Reviews: The Merchant of Venice, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow & The Importance of Being Earnest, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

THEATRE

A

The Merchant Of Venice

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until August 1

A

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 16

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A

It is impossible, it need hardly be said, to stage Shakespeare’s troubling-but-brilliant play The Merchant Of Venice in the 21st century without considering the odious history of modern, racial anti-Semitism. The vicious Judeophobia of the Bard’s day considered the Jews to be religious misbelievers and “God killers”, whereas the later, pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism of the likes of the German Nazis and, indeed, as we were reminded recently, Britain’s own King Edward VIII, saw them as a dangerous and inferior “race”.

This shift, from religious persecution to genocidal racial hatred, hangs, menacingly, above any new production of the play. It came into focus sharply and unexpectedly during Tuesday night’s performance in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens.

A shiver ran down my spine during the famous court scene, in which the Jewish moneylender Shylock (played with an excellent, measured dignity by Kirk Bage) is denied his pound of the flesh of the Jew-baiting merchant Antonio (performed with an unusual, bisexual informality by the ever-impressive Alan Steele). I was shocked to hear a significant proportion of the audience laughing along with the Judeophobic triumphalism of Ben Clifford’s exuberant, young Gratiano (a friend of the recently imperilled merchant).

My fellow theatregoers were not, I suspect, expressing some kind of deep-seated anti-Semitism, so much as forgetting themselves in an instinctive association with a character’s mirth. It was a chilling moment, nonetheless.

Director Gordon Barr’s thoughtful production seems almost to have anticipated this. At the play’s close, as the braying Christians congratulate her on her role in her father’s downfall, Stephanie McGregor’s contemplative Jessica (daughter of Shylock) sings a somber, Hebrew song, reconnecting her powerfully with her religious and cultural heritage, and, indeed, with her persecuted father.

It is a moment of simple brilliance which, more than Gillian Argo’s functional-but-unlovely set (all concrete and scaffolding) or the costumes and music (both from the early-20th century), makes this a memorably modern production of Shakespeare’s most politically challenging play.

The political challenge of Oscar Wilde’s great comedy The Importance Of Being Earnest falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the British establishment. Is there a more loathsome comic monster in world theatre than the unlikely matchmaker Lady Bracknell, an excessively snobbish old Tory who opposes education for the lower orders as it “would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square”?

Margaret Preece as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo: Douglas McBride
Margaret Preece as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo: Douglas McBride

His invention of Bracknell says as much about the real Wilde as does his enduring Irish republicanism and his authorship of the Corbynite pamphlet The Soul Of Man Under Socialism. Just as the Irish dandy was an unlikely revolutionary in a velvet smoking jacket, so The Importance Of Being Earnest is a satirical iron fist clad in a reassuring satin glove.

Indeed, reassurance is the order of the day in Richard Baron’s fine production for Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Everything, from the impeccable cast to designer Ken Harrison’s opulent period costumes and set (a perfect combination of neo-classicism, orientalism and William Morris-style decor), dovetails with the drama’s comic commentary on hypocrisy.

The play is, to a great extent, about the chasm between the upper classes’ keeping up of appearances and their real motivations and behaviours. It requires, therefore, an ostentatious, young actor in the role of its chief protagonist, the pampered playboy Algernon Moncrieff.

Although he overdoes the hair tossing and housecoat swishing early on, the aptly-named Gavin Swift does a superb job of embodying the louche aristocrat who deceives his way into the affections of the not-so-innocent 18-year-old Cecily Cardew. The effervescent, young rascal would be nothing, however, without a hideous Lady B, and Margaret Preece is abundantly, and delightfully, dreadful.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 26, 2015

© Mark Brown

Preview: Festival of Ian Smith, CCA, Glasgow

Death is not the end at Festival of Ian Smith

A year on from the untimely death of leading performance artist Ian Smith, his artistic collaborators are honouring his life and work with a celebratory festival, writes Mark Brown 

Performance artist, humorist, theatre-maker, film-maker, visual artist, singer-songwriter, musician, ringmaster, compere and self-defined “art gangster”. To list the roles taken up by Ian Smith, who died, aged 55, on August 1 of last year, is like reading out a roll call of the inhabitants of an artistic village, rather than the talents of just one man.

