Review: The Mikado, Theatre Royal, Glasgow



The Mikado

Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until July 2


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Richard Suart as Ko-Ko and Andrew Shore as Pooh-Bah. Photo James Glossop

The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which stages the famous Savoy operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, is one of the most resilient companies in all of the performing arts. Established by G&S’s patron, impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, in the late 1870s, it seemed to have shuffled off its mortal coil when it was disbanded in 1982.

However the company was revived in 1988, and has produced work sporadically since then; most recently, a 2013 staging of The Pirates Of Penzance, in a co-production with Scottish Opera. So fruitful was that collaboration that D’Oyly Carte and SO are working together again, this time with a joyous and clever presentation of G&S’s much-loved and satiric light opera The Mikado.

First staged at the Savoy Theatre in London in 1885, The Mikado may seem to the enlightened 21st-century theatregoer like an exercise in dubious Victorian Orientalism. After all, the titular Mikado, ruler of Japan, is visiting a town called Titipu, in pursuit of his son, Nanki-Poo.

The town is populated by absurd characters with such un-Japanese monikers as Poo-Bah (the corrupt man of many high offices), Yum-Yum (the young object of Nanki-Poo’s affections) and the noble lord Pish-Tush.

However, look beneath the surface dodginess and you will find that this opera is a well-crafted satire. Targeted as resolutely at Victorian Britain as Gogol’s The Government Inspector is at Czarist Russia, The Mikado depicts a topsy-turvy world of arbitrary power and ludicrous legislation.

In Titipu flirting outside of wedlock is a criminal offence. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, took the job in the belief that he wouldn’t actually have to execute anyone. Meanwhile Pooh-Bah, the Lord High Everything Else, can be relied upon to receive financial “insults” in order to consult with himself and come to the required decision.

Director Martin Lloyd-Evans’s delicious production puts the satire of British mores and politics front and centre. This is most immediately apparent in the ingenious costumes by designer Dick Bird, which are a delightful collision of the upper-class garb of Victorian London and classical Japanese attire. Bird’s brilliantly over-the-top, cartoon Orientalist sets provide a suitably silly backdrop.

The performances themselves are universally excellent. There is fine acting and singing from Nicholas Sharatt (a lovable Nanki-Poo) and Rebecca Bottone (a comically vain Yum-Yum). There are equally impressive performances from Stephen Richardson (the jocular but capricious Mikado), Andrew Shore (a wonderfully farcical Poo-Bah), Rebecca de Pont Davies (Katisha, the Mikado’s witch-like “daughter-in-law elect”) and Ben-McAteer (splendid as Pish-Tush).

No-one in the fine cast shines brighter than Richard Suart, who has made the role of Ko-Ko his own over many years. His playing of the decidedly squeamish state executioner is a comic joy, not least in his famous song I’ve Got A Little List.

The ditty was dragged into infamy by Peter Lilley, then Social Security Secretary, who used G&S’s song to offer his own list to Tory Party conference in 1992. Those who “never would be missed” included travelling communities, “bogus” asylum seekers and working-class single mothers.

Evans’s production restores the lyric to its original, broadly satirical intent. Politicians of all stripes come in for a gentle kicking, as do tax avoiding multinationals, car manufacturers who lie about their vehicles’ emissions and, most delightfully, the “tax dodgerists” whose names appear in the Panama Papers. There are jolly outings for other well-known songs, such as A Wand’ring Minstrel I and Three Little Maids From School Are We.

This is a Mikado that deals intelligently and sensitively with the opera’s politically incorrect baggage. It also stages G&S’s satire with tremendous colour and humour.

For tour details, visit:

An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 15, 2016

© Mark Brown


Interview feature: David Greig, new artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Enter stage left: interview with David Greig

David Greig May 8
David Greig

The appointment of David Greig to lead the capital’s great repertory theatre was one of the most audacious moves in the recent history of live drama in Scotland. Greig – who last week announced his first season as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum – is, after all, best known as a playwright, rather than a director.

In appointing him, the Lyceum board is taking a gamble on Greig. Their hope and belief is that he will bring his immense intellectual and creative energy to the running of one of Scotland’s most important producing theatres.

When we meet at the grand old playhouse, I half expect him to be exhausted by the process of putting together his amazing, inaugural 12-show season. In fact, I find him as sharply engaged, welcoming and intellectually direct as ever.

