Reviews: Hecuba, Dragon & Couldn’t Care Less (Sunday Herald)

Hecuba

Dundee Rep

Until October 26

 

Dragon

Seen at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow;

touring until November 9

 

Couldn’t Care Less

Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh;

touring until November 2

 

Reviewed by Mark Brown

 

Euripides’s blood-soaked tragedy Hecuba is not a “bums on seats” crowd-pleaser. Respect is due, therefore, to Dundee Rep for this staging of Frank McGuinness’s fine, 2004 version of the Ancient drama.

Director Amanda Gaughan’s presentation plays to audiences of up to 156 (about a third of the usual capacity), who are seated on the theatre’s stage. By Friday night, the second preview performance, every element of the piece seemed to be firmly in place, both for better and for worse.

The production opens strongly as the ghost of the murdered Trojan prince Polydorus (excellent young actor Ncuti Gatwa) rises from the midst of the rubble of designer Leila Kalbassi’s intelligent set. He tells of his brutal murder by his supposed host and protector, Polymestor, King of Thrace.

Irene MacDougall as Hecuba
Irene MacDougall as Hecuba

Soon we encounter Polydorus’s mother, Hecuba (Irene Macdougall), the Queen of Troy, now enslaved by the Greeks, recent victors in their war with the Trojans. Her daughter, Polyxena, faces death, as a sacrifice to the gods, a macabre ritual demanded by the ghost of the Greek warrior Achilles.

What ensues is – in McGuinness’s beautifully sculpted, earthy-yet-poetic adaptation – a powerful, seminal drama of war, violence, rhetoric and retribution in which religion, tradition and notions of justice are invoked; the echoes of the current conflict in Syria are truly remarkable.

Macdougall gives a towering performance in the title role. She is, by turns, a monumental manifestation of desperation, anguish, rationality, politics, rage and, ultimately (like Medea, her sister in vengeance), calculated and brutal reprisal. It is a memorable Hecuba which would be worthy of its place in a more complete production.

Alas, Emily Winter over emotes as the Chorus, to the detriment of the language, while Caroline Deyga never quite achieves the gravitas required by the stoical Polyxena. More damaging still to the atmosphere of the piece is composer Claire McKenzie’s music, the sentimentality of which robs the occasional songs of their moral weight.

Theatregoers in Scotland have been fortunate, over the last decade, to have encountered, in Polish company Song of the Goat (which recently spawned Scottish offspring in Company of Wolves), a deeply spiritual form of tragic song. This production is sadly lacking such resonating musical power. Which leaves one all the more impressed by the distance Macdougall’s excellent performance travels into the heart of Euripides’s tragedy.

Grief and anger also feature strongly, if less catastrophically, in Dragon, Vox Motus theatre company’s latest show, in co-production with the Tianjin People’s Art Theatre of China and the National Theatre of Scotland. Written by Oliver Emanuel and directed by Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison, the play finds 12-year-old Glaswegian boy Tommy isolated and struggling to cope with the world.

Tommy’s mother died a year ago. In the family home – which Tommy shares with his Dad, his sister and, occasionally, his father’s distrusted new girlfriend – there is little room for anything other than grief. At school, Tommy is an easy target for the boorish bully and his idiot sidekick. Such is Tommy’s sadness, loneliness and rage that he can’t even accept the kindness of the girl who tries to brighten up his days with her magic tricks.

Suddenly, as he looks out of his bedroom window one night, Tommy sees a lamp post transform into a mighty dragon. This creature – by turns friend, protector and unpredictable, frightening companion – appears everywhere, as if it is made (in the brilliant and ingenious puppet designs) of the very stuff of its surroundings.

Like the wordlessness of the piece, the dragon of Tommy’s mind is a fine metaphor for the boy’s isolation and emotional tumult. Scott Miller (Tommy) leads a fine cast, but, sadly, there is something missing.

As actors swarm around the stage in their alternate roles, as puppeteers and prop manipulators, the show gives up very few of Vox Motus’s trademark visual illusions. Consequently, the production often seems cluttered and homespun, and not nearly as visually spectacular as one might have hoped.

Couldn’t Care Less, a co-production by Scottish companies Plutôt La Vie and Strange Theatre, is more modest in its visual objectives, but it achieves them beautifully. A touching, honest and often funny play about the impact of Alzheimer’s Disease, both upon sufferers and their loved ones, this collectively-devised piece draws together Plutôt La Vie’s Lecoq-inspired movement with lovely dialogue and excellent music.

Hilde McKenna plays Elspeth, an elderly ballet teacher, whose personality is being transformed by the illness as rapidly as her short-term memory is being erased. Liz Strange is Lilly, her young, professional, London-based daughter, who returns to her rural home for a “flying visit” which sees her grounded, both by her Mum’s condition and the disappointing absence of her brother.

The physical helter-skelter of Lilly’s unwanted new life and the often comic turns in Elspeth’s behaviour (swearing becomes an entirely new pastime) will be instantly recognisable to anyone whose family has experienced Alzheimer’s. It is not easy to put artistry before point making in addressing such subjects in the theatre, but Tim Licata’s production does so admirably.

For tour dates for Dragon, visit: nationaltheatrescotland.com

For tour dates for Couldn’t Care Less, visit: plutotlavie.org.uk

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 20, 2013

© Mark Brown

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