Citizens Theatre, Glasgow,
until November 22;
Transferring to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The Voice Thief
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Work with an unconventional theatre maker, as writer Pamela Carter often does with auteur director/designer Stewart Laing, and you get unconventional productions.
The 2006 premiere of Slope – Carter’s play about the anguished relations between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, and the latter’s young wife, Mathilde – was performed at Glasgow’s Tramway venue in a meticulously recreated Victorian bathroom and viewed by an audience which had climbed a 60-metre slope to watch it through an aperture where the ceiling should have been.
Although I respected Laing’s concept (which pre-dated Carter’s script), I felt that it sat too heavily upon a beautifully written, intense play. Carter’s drama needed to be given space to breathe in a more conventional theatre space.
Eight years on, Slope returns as a studio play. However, directed once again by Laing, for his company Untitled Projects, it continues to defy convention. Stepping into the Citizens Theatre’s circle studio (and it will, I am certain, be little different for audiences who see the production in the Traverse 2 studio in Edinburgh) one is met by a series of carefully arranged cameras, three illuminated white screens and, sitting in the midst of the audience (who are seated along the walls of the studio), Laing himself, looking into a small video monitor on his lap.
What ensues is a fascinating combination of powerful, up-close studio drama and live TV broadcast. In one moment, one might find oneself sitting next to the superb young actors Jessica Hardwick (Mathilde) and Owen Whitelaw (Paul) as they fight bitterly over the latter’s addiction to the dangerous Rimbaud. At another, we are requested to, in effect, become extras in the live film.
Laing and Carter’s experiments in multimedia theatre are always interesting and, more often than not, successful. This restaging of Slope – complete with a wonderfully sneering, punk performance from James Edwyn as the reckless 17-year-old Rimbaud – is another highly original, smartly wrought achievement.
Slope is many things, but one thing it is not is appropriate for nine-year-old children. By contrast, Catherine Wheels theatre company’s The Voice Thief is designed specifically for audiences aged nine and over. Played in promenade, through cleverly designed, gorgeously detailed sets in the labyrinthine basement of Edinburgh’s Summerhall arts venue, it might carry the subtitle “this is what a feminist play looks like”.
“I absolutely do not want to make issue-based theatre”, insists Gill Robertson, Catherine Wheels’ artistic director (and, with Karen Tennent, co-creator of the show), in her programme notes. I admire her preference for metaphor over polemic, but I hope Robertson will not take offence at my description of The Voice Thief as a feminist play of the most creative and resonating kind.
The piece (which is over for now, but will, surely, be revived) involves the audience being taken on a tour of MIEVH (the Mackenzie Institute for the Encouragement of Vocal Harmony). We can see from the pictures on the wall that, courtesy of his pioneering work on the perfecting of the voice, Doctor Broderick Mackenzie (the excellent Ian Cameron) has been embraced by the world’s elite.
However, as he expounds his theories, something unnervingly misogynistic begins to emerge. Courtesy of the Doctor’s daughter, Beatrice (Jenny Hulse, on excellent form), the Mackenzie carapace is cracked open, revealing a man whose personal pain and fear have created in him a sinister terror of diverse expression and, in particular, of the female voice.
Now that is what I call political theatre.
To watch a live streamed performance of Slope, visit www.kiltr.com
A slightly abridged version of these reviews was originally published in the Sunday Herald on November 16, 2014
© Mark Brown