“It’s about not being afraid to flirt with the existing audience a little and offer them things that are, maybe, a little riskier than stuff that’s been on before,” he says of his first programme. “However, it’s also about going out into the city and bringing new audiences in.”

Greig is the perfect person to try to strike this balance. Something of a quiet revolutionary, he is as calm in his demeanour as he is dynamic in his intellect.

Which is just as well, as the 2016/17 season he has in store for Lyceum audiences will raise more than a few eyebrows. There’s a theatre-writing debut for singer-songwriter Karine Polwart, in the shape of her music-infused piece Wind Resistance; a staging of acclaimed avant-garde English playwright Caryl Churchill’s futuristic drama A Number; and an outing for Austrian author Peter Handke’s large-scale, wordless play, The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other.

Greig’s opening directorial gambit, which also includes repertoire favourites such as Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, is the work of a man who is steeped in the history and practice of drama.

Born in 1969 in Edinburgh, Greig spent his early life in northern Nigeria (his father worked in the construction industry), returning to Scotland with his family when he was 12. He studied theatre at Bristol University, where he shared a flat with classmate Sarah Kane, who would be acclaimed as one of the greatest playwrights of her generation following her tragic suicide in 1999.

Following university, Greig was a co-founder, in 1993, of experimental Scottish theatre company Suspect Culture. Established with fellow artists, actor-turned-director Graham Eatough and musician and composer Nick Powell, the Glasgow-based group would champion a modernist, European aesthetic in Scottish theatre for some 16 years.

Throughout his career, the writer and director has displayed an interest in a mind-boggling array of theatre.

Scotland’s most prolific, diverse and successful stage writer, his vast output includes the Ibsenesque contemplation of modern Scotland The Architect, the gloriously titled The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union and Macbeth sequel Dunsinane. Add to that an array of adaptations, ranging from the book for the West End musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory to Alasdair Gray’s magnum opus Lanark, and you get a sense both of Greig’s extraordinary fecundity as a writer and his astonishing theatrical range.

Greig, now 47, has always had a profound respect for drama’s roots in ancient tragedy – a fact that surfaces in his first Lyceum season, in the shape of the English-language world premiere of The Suppliant Women, by the Ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus.

Adapted by Greig himself, the almost 2,500-year-old play tells the astonishingly timely tale of a group of Egyptian women who arrive in Athens by boat and seek asylum in the city. Although the piece is the only surviving play of a trilogy, Greig will use the remaining fragments of the other two works and accounts from the time to write a sister drama completing the story.

“The thing about the play that appeals to me deeply is that it’s one of the earliest plays, it’s the taproot of theatre,” he says.

“The Ancient Greeks are enjoying a great moment right now in Scottish theatre,” he adds, referring to Chris Hannan’s adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad, currently being staged at the Lyceum, and Zinnie Harris’s This Restless House, her new version of Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia, which plays until May 14 at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow.

This sudden flurry of classicism is not a coincidence, Greig avers. It is, he thinks, a recognition that we are currently living in dramatic and, in terms of the global refugee crises, terrible times.

“We’re looking to big questions again. The thing about The Suppliant Women is that it’s so now, but it’s also completely unencumbered by our preconceptions.”

Typically of Greig, this is a very insightful observation. It is easy to categorise contemporary playwrights turning their attention to the subject of migration and asylum as either bleeding-heart liberals or hard-hearted right-wingers.

With Aeschylus, however, the matter of his political agenda doesn’t arise. “We don’t even know what left-wing and right-wing means [in the context of Ancient Greece],” says the dramatist.

The Suppliant Women is a play which was written, he continues, during, “the foundation of democracy. Aeschylus was creating theatre that was meant to be discussed, because the city itself was in the throes of discovering its form of governance”.

Immediately he began working on the play, Greig discovered that its topicality was even more striking than he’d imagined. The opening line of the piece took his breath away, he says. The refugees describe themselves as “women of Egypt, neighbours of Syria, who came here in a boat”.

It comes as no surprise that the dramatist has alighted upon an Ancient play with a powerful connection to current events. Greig has always been passionately engaged in matters of national and international politics.

He has long sought to promote discussion and debate through his work. On occasion, he has also taken public stances of his own. Greig, who lives in Fife with his wife and two children, was a committed supporter of the Yes campaign during Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014.

