“The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project”

at Northern Stage, St Stephens on Thursday 8th August 2013

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

I’m so glad The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project exists. With the independence referendum looming and the possibility of an independent Scotland and (perhaps) independent England at some point in the future, it is important that we think about national identities and what it means to be a member of either country. In creating this project, Lorne Campbell (Artistic Director of Northern Stage) has found a way of bringing people together in an attempt to understand who we are. It’s a mad, huge idea, and it makes for a great evening out.

Six artists (Cora Bissett, Daniel Bye, Lucy Ellinson, Kieran Hurley, Alex Kelly and Chris Thorpe) have all created their own take on a border ballad for the show (a song – normally written to a specific form – from the Anglo-Scottish border which has some interrogation of identity). On any particular evening, we see two of these balladeers perform their piece.

On the night I saw the show, Bissett and Bye performed their pieces. The former is a Scot whose ballad remembers – through its form – the musical “turns” her family have performed at gatherings throughout her life. Its content focuses on a woman who single-handedly took on the UK border agency as they attempted to remove asylum seekers from her neighbourhood, thus considering the fluidity of national identities and the arbitrariness of borders. Bye, on the other hand, says his “is not a border ballad”, even though his story contains a clear narrative and a refrain which repeats itself. In it, he considers his identity as a man from Middlesbrough and the complications that brings (“I’m not a fucking Geordie”). It’s a surreal, witty piece of writing, and ends with a 90s classic which suggests the locality of ballads has expanded to a world scale now we live in a globalised world.

My favourite part of the night, however, comes after this, with the Bloody Great Border Ballad itself. At the beginning of the festival, Aly Macrae penned the opening verses and chorus to a border ballad about a baby found on the UK border as the nation splits in two. On each subsequent evening, a different “guest balladeer” adds to the story, so that by the end of the festival there’ll be 19 verses in this epic tale. And it’s all going to be available online too, so we can experience it together.

By putting the personal stories in tandem with this huge, collective one, the evening demonstrates that national identity is both a private and a public construction, and that we must talk to one another and share stories if we are to understand who we are. And then, at the end of the show, we all partake in one absurd, fantastically bizarre act of sharing, as The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project hammers its point home that we are better together.

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