Streaming giants of the US – Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Disney Plus – have all grown fatter during UK lockdown. At the last count Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is now worth $188.2 billion and, says Forbes: “Despite the employee complaints, business is booming at Amazon and Bezos keeps getting richer by the day.”
We have a vital part to play in this drama crisis. We can and must put pressure on government to invest in our cultural core. Not just the great national institutions – our concert halls, theatres and big line-up arenas – but the local lifeblood projects that would be filling basement bars, community halls, backlane studios and choir stalls. But we can also, and must, get into the habit of paying for enjoying the wonderful motley mix of human skills which brings music, dance and theatre to our screens. Just as we would if we were attending the events in real life. Or see a generation of talent fade away.
“The clapping stopped suddenly,” writes JM Barrie, “but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.”
Then off she flies with Peter Pan to rescue Wendy from Captain Hook.
Featured image is a screenshot from the film Ghost Light directed by Hope Dickson Leach – in collaboration with NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie and dramaturg Philip Howard.
Some essential viewing
Edinburgh International Festival: My Light Shines On, celebrating the Festival City.
National Theatre of Scotland: Theatre Without Walls
Fringe comedy, The Stand streamed, music, discussion: Inner Ear livestream