Perhaps his most creative intervention in the independence debate was his launching of a lunchtime programme of performances and discussions during the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe entitled All Back To Bowie’s. This was named after late rock star David Bowie’s famous appeal, “Scotland stay with us”, which some wags suggested was actually an invitation to the population of Scotland to visit Bowie’s pad in New York.

Given such mercurial activity in the theatre and society, there can be little doubt that Greig will fill the Lyceum with a lust for ideas and a passion for the art of drama. The question is, will his radical vision enable him to fill seats?

If the director is worried on this score, he’s not showing it. He is sure, he says, that adventurous, and daring elements of his programming will be embraced by Lyceum audiences old and new.

Like his predecessor, Mark Thomson, Greig thinks those who paint the Lyceum’s famous army of season ticket holders as uniformly elderly, well-heeled and conservative are barking up the wrong tree. “We gave a sneak preview of the season to some of our donors,” he tells me. “I was thinking, ‘how are they going to take this?’ They took it very well.”

In particular, he remembers a conversation he had with one elderly gentleman. Of the 12 shows on the programme, the two he was most enthusiastic about were The Suppliant Women and The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other. The first play, he knew from his career as a classics professor and the other he saw, directed by famous Swiss stage and film director Luc Bondy, at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1994.

It’s another example, says Greig, of why people are wrong to have a stuffy image of the Lyceum audience. “The two most ‘out there’ shows in the programme were the ones he was welcoming.”

His mind has clearly been on higher things, such as Ancient drama and modern humanitarian crises. However the recent resignation of National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Laurie Sansom raises the question, had Greig not just been appointed at the Lyceum, would he have fancied the NTS job?

“No,” he says, without equivocation. “The NTS job has got national responsibility. Look at the number of brickbats the artistic director receives, and the stress and strains they have to face. For me it would have been a leap too far.”

However, Greig shares the widespread concerns for an organisation that is also losing executive producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren (who are going to Dublin as joint directors of the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s national drama company). “It’s a troubling moment”, he comments.

Nevertheless, he continues, the NTS’s acclaimed model, as a “theatre without walls”, has been a success. “If the [NTS] board take the time to work out precisely what it is that they want, and the management model that they want, I think that whoever takes on that mantle [of artistic director] will have a solid footing.”

As for his appointment at the Lyceum, it is, he feels, the right fit, both for him and the theatre. “I’ve lived in Edinburgh the best part of my life. The Lyceum’s like my home theatre.

“It’s like if you’ve been a Celtic fan all your life and you’re offered the job as Celtic manager. You’re going to do it, aren’t you?”

To see full details of the Lyceum’s 2016/17 season, visit:

This article was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 8, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: This Restless House, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)



This Restless House

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until May 14


Reviewed by Mark Brown

This Restless House. Photo by Tim Morozzo
George Anton (centre) as the ghost of Agamemnon. Photo: Tim Morozzo

Scottish theatre has come over all Greek classical recently. No sooner had Chris Hannan’s stage adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad opened at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum than the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and the National Theatre of Scotland were offering us This Restless House, Zinnie Harris’s astonishingly ambitious new version of Aeschylus’s trilogy The Oresteia.

Those who like to follow a classical narrative can do so by seeing the Lyceum’s drama, followed by the Citz’s play cycle. Homer and Hannan end with the fall of Troy to Greek king Agamemnon and his chief warrior Achilles. Aeschylus and Harris pick up the story with Agamemnon’s triumphant return to Athens, where, for 10 bitter years, the queen, Clytemnestra, has been nursing her anguish and rage at her husband’s sacrificing of their young daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods.

Citizens’ artistic director Dominic Hill’s production is set (in parts one and two, at least) in an abstract modern society. Designer Colin Richmond’s bare stage is lined, ineffectively, with what looks like the interior of a working men’s club circa 1975.

However, if the visual concept is not exactly compelling, everything else about the piece – from Harris’s muscular, lyrical script to the universally exceptional cast  – marks the trilogy out as a world-class theatre work. Parts one and two, Agamemnon’s Return and The Bough Breaks, are timeless tragedies played out on a grand scale.

The outstanding actor of a magnificent ensemble is Pauline Knowles. Her brilliant, bleakly vengeful Clytemnestra is, as Harris’s beautifully honed narrative demands, every mother whose child has been murdered and every wife who has been betrayed and humiliated.

George Anton’s towering Agamemnon has all the authority, vanity, hubris and doubt required of the victorious king. His impressive return to Athens, Henry V-like, among the ordinary citizens is topped only by his memorable demise; a brutal collision of the two great elements of tragedy, sex and death.