Chief among his achievements was acclaimed Glasgow-based performance company Mischief La-Bas (MLB), which he co-founded in 1992 and directed until his death. A year on from his untimely passing, his collaborators in MLB, including his wife Angie Dight (who is now director of the company), are celebrating the vitality and diversity of his tremendous output with a three-day event entitled Festival Of Ian Smith.Ian Smith with pipe

The festival, which will be held in the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow, will include an exhibition reflecting the cross-fertilisation of art forms in Smith’s work. There will also be special screenings of his films and screen installations alighting upon his work in comedy, art, music and group performance.

“You’ve got to have an anniversary, so why not make it a celebration of a life?”, says Dight. “Ian always said he was a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’.

“You could have an exhibition, but that would only cover a tiny bit of his output. You need to bring in as many forms as possible to reflect the diversity of his work and the fact that no form took precedence over another.”

As anyone who is familiar with Smith’s ouevre will tell you, the festival is bound to have a very strong comic strand. In his art, as in his life (the two were never very far apart), Smith had a wonderfully unique sense of humour.

His work was, as Dight explains, “always about seeing the surreal and the absurd in things, and being able to play with them. It’s also about treating things with a little bit of irreverence and disrespect. There’s a lot of humour in that.”

Perhaps the greatest influence on Smith’s work, and on MLB, was leftfield European performance. Both Smith and Dight were members of the famous French new circus troupe Archaos; he as  ringleader, she as performer.

“A lot of European street theatre was very influential on us”, Dight recalls. “That’s when we first started to see work that was not only absurdist, but also not based in language or narrative. Before Ian and I went to Archaos, we were seeing some of that stuff.

“Obviously, at Archaos, we saw more of that kind of work and met other people who were doing work like that. We found it a bit edgy, a bit bonkers, some of it, and really refreshing.”

No festival of Smith would be complete without live performance. As Dight says, “it can’t all just be stuff from the past, there has to be work that’s about moving forward.”

Consequently, at the heart of the CCA jamboree will be a cabaret, on August 1, which will take death as its theme. There will be performances by an array of artists, including the likes of Neil Butler (long-time friend and collaborator of Smith), Donna Rutherford and Pauline Goldsmith.

If the idea of a celebratory “death cabaret” seems strange, that is only because, in Dight’s opinion, in Western societies we have an unhealthy attitude towards death. “In Western cultures”, she says, “people are uncomfortable talking about death, and that’s really not good, for young people in particular.”

The death cabaret, like the extraordinary funeral and party for Smith almost a year ago, aims to challenge the fearful, death denying attitudes that predominate in our society. “There is no black and white in death”, Dight continues.

“A person doesn’t just disappear once they’ve died. Apart from their physical presence, so much about them still lives on.

“We really want to say to people in general, and younger people in particular, ‘you can celebrate people when they’ve died, it’s not the end of things.'”

Smith took his own life following a battle with deep depression in the last few years of his life. For Dight, it is important that the festival challenge our society’s taboos and misconceptions, not only about death, but also about mental health.

To that end, the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival will be raising money and awareness with a stall in the CCA throughout the celebration of Smith’s life and work.

However, as Dight is keen to point out, it would be wrong to view her late husband’s artistic output through the prism of his illness. “His work wasn’t defined by his illness, because, as he got more ill, he wasn’t doing so much work,” she explains.

The immense humour of Smith’s work is balanced with a darker, brooding strand which is evident, not only towards the end of his life, but also in much of his early output. Cannibalism, for example, was an early area of interest.

Festival Of Ian Smith is, says Dight, “about honouring Ian and showing a bit of his legacy. There’s a sense of wanting his work to be seen more widely.

“I love the fact that we’ve turned it into a festival. I think that’s funny, and I think he would have enjoyed that.”

Festival Of Ian Smith is at the CCA, Glasgow, July 31 to August 2. For more details, visit: http://www.cca-glasgow.com

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 19, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Festival de Almada 2015, Portugal

The Berliner Ensemble’s Brecht cabaret was the highlight of the opening days of Portugal’s biggest international theatre festival, writes Mark Brown

As the Edinburgh Festivals, not least the enormous Festival Fringe, approach like a speeding cultural juggernaut, it can be instructive to visit other summer festivals. A flick through the brochure of the 32nd annual Festival de Almada, the largest international theatre festival in Portugal, shows a programme which has intriguing similarities with the live drama on offer in the inaugural programme of new Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan.

