As our final instalment of “Go See - Futureproof”, National Theatre of Scotland invited us to a celebration with a difference at the energetic participatory theatre production of “The World is a Wedding, A Celebration of Unst in Everyday Life”.
Show creators Mammalian Diving Reflex (Canada) and the young people of Shetland have been studying Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman who came to Unst in 1948 and said he was there to study the local economy but, instead, observed everyone there. Seventy years after his bestselling research, a cast of Shetland youth applied Goffman’s insights at Unstfest, the UK’s most northernly festival and this production is a conclusion of what they discovered.
Initially we were instructed to wait in a closed area of the foyer in Mareel. Being familiar with our surroundings, we were instantly suspicious that this would be part of the production and indeed the company mingled with us for 10 minutes or so before our Narrator announced that we we had found ourselves in the future and our task was to contribute to a wedding celebration in what sounded like a utopian community repopulating the small island of Unst.
We were escorted into the main auditorium and greeted with the aftermath of what looked like a pretty good party. The company encouraging members of the audience to join them, started to clear up the mess so we could make preparations for our ceremony. We were instructed that we had to sacrifice our mobile phones into a bucket and discard our belongings so we could fully immerse in the celebration. The young cast then delightfully poured water into the bucket, along with a healthy helping of saliva. Looking around at each other with nervous laughter we realised this was a production like no other.
A slideshow and energetic song was performed displaying people in the Unst community as figures to be honoured and saluted to, which the company did with great gusto (the phrase “Unst Above All” and a gesture to be repeated throughout the production.) It was then time to decorate the space and the cake, with the audience joining in the construction before being invited to sit on the stage for a drink of juice.
A discussion was then held in a style of a daytime TV show, where the company cleverly used information gleamed from the foyer earlier to engage their subjects in dialogue. The conversation was steered to identify a “chosen one” who was then whisked away to some mysterious location.
This rest, however, was a brief interlude in the production and we were instructed we now needed to get “dressed for the occasion” and led out of the venue into a small side room. What awaited us was not, however, a wardrobe but a miniature club complete with music, disco lights and it’s own DJ. We all danced while being decorated with glittery ties and tinsel before being escorted back into the auditorium which now had a green carpet runway with dramatic oversize swing dominating the space. Our chosen one had returned, with a large foam shape headpiece depicting the island of Unst. Being guided to our seats in this decidedly more formal affair, we were all wondering who would be getting married.
And the truth of our event was revealed, it was the audience who were marrying Unst and being initiated into the brotherhood. Two by two, as if heading into Noah’s Arc, we were guided to the swing to agree our obscure vows, all energetically announced by our passionate leader. After dismounting we embraced Unst, and one by one hugged all those who had come before us stating “Welcome to Unst”. This, for me, was one of the best parts of this production. It was a joy to see each of our fellow “followers” face to face and share this experience with them. Some tentatively patting each other with discomfort, and others exuberantly embracing one and other. All of us experiencing something different, all of us joined by this social experiment and most importantly, all of us smiling in open joy.
Our nuptials complete, we leapt into another salute to our Unst Saints, a rendition of the anthem and an energetic dancing session. We danced the Wedding March, Strip the Willow and of course the ever present foundation of all good Shetland Sprees - The Boston Two Step. To finish we were all offered a whisky nip, a slice of cake and invited to come to the next wedding ceremony as the born again community of Unst to initiate further unsuspecting humans.
During this piece of theatre, there was no moment when there wasn’t a sense of joy in the room. Characteristically of participatory theatre there were moments where we felt unsure of exactly what was going on, exacerbated by strange requests and unexpected directions to move to unknown spaces. The best moments were when we gave in to the event and stopped trying to understand, instead just surrendering ourselves as we did our phones to be soaked in the fabulous eccentricity of what was going on around us.
Anyone who has attended a Shetland Wedding, particularly in our smaller rural communities, would recognise familiarity in this show. The community clear up in our glad rags, the blend of modern disco with traditional Shetland Dance band and of course the random Whisky Nips which appear at every eventuality. More so what the company captured is the sense of community, of togetherness which is intrinsic to any Shetland event. Everyone comes for a good dance and a dram to celebrate together regardless of culture, social class, age or nationality.
This wasn’t some kind of a tourist event to attract people to live in Unst, it wasn’t a romantic tale of the most northern phone box, pub or bus stop or even a statement of our beautiful natural landscape. It was a celebration of people, of social interaction and community and as we walked out of the doors wondering exactly what had just happened to us, I felt a sense of pride to be one of the chosen ones married to the island of Unst.