In a notable departure from Aeschylus’s plays, Harris puts the duty of revenge for Agamemnon’s murder not on the prince, Orestes (the fine Lorn MacDonald), but on his sister, Electra (played with convincing inner conflict by Olivia Morgan). The siblings’ torment, as Agamemnon’s malevolent spirit afflicts them, speaks not only to the Ancient Greeks’ belief in capricious, frighteningly human-like gods, but also to latter-day cases of mentally distracted killers who say they were directed by voices in their heads.

This psychological aspect explains the final part of the trilogy, Electra And Her Shadow, in which we find the princess in a modern mental institution. The “shadow” of the play’s title is Audrey (played captivatingly by Anita Vettesse), a patient-turned-psychiatrist, who still struggles with her childhood trauma.

That part three is a powerful piece of writing is beyond question. However, the sudden jump, from the largely abstract to the temporally specific, creates a discombobulating breach in both the tone and the structure of the drama.

The concluding part may feel more like a tangential postscript than a logical denouement, but, with its excellent live music and sound by Nikola Kodjabashia and its drum-tight direction from Hill, This Restless House deserves to be remembered as a brilliant 21st-century exploration of an Ancient classic.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 8, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: 5 Soldiers, Tramway, Glasgow



5 Soldiers

Seen at Tramway, Glasgow

Touring until May 28


Reviewed by Mark Brown

5 Soldiers
5 Soldiers. Photo: Bettina Strenske

As anyone who has seen the National Theatre of Scotland’s show Black Watch will tell you, the drills, routines and battle action of soldiers contain an inherent choreography. One of the most noted elements of the production, which is based on the stories of former Scottish soldiers who served in Iraq, is the choreography of Steven Hoggett.

There are shades of Black Watch in 5 Soldiers, the latest piece by Rosie Kay Dance Company. As with Hoggett, there is in choreographer and director Kay’s piece, a heavy reliance upon the regimented movement and repetitiveness of army training.

That said, 5 Soldiers goes beyond the “dancing squaddies” stereotypes and overly literal representations that characterise many of Black Watch’s over-hyped movement sequences. Kay introduces choreographic innovations which have genuinely emotional and psychological, rather than merely physical, implications.

Recorded sound (such as BBC radio reports of battleground casualties in Afghanistan) and projected images (for example, footage of the passing landscape taken from inside an army helicopter) provide the piece with both context and atmosphere.

Fascinatingly, however, the dance is at its most effective when it strays furthest from military routine. The scene in which the four male soldiers interact with a young woman they encounter on a night out is a memorable and affecting reflection on distorted gender relations.

The sole female dancer, Shelley Eva Haden, offers excellent representations of both female soldiers and the civilian women who find themselves in the lives of army men; whether that be for just an evening or a significant part of their lives.

Making dance based on army life always carries the risk of predictability, and 5 Soldiers, like Black Watch before it, succumbs to that risk at times. However, when Kay digs beneath the surface, her piece has an undeniable impact.

For tour dates, visit:

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 8, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: This Restless House, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)






Review by Mark Brown

This Restless House
Pauline Knowles as Clytemnestra. Photo: Tim Morozzo

The auguries were good for This Restless House, the new trilogy based on The Oresteia and co-produced by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland. Written by Zinnie Harris (author of Further Than the Furthest Thing; which is, arguably, the greatest tragedy in the Scottish theatrical canon) and directed by Dominic Hill (currently Scotland’s foremost classical director), it delivers on its promise in very large measure.

Although Harris is largely faithful to Aeschylus’s narrative line, she innovates brilliantly. In the searing first play, Agamemnon’s Return, the revenge of Clytemnestra (Pauline Knowles on utterly compelling form) is a dish served with a raging heat.

Sex and death (tragedy’s eternal twins) are to the fore. Agamemnon (the truly magisterial George Anton) meets his demise in a powerfully realised moment that he mistakes for erotic ecstasy.

In part two, The Bough Breaks, the warrior king’s ever-present ghost demands retribution, like a malevolent incarnation of Hamlet’s father. In a departure from Aeschylus’s story, it is the afflicted princess Electra (the excellent Olivia Morgan), not her wretched brother Orestes (a convincingly distracted Lorn MacDonald), who grasps the bloody hand of destiny.