The EIF boss’s decision to include tried-and-tested homegrown work (as opposed to a single world premiere representing Scottish theatre) and his programming of more of the kind of work that might be described as “fringe theatre” might seem radical to some. The Almada Festival – which is held in the city of Almada on the south bank of the River Tagus and across the water in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon – has been programming in this way for years.

The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn
The Berliner Ensemble. Photo: Thomas Eichhorn

The 2015 Almada programme boasts the kind of big, international names that have graced EIF stages over the years. From the famous Berliner Ensemble, to great German director Peter Stein and acclaimed Swiss theatre maker Christoph Marthaler, the Portuguese festival’s 14-day, 27-show programme holds its own against its better known cousins in Edinburgh and the French festival city of Avignon.

However, just as Linehan has opened the EIF to more leftfield, devised theatre (notably in the shape of Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified sinner by Stewart Laing’s currently, and shamefully, unfunded company Untitled Projects), Almada is host to a plethora of experimental and fringe productions.

One example is Joana Craveiro’s A Living Museum Of Small And Forgotten Memories. An attempt to grapple with the continued influence in Portugal of the country’s revolution against fascism in 1974, this four-hour show consists of “one prologue, seven performative lectures and a meal.”

Another fringe work in Almada, which did, indeed, originate on the Edinburgh Fringe, is a Portuguese staging, by Artistas Unidos, of The Events, Scottish dramatist David Greig’s contemplation of the massacre carried out by the Norwegian fascist Anders Breivik.

Diverse though festival director Rodrigo Francisco’s programme is, however, there can be little doubt that the highlight of the opening four days of his programme was the return to Almada of the Berliner Ensemble. Their show, entitled And Times Change…, is a quintessential Berliner production.

The piece brings together the poems and songs of the company’s founder Bertolt Brecht with the music of his collaborators Kurt Weill, Paul Dessau and Hanns Eisler. Musicians and actors, dressed in monochrome, sit opposite each other, as leading Portuguese actor Luis Vicente takes up the role of narrator, linking the songs and scenes for the mainly Lusophone audience.

What ensues is unmistakably German. From Mack The Knife and Pirate Jenny (both from The Threepenny Opera) to The Bilbao Song (from Happy End), the piece is performed with the combination of decadence, anger, uncertainty and cynical humour that characterised the cabaret of the interwar Weimar Republic.

Indeed, so brilliant are the performances of the entire ensemble, not least the superb Claudia Burckhardt (who sings with a sardonic sneer, surely as Brecht intended), that one feels transported to the world depicted in the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz. One can hear in every pointedly discordant note and see in every bleak-yet-defiant gesture exactly why the Nazis decried these outstanding and enduring artworks as “entartete musik” (degenerate music).

As the show’s title (And Times Change…), with the crucial ellipsis, implies, there are powerful echoes of the dangerously unstable 1920s and 1930s in our own troubled times. It is appropriate, then, that this production be presented in Portugal, which has, in recent years, teetered on the precipice on which Greece currently stands.

If the Berliner Ensemble offered the most impressive show of the festival’s early days, great things were also expected of its opening show, Marthaler’s King Size. However, as with his My Fair Lady – A Language Laboratory (which played at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012), I found myself bemused and unmoved by this tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of bourgeois relations.

The colliding of popular and classical songs, combined with ironically over-the-top and clownish performance, has become Marthaler’s postmodern signature. It seems to me all surface. Or, if it has hidden depths, they are very well hidden indeed.

There is a similar lack of depth to Your Best Guess, a patently incomplete Anglo-Portuguese experiment between Lisbon company mala voadora and English theatre maker Chris Thorpe. In this devised piece, two monologues (one in English, the other in Portuguese) are interwoven.

The English narrative considers the plight of a man (and father of two young children) whose wife is in a coma and dangerously close to death. The Portuguese story is of a man in a refugee camp whose encounter with cynically donated surplus products from the West opens his eyes to the absurdities of free market capitalism.

One waits in vain for the substance beneath the often manipulatively sentimental material. What we are offered instead are moments of electronic gimmickry which are as outmoded as they are ineffective.

