Myth making

Apr 17 2019 | By More

Jim Harbourne on his Myth of the Singular Moment

Every fringe seems to throw up its own little wonders, says Thom Dibdin. Shows that resonate long after the other, more flashy, immediately appealing and headline events have left your thoughts.

Last year’s little wonder was, for me, a quiet mid-evening show with just Jim Harbourne and Kirsty Eila McIntyre on a stage, bare but for the instruments they would be playing over the course of the next hour, as they wove together stories of possible futures and unquantifiable questions.

Design: Ross Napier

There was Sophie, with an envelope of great import, and Dalir, on his way to Beachy Head where he knew he would fail. Somehow a whale swam through it and at every turn of the stories the music, played on a range of traditional Scottish instruments, called out the mood.

This was The Myth of the Singular Moment. A feast for the mind and the spirit, quite different in tone and presentation from Tortoise in a Nutshell’s work, with which Harbourne is more usually associated.

Ahead of the play’s return for a performance at Assembly Roxy this Saturday, followed by a ceilidh fundraiser for Tortoise in a Nutshell’s upcoming appearance in New York with Feral, Æ asked Harbourne to tell us about how The Myth of the Singular Moment came into being and something of the depths which lie behind its creation.

The Story

I began thinking about the show a couple of years ago, writes Jim Harbourne. It started out as a very cerebral exploration of some very big existential questions. If there really is a multiverse and we’re only aware of the specific universal permutation we live in, what does that mean when it comes to choices we make? Big and broad and a tad confusing.

Jim Harbourne

Then I thought about the nature of a two-way split in reality – a 50/50 chance, and I realised what I was probably subconsciously thinking about the whole time.

When I was in primary school, my mum was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. There was no known case of it in my Mum’s family history, and it came as a shock to all of us. My parents never hid it from us, and always told us the truth. We were supported, treated with love and respect and were prepared for whatever was going to happen to Mum.

Mum died 10 years ago, in March 2009. Fairly soon after, I started to think about my own future seriously for the first time – including the somewhat muddy morality of having children of my own. The feeling of invincibility of my early twenties faded.

I have a 50/50 chance of developing the disease as it is hereditary. There are promising treatments on the horizon, but until they are here, I have a coin to flip. Now that I am in my thirties, I am considering genetic testing to know for sure whether I have the faulty gene or not. Huntington’s kicks in (typically) at around the age of 40.

Would you want to know? Would you want to face such a certain fate? Intellectually (and all existential fear aside), it is an interesting question that I reckon there are a thousand arguments for and against.

Design: Ross Napier

I felt that writing something about this quandary would help me make a choice – or at least help illuminate the nature of the quandary itself. It was at that point – in the writing of something that people would actually see – that I was reminded that everyone has a coin. There is something in everyone’s life that can be confronted or challenged.

That’s why Myth isn’t a biographical story. Sophie, who has an envelope in which the coin has been flipped for her, is in no way me. In the broader story, it was so important for me to think about the wider human experience.

So the original impetus for the story is still there in Dalir’s story. In one universe he grew up in Tehran, his parents alive and well, Iran still a democratic, secular country. But in this universe, he is Scottish, and the world is the way it is. The story of Dalir and the Stranger expresses the interesting, though cerebral, core of the play: the Multiverse and Quantum Immortality. But it is Sophie’s story that is the heart, because her crisis is real.

I too have an envelope to open, and probably very soon, but the point of the show is that everyone has an envelope. At the very least, we all have the choice of whether to open it or not.


My background as a theatre-maker is predominantly with visual theatre. I have been with Tortoise in a Nutshell since the company’s inception in 2010. With this show, however, I knew that the fundamental question of the play could only be expressed with words. I thought that the conundrum of the show should be put directly to the audience, with eye-contact and plain language. It really underpins my aim that this is a universal story.

Poster. Designed by Ross Napier

It is also a show designed for any venue, however remote. I am extremely gratified that it will embark on a rural tour of Scotland in September 2019.

As for the songs, we feel the music more than we consciously understand it. The songs carry no vital narrative information, rather they inform the emotional arc of the play.

Our director, Ross MacKay, was a driving force in the simplification of the staging. Where there was room for trickery, complex stage-craft and visual techniques, Ross cut through all of that to the core of what the show is – a story simply told.

The Music

The first major success for the show’s development was to secure Kirsty Eila McIntyre as co-performer. A gifted actor, singer and musician, her involvement broadened the scope of the music hugely. I am a (largely) self-taught folky musician, Kirsty is classically trained. The combination really works.

In the show, between us, we play the Indian Harmonium, Viola, Flute, Guitar, Bouzouki and Autoharp. As with all my shows, I wanted to find the right blend of timbres and tones, and the result of this combination is surprisingly melodious. My brother Nick Harbourne created beautiful soundscapes from these instruments to underpin the spoken-word sections giving an ethereal, dronal sound that conjures up feelings of infinite space.

We wanted to make music that would work in a tiny back-room in a pub all the way to a large theatrical stage. I think we have managed to do that with instruments that draw the eye, and that can fill a space, even though there are only two of us playing.

Listings and links

The Myth of the Singular Moment
Assembly Roxy, 2 Roxburgh Place, EH8 9SU. Phone booking: 0131 623 3030.
Saturday 20 April 2019
Evening: 7pm.
This performance will be followed by a ceilidh to raise funds towards Tortoise in a Nutshell taking Feral to New York, for a month long run at 59e59 Theatres. Ulysses Jones is reforming to provide the music, joined by guest musicians Sir Tom Watton and Martyn Dempsey. Closing the evening will be a reprise of music from The Myth of the Singular Moment performed by a seven-piece band.  CDs and posters of Myth will be available for purchase. Tickets (including celidh): Book here.

The Myth of the Singular Moment
Hay Memorial Hall, Cornhill, Banff AB45 2EH
Saturday 4 May 2019
Tickets and details: Book here.

The Myth of the Singular Moment is scheduled to tour in September on a double bill with My Name is Irrelevant by Matthew Leonard. Tour dates will include Lyth, Cromarty, Macrobert, Peebles and Summerhall.

The music for The Myth of the Singular Moment is available to buy from Jim Harbourne’s bandcamp:


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