seen at Dundee Rep;
Tron Theatre, Glasgow, November 5-8,
Summerhall, Edinburgh, November 12-15
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
until November 15
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
until November 15
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The great Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol was the master satirist if the Czarist Russian Empire. Here in Scotland we know his theatrical work mainly, if not exclusively, by his evergreen political comedy The Government Inspector.
For this reason alone this staging of his neglected classic The Gamblers, in a new version by UK-based Croatian dramatist Selma Dimitrijevic and Russian playwright Mikhail Durnenkov, was always going to be one of the more interesting offerings of the autumn theatre season. Directed by Dimitrijevic herself, the fascination of this production was enhanced by the decision to have it played by an entirely female cast (including recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduate Crystal Clarke, who stands on the brink of global fame for her role in the 2015 cinema release Star Wars: Episode VII).
The piece is co-produced by Greyscale theatre company (who are based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne) and Dundee Rep, in association with Stellar Quines (Scotland’s women’s theatre company) and Northern Stage (also of Newcastle). As it begins, with the blow of a sports referee’s whistle, on designer Oliver Townsend’s gratuitously literal set (a fragment of an indoor sports court with changing room benches arranged upon it), one begins to fear that it might not measure up to expectations.
For a start, the actors (who we have seen change into, not 21st-century street attire, but the garb of Gogol’s 19th-century, male card sharks) are not performing a newly feminised version of the play. Rather, they have been simply cross-cast in the male roles.
There is much to be said for cross-casting (a female Hamlet, a male Elizabeth I), and for casting which is blind to the likes of gender and race. However, there is something surprisingly, and disappointingly, conventional about the gender swap here.
For sure, there is a certain piquancy in the realisation that, even in our “enlightened” 21st-century, the greed, cheating, heavy drinking and sexual ribaldry of Gogol’s gamblers are still widely considered to be decidedly “unfeminine” traits. However, one looks in vain for a satirical politics which goes much deeper than that.
Although occasionally engaging, and boasting some fine use of live music, this production lacks the necessary boldness, in both conception and performance. Palpably unsure of itself, it is simply too restrained, insufficiently funny and surprisingly bloodless.
By contrast, there’s nothing bloodless about the Lyceum, Edinburgh’s excellent production of Sue Glover’s famous Scottish work play Bondagers. Telling the story of the titular farm labourers of the Borders, who were held in a state akin to feudal serfdom until the late-19th century, and first staged in 1991, it was, unlike Gogol’s drama, written for an all-female cast.
I am, I must confess, generally sceptical of the work play as a genre. It is, as its most populist examples (such as Tony Roper’s The Steamie and Chris Rattray’s The Mill Lavvies) attest, given to nostalgia, sentimentality and caricature.
That said, Glover’s play is arguably the finest of Scottish work plays, and Lu Kemp (making her directorial debut at the Lyceum) has fashioned the best production of it I have seen.
The opening scene, in which the bondagers work a field, making their way, slowly, towards us through a glowering darkness, dust billowing through shafts of light, is as brilliantly hellish an evocation of modern slave labour as I have ever witnessed in a theatre. This is as much a testament to the talents of stage designer Jamie Vartan and lighting designer Simon Wilkinson as it is to Kemp’s accomplished directing.
Indeed, this sense of truly collective theatre making pervades the piece, from the superb ensemble acting to the memorable music, song and choreography.
It is almost inevitable that the play shows some of the strains between Glover’s intensive research and her desire to create drama. There are, for instance, moments when the remembrances of characters (not least the impressive Nora Wardell’s Ellen, the former bondager now married to the “maister” of the farm) appear like thinly-veiled pretexts for the imparting of historical information.
Nevertheless, there is heart-rending drama here, too. The story of Tottie, the young bondager with learning disabilities (played with great intelligence and sympathy by Cath Whitefield) who becomes sexual prey for a lecherous ploughman, is typical of this beautiful production’s capacities for both robustness and subtlety.
Subtlety, it must be said, is not the strongest suit of The Ladykillers, Graham Linehan’s stage adaptation of William Rose’s screenplay for the famous 1955 Ealing comedy starring Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. Although presented beautifully by Pitlochry Festival Theatre (with a gorgeous set by Ken Harrison, comprising an old King’s Cross house and railway line, on a stage revolve), one can’t help but feel that this version of the tale of a bunch of thieves posing as musicians is (in contrast to the Coen Brothers’ creative movie remake in 2004) somewhat tired and predictable.
Indeed, Linehan’s heroics as a co-writer of Father Ted aside, so straight does he play The Ladykillers, one could accuse him of cashing in on the British propensity for nostalgia; it’s little surprise, for instance, that the original London production in 2011 picked up a prestigious “Best New Comedy” award.
If the play is lacking, director Richard Baron’s production is not. A lovely cast includes Sally Grace, who has the delusional and upright landlady Mrs Wilberforce down to a tee, and Granville Saxton, whose decidedly Guinness-ish, cerebrally sinister Professor Marcus exemplifies the professionalism of another handsome Pitlochry production.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 2, 2014
© Mark Brown