A mixed beginning, then, to the always ambitious and interesting Almada programme. However, with the likes of Stein’s Italian production of Harold Pinter’s great play The Homecoming and the Romanian National Theatre of Cluj-Napoca’s staging of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard still to come, you wouldn’t bet against the 32nd edition of Festival de Almada going down as one of its best.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 12, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Botanics, Glasgow & Home and Beauty, Pitlochry (Sunday Herald)

THEATRE

A

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow

Until July 11

A

Home And Beauty

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until October 15

A

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A

Shakespeare is not, contrary to his towering cultural stature, above criticism. He was not infallible, and not everything that

flowed from his quill pen did so with effortless perfection. Some of the Bard’s plays are better than others, as any theatre group dedicated to performing his oeuvre will testify.

From the Royal Shakespeare Company to the fearless band of sisters and brothers who present Glasgow’s annual Bard in the Botanics (BiB) festival, every Shakespeare-dedicated company will meet with plays that are somewhat resistant to being presented to 21st-century audiences. One such is Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The play, in which the King of Navarre swears himself and his noblemen to abstinence from the company of women, is splendidly conceived. However, it lacks the superb structure and brilliantly-drawn characters of the really great Shakespeare comedies, such as Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Consequently, it tends to sag in places.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is, simultaneously, a bold defence of pleasure during the reign of the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I, and a comically propagandist piece of anti-Spanish piss-taking. BiB director Gordon Barr has shortened the play a little, mainly by cleverly subsuming the role of the clownish Costard (lover of the much-admired “country wench” Jaquenetta) into that of the servant boy Moth and by doing away entirely with the almost pointlessly peripheral aristocrat Mercade.

Transferring the audience between four outdoor sites around the Botanic Gardens, Barr’s modern dress production requires Dan Klarer’s inexplicably (but humorously) Texan Constable Dull to perform the role of affable usher. Installed in each of these locations, we are treated to a production which, though abounding with directorial and actorly skill, is characterised by a wonderfully breezy silliness.

The scene in which the King and his noblemen visit the tent of the Princess of France disguised as bearded and fur-hatted Muscovites is suitably ludicrous. However, it must be said, this intended highlight of the main plot has less comic potential than the sub-plot involving the libidinous and preposterously caricatured Spaniard Don Armado (his very name evokes the Spanish Armada, which failed in its attempted invasion of England just a few years before the play was written).

With his beloved Jaquenetta (Tori Burgess) and Moth (Robert Elkin) presented, hilariously, as a pair of northern English neds, Kirk Bage’s stupidly moustached Don is played with a delightful daftness. Amidst a generally strong cast, he is matched only by the ever-impressive Alan Steele, who plays the verbose schoolmaster Holofernes as a self-regarding, old-style Scottish teacher, sporting a deerstalker hat and chewing on a pipe.

The play may not be Shakespeare’s best, but it has enough laughs to please a willing summer audience. Barr and his cast certainly succeed in squeezing as much comedy out of the piece as they can.

Just how much enduring comedy might be squeezed out of Somerset Maugham’s First World War comedy Home And Beauty, directed for Pitlochry Festival Theatre by Richard Baron, is a moot point. I have long held the controversial opinion that Noel Coward (Maugham’s natural successor in many ways) is an overrated pretender to Oscar Wilde’s crown. Home And Beauty makes me feel similarly about Maugham.

I reckon that Wilde’s homosexuality was simply the hook on which the English upper classes hung their outrage when they realised that the great Irish writer was not laughing with them, but, in fact, satirising them mercilessly. By contrast, Maugham and Coward (both gay, both tolerated) wrote plays which were so gentle in their satire that they functioned almost as massage for the idle rich.

Home And Beauty contains a bold and unsentimental representation of a bourgeois love triangle, which is created by the unexpected return of an army officer, hitherto presumed killed in action. The unusual absence of war-related mawkishness in the play was, no doubt, shocking when it was first staged in 1919, but it was far from Wilde’s incendiary intent.

Almost 100 years on, the charms of Maugham’s comedy of manners have become increasingly discreet. The horrendously vain Victoria (Isla Carter, appropriately detestable) faces a choice between her two, none-too-bright husbands, Major Bill Cardew (Reece Richardson) and Major Frederick Lowndes (Simon Pontin). She opts for the war-profiteering capitalist Leicester Paton (the suitably caddish Alan J Mirren) instead.

By act three, the play has become a reasonable satire of divorce law (with Mark Elstob deliciously cynical as Raham the lawyer), but the drama still feels like a dated museum piece. Whether Pitlochry is ready for the play to end with what Maugham arguably nods towards (a gay relationship between Cardew and Lowndes) is debatable, but it would certainly improve the script.