The first two plays, although relocated to an abstracted modern world, are strongly rooted in the primal power of the original dramas. In the third, entitled Electra and Her Shadow, Harris strays furthest from The Oresteia, testing our credulity in the process.

For sure, Aeschylus’s concluding play, The Eumenides, with its supernatural tormentors, is open to a 21st-century psychological reading. However, the sudden jump from the almost timeless settings of the first two pieces to a recognisably contemporary psychiatric hospital destabilises the structure of the trilogy. Ironically, part three, in which a new character (patient-turned-psychiatrist Audrey) comes to the fore, would be more successful if it were cut loose from its two siblings.

Nikola Kodjabashia’s atmospheric sound and music is performed live by a universally talented cast (although the journeys into song are sometimes gratuitous). Colin Richmond’s set is pleasingly sparse, even if its framing concept (it looks like a dilapidated 1970s social club) is needlessly confusing.

The shift in tone between parts two and three may be disconcerting, but This Restless House still feels like a major achievement nevertheless. Harris writes in a rich, pungent, modern vernacular, while Hill directs with his typical combination of intelligent inventiveness and confident style.

Until May 15. For further information, visit:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 4, 2016

© Mark Brown


Reviews: The Iliad, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh & Right Now, Traverse, Edinburgh (Sunday Herald)



The Iliad




Right Now




Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Iliad 2
Daniel Poyser and Emmanuella Cole in The Iliad. Photo: Drew Farrell

After 13 years as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, Mark Thomson takes his directorial leave of the grand old playhouse on Grindlay Street in epic fashion with Chris Hannan’s new stage adaptation of Homer’s great poem The Iliad.

There can be little doubt that the director is handing the company over to his successor, outstanding playwright David Greig, in rude artistic health. Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, the company has been elevated by, among many fine productions, Thomson’s superb renderings of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author (2008), Brecht’s The Caucasian Circle (2015) and Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (also last year).

He subscribes to Beckett’s famous exhortation: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” As he told me when I interviewed him recently, Thomson believes in the absolute necessity of artistic risk.

Staging The Iliad, which is the foundation stone of Western literature, is nothing if not risky. It takes a considerable measure of confidence, some might say hubris, on the part of a writer and a director to attempt to compress Homer’s monumental narrative of the siege of Troy into a little over two-and-a-half hours of theatrical drama.

Hannan has done a lovely job on the script. His capricious gods, heroic warriors and besieged civilians speak in a sparing, poetic, often bleakly ironic language that combines the classical and the modern.

The production itself struggles to maintain the epic tone. It swings, frustratingly, between a lively, inventive and affecting engagement with Hannan’s text and a seeming loss of confidence in its capacity to measure up to its demands.

This inconsistency is most apparent in the cast. Some actors deliver copiously. Emmanuella Cole is brilliant as Hera, furious and sultry wife of Zeus, who, in turn, is played with comically lecherous indolence by Richard Conlon. Ben Turner is muscular and articulate as Achilles, who is driven to crazed war crimes by his grief at the death of his friend Patroclus.

Others in the cast seem less certain, not least in the play’s inevitable moments of exposition. Hannan’s words are often spoken falteringly, breaking the production’s momentum.

If the piece seems a little rigid at times, this is down in no small measure to Karen Tennent’s stage design. Comprised of two opposing sets of blood-stained columns built around modern steel girders, it is, contrarily, monolithic in its miniaturisation.

Moments of Greek song never acquire any real emotional weight, functioning, instead, as mere lubrication in scene changes. The battle scenes are well choreographed and impressively executed, but serve to remind us that direct representation of epic violence is not theatre’s strong suit; not for nothing did Sophocles have Oedipus’s blinding of himself reported to us, rather than depicted on stage.

This Iliad, then, is a brave and bold attempt to steal fire from the literary gods. However, one can’t help but feel that it could have failed a little better.

Right Now
Right Now. Photo: Simon Annand

There is no failure in Right Now, acclaimed theatre director Michael Boyd’s English-language premiere of the 2008 work by Quebecoise playwright and actor Catherine-Anne Toupin. Set in a well-appointed flat in a middle-class district, Toupin’s play (which is translated beautifully into English by Chris Campbell) explodes the platitudes of domestic realism as invigoratingly as the dramas of the greatest modernists.