In any case, no amount of rewriting will ever bring Home And Beauty close to the quality of Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, which opens at Pitlochry on July 16.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on July 5, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Botanic Gardens, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)

Love’s Labour’s Lost, Bard in the Botanics Festival Glasgow, review: ‘wonderfully over-the-top’

Scotland’s festival of Shakespeare got off to a great start and sent Mark Brown home smiling

Bard in the Botanics, Glasgow’s annual summer Shakespeare festival, which is performed in the open and covered spaces of the city’s botanic gardens, is a little cultural gem. Although its outdoor productions are subject to the unpredictable Scottish weather, its delightfully diverse, four-play programme offers the perfect blend of informality and professionalism.

This year’s presentations include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Richard II. However, the festival kicked-off in earnest with the relatively neglected comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Played in promenade in four locations within the gardens, Gordon Barr’s modern dress production does admirable service to one of Shakespeare’s early comic dramas. In the play, Ferdinand, King of Navarre, swears himself and his noblemen to three years of study, fasting and, crucially, abstinence from the company of women.

No sooner has he signed the fateful decree than Ferdinand is reminded of the forthcoming visit of the Princess of France and her ladies. The King’s honour to his own law now sits in opposition to the demands of hospitality and diplomacy, whilst the attractions of the women threaten to make hypocrites of Ferdinand and his gentlemen of court.

This main plot ticks along nicely, but the related sub-plot, involving the hypocritical Spanish aristocrat Don Armado, is funnier. A figure of ridicule for Shakespeare on account of the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Armado is played here with wonderfully over-the-top ludicrousness by Kirk Bage.

Kirk Bage as Armado. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Kirk Bage as Armado. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The Don’s public moralising clashes with his lust for the “country wench” Jaquenetta (Tori Burgess, a bold, 21st-century, working-class teenager a la Catherine Tate). Meanwhile the loquacious schoolmaster Holofernes (played as a fabulously pompous, old-style Scottish teacher, complete with deerstalker hat, by the excellent Alan Steele) offers another rich channel of comedy.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is not, in truth, among the Bard’s finest comedies; it compares poorly, in terms of structure and humour, with Twelfth Night, for example. Director Barr has cut the play a little (rolling the character of Jaquenetta’s lover Costard into that of Robert Elkin’s beautifully played, cocky servant Moth, for instance), and yet it still drags occasionally, not least in the saggy conclusion.

Nonetheless, it is testament to Barr and his fine cast that this slightly truncated version of a somewhat difficult comedy sends its audience home with smiles on their faces.   

 For full details of the Bard in the Botanics 2015 season, visit: bardinthebotanics.co.uk

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 28, 2015

© Mark Brown

Reviews: Great Expectations, Dundee Rep & The Producers, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Theatre

Great Expectations
Seen at Dundee Rep;
transferring to Perth Concert Hall,
June 23-27

The Producers
Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow;
touring to His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen,
June 22-27