A co-production between the Traverse, the Theatre Royal, Bath and the Bush Theatre, London, the piece opens, naturalistically, in the apartment of Alice (Lindsey Campbell) and Ben (Sean Biggerstaff), a young couple who are struggling in the aftermath of the loss of their child to cot death. However, the invasion, one-by-one, by neighbours Juliette (Maureen Beattie), her son Francois (Dyfan Dwyfor) and her husband Gilles (Guy Williams) throws the play headlong into the dark comedy and extreme moral uncertainties of absurdism.

The neighbours do not so much insinuate their way into the lives of Alice and Ben as take forceful residency, like an army of occupation. This taking of liberties is met, not with resistance, but with equivocation and, startlingly quickly, willing embrace on the part of the young couple.

The ensuing drama – a searing combination of genres, ranging from psycho-sexual comedy to emotive dream play – is one of constantly shifting sands. Urbanity mixes casually with stunning sexual impudence. Characters’ seeming motivations clash with their actions, confounding us as powerfully as any great work of the avant-garde.

Indeed, Toupin’s play deserves to be considered alongside such dramas as Eugene Ionesco’s The New Tenant, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Edward Albee’s The Goat. It shares Ionesco’s radical domestic unpredictability, Pinter’s disconcerting sexual shock and the angular tragicomedy of Albee.

Juliette and Gilles’s apparent sympathy with Alice and Ben’s loss (born, they say, of their own painful experience) sits uncomfortably beside their comically blithe pronouncements (in their surviving son’s presence) that they loved their departed baby, Benny, more.

The Alice who carelessly encourages Ben to take part in a bizarre game involving Juliette’s underwear contrasts starkly with the image of a young woman consumed by loneliness and grief. By the play’s brilliant conclusion (which it would be simply criminal to divulge), we are almost as unsettled and disconcerted as Alice herself.

To achieve its unlikely combination of the comic, the erotic, the emotive and the psychologically compelling, the piece requires the poise and timing of the most complex of farces. Boyd has crafted an inch perfect production, played beautifully by a flawless cast.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 1, 2016

© Mark Brown

Review: The Iliad, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh (Daily Telegraph)






Review by Mark Brown

The Iliad
Richard Conlon, Melody Grove and Emmanuella Cole in The Iliad. Photo: Drew Farrell

Mark Thomson, out-going artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, cannot be accused of making life easy for himself. As he prepares to hand over the reins of the grand Edinburgh repertory company to his successor, renowned playwright and director David Greig, he bids his directorial adieu with an ambitious new adaptation of Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.

There is, in Chris Hannan’s version of the foundation stone of Western literature, a challenge that is symbolic of Thomson’s 13-year tenure. The director has often appeared like a prize fighter seeking out ever-stronger opponents.

There is much to admire in his farewell production. Like Hannan’s beautifully crisp script, Thomson’s staging is eager to grasp the seminal in Homer’s poem.

As the Greek forces lay siege to Troy, Thomson reflects, with no little wit, the modern world in an ancient conflict. Top god Zeus and his wife Hera appear as a decidedly modern warring couple who take different sides in the war.

Richard Conlon’s wonderfully louche Zeus is like an unaccountable dictator given to alcohol, sexual affairs and, on occasion, a chillingly casual rape. Hera is played with burning rage and insouciant swagger by the excellent Emmanuella Cole. She seems like a cross between Imelda Marcos and Sophia Loren when, satisfied with her meddling in human affairs, she saunters into heaven in a bikini and dragging on a cigarette (although just why she must expose her bosom throughout the second half is never quite clear).

Cole’s performance is equalled, in a decidedly uneven cast, only by Ben Turner’s charismatic and fearsome Achilles. The actor has the measure, not only of Hannan’s poetics, but also of his character’s almost insane lust for vengeance following the death in battle of his beloved friend Patroclus.

However, Turner’s performance is a rare example of the production succeeding in its epic ambitions. The tone of the piece is frustratingly inconsistent.

Moments of Greek song fail to carry any spiritual weight, seeming, instead, like mere theatrical punctuation. Karen Tennent’s maximalist set (two sets of blood-spattered, ancient ruins held up by modern steel) lacks flexibility, its stasis reflected in the piece’s disappointing moments of rigid exposition.

Thomson could have taken his leave with a crowd-pleaser by one of the Alans (Ayckbourn or Bennett). It is to his credit that he departs, instead, with a brave, if not entirely successful, Iliad.

Runs until May 14. Details:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on April 27, 2016

© Mark Brown