Reviewed by Mark Brown

Jemima Levick’s three years at Dundee Rep have been distinctly variable. Now, as her co-artistic director Philip Howard takes his leave of the Tayside theatre, is a good time for her to remind us just how good her work can be.
Blessed with a superb adaptation of Dickens’s Great Expectations by Jo Clifford, Levick has fashioned a deeply affecting and impressively classy presentation of one of the great novels of English liberalism. It takes huge skill to transpose from page to stage the story of the progress of the orphan Pip, from working-class roots in the Kent marshes, to the London gentry, and back again.
Levick’s production for the Rep and Horsecross Arts (as Perth Theatre’s parent company insists on calling itself) has the necessary brilliance in every department. Each element of the show – from Becky Minto’s stylishly bleak, cleverly functional set (comprised of dozens of picture frames), to Mike Robertson’s ever-shifting, atmospheric lighting and David Paul Jones’s gorgeous music and songs (performed by the composer himself on a baby grand) – fits the others like a hand into one of Miss Havisham’s lace gloves.
Clifford proves herself a master craftswoman in turning a substantial, episodic novel into an engaging, tightly wrought play. The splendid structure and balance of her script is matched by Levick’s flawless casting.
It seems invidious to single out anyone in what is, first-and-foremost, a wonderful ensemble performance. That said, Great Expectations can never be truly great on stage without a compelling Pip, and Thomas Cotran, by turns self-doubting, naive and ludicrously snobbish, has the measure of his character, both as boy and man.
There are lovely performances, too, from Ann Louise Ross (a believably anguished Miss Havisham), Millie Turner (a stoic, turned righteously angry Estella) and David Delve (equally superb as both the pompous Wopsle and the inscrutable Jaggers).
On her day, Levick is one of the finest directors in the country. This Dickens will, surely, be remembered as one of her best pieces of work.
It’s difficult to imagine a play more different from Clifford’s adaptation than Mel Brooks’s famous comic musical The Producers. However, this touring production shares with it a near perfect fit between script and cast.
Brooks’s brilliant, politically incorrect satire mercilessly extracts the proverbial out of Broadway as means of striking at its real target, Nazism. Only a Jewish artist could get away with a comic monster such as Franz Liebkind (author of the Nazi musical Springtime For Hitler), played with delicious craziness here by Ross Noble (who took over the role mid-tour from the fabulous Phill Jupitus).
Glasgow, itself home to great Jewish humorists (such as Ivor Cutler, Arnold Brown, and Jeremy Sadowitz), gave a deserved opening night standing ovation to director Matthew White’s production. White realises that the only way for Brooks’s clever, screwball comedy to work is for it to appear to career away in fifth gear with no brakes.
Cory English and Jason Manford are tremendous as the corrupt producers Bialystock and Bloom. Tiffany Graves and David Bedella are equally impressive as the outrageous caricatures Ulla, the Swedish “sex kitten”, and Roger De Bris, the camp as Christmas dud director.
Indeed, everyone performing on Paul Farnsworth’s wonderfully tasteless sets gives the kind of unrestrained performance needed to create a really excellent staging of this side-splitting classic.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on June 21, 2015

© Mark Brown

Review: The Driver’s Seat, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)

THEATRE

THE DRIVER’S SEAT

ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH

Review by Mark Brown

There was a point, early in Laurie Sansom’s staging of Muriel Spark’s “whydunnit?” novella The Driver’s Seat, when I feared that the National Theatre of Scotland director was offering us a work of regurgitated postmodernism. From the discomfiting, uninhibited speech of certain characters, to the rapid-fire scene changes and the deliberately conspicuous, on-stage filming, the show was beginning to seem like an homage to the much-vaunted (but, in my view, over-rated) American company The Wooster Group.

However, as we witnessed lonely, northern European office worker Lise, Spark’s emotionally distressed protagonist, flying off on a solo holiday to Italy, I realised that the initial sense of alienation was entirely intended. Far from the Woosters’ cynical bleaching out of feeling, Sansom’s theatrical conceits are a brilliant and powerful means of connecting us with Lise’s psychological and emotional condition.

Which is not to say that the director, who has also adapted Spark’s book for the stage, is tempted into creating a play which is, Kafka-style, reflected from within Lise’s mind. We are, as Spark intended, and as the regular film projections remind us, outside, looking in.

As in the novella, we are soon told that Lise will be murdered. As she makes her way, seemingly searching for an unnamed lover she has never met, encountering unnervingly strange and aggressive men as she goes, her progress is neatly interwoven with a police murder investigation.

Such a stylised and psychologically intense play requires both an excellent lead and a fine ensemble. Sansom has found himself both.

Morven Christie is superb as Lise. Swerving erratically between a bleakly comic directness and a frighteningly clear-sighted attraction to danger, her intelligent, perfectly balanced performance repels and attracts in equal measure.

The supporting ensemble – which includes impressive Italian actors Ivan Castiglione and Andrea Volpetti – move in and out of Ana Inés Jabares Pita’s evocative, smartly functional set with the necessary sharpness. Indeed, everything about Sansom’s production has an acute angularity which functions splendidly as a kind of theatrical onomatopoeia for the prose style of Spark’s novella.

As Lise puts herself increasingly in harm’s way, and the question of who (Ryan Fletcher’s creepy macrobiotics guru Bill? Castiglione’s forcefully libidinous Carlo?) is going to be the killer becomes ever-more urgent, one realises that Sansom’s production has hooked one utterly.

 At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until June 27; transferring to Tramway, Glasgow, July 2-4. For further information, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on June 19, 2015

© Mark Brown