FESTIVAL & FRINGE THEATRE
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Until August 30
GREENSIDE @ INFIRMARY STREET
Until August 29
Until August 30
The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven
Until August 30
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The UK is, once again, in the grip of a media frenzy over paedophilia. One fears, however, that, as with previous moral panics, the current obsession with the crimes of (often dead) celebrities and politicians will contribute little in terms of understanding and purposeful policy change.
It will, one suspects, be left to artists to tell the deepest, most unpalatable truths about the sexual abuse of children. That is certainly the evidence of A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing, the Corn Exchange of Dublin’s powerful staging of Eimear McBride’s debut novel.
Adapted and directed by the Irish company’s artistic director Annie Ryan, this affecting and memorable monodrama is more illuminating than a hundred voyeuristic tabloid reports of the outrages perpetrated by the likes of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. Told from the perspective of a girl, played by the exceptional Aoife Duffin, who was raped by her uncle when she was aged 13, it deserves to be hailed as one of the finest theatre productions of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.
Playing on the most minimalist of sets, Duffin appears, entirely appropriately, as an actor entirely exposed. Her account of her character’s early life under the dubious care of her pious and fearful mother, who struggled in single parenthood, is, typically of this production, vividly and bleakly poetic.
Raw and direct, both text and performance plunge us into the agonising, life-destroying confusion of the rape. The girl’s foul-mouthed rebellion (which serves, in her uncle’s contorted morality, as justification) stands in stark contrast to her broken, uncomprehending innocence.
The girl’s subsequent, careless disregard for her sexuality, which advances as rapidly as her young brother’s brain tumour, is painfully believable. So, too, is her wretched, on-going relationship with her abuser.
By the time Duffin reaches the play’s devastating conclusion, she seems morally and physically exhausted. Thanks to her brilliantly-sustained 85-minute performance, her audience is in a pretty similar condition.
The memories and emotions are less heightened and more contemplative in 887, the latest offering from Quebecois theatre master Robert Lepage. Beginning from his experience preparing for the 40th-anniversary of The Night of Poetry in Montreal in 2010, the show is a witty, thought-provoking and touching consideration of memory.
Lepage was invited to recite Michele Lalonde’s poem ‘Speak White’, a seminal work in Quebec’s modern political and cultural life, during the anniversary event. As an actor, he was asked to do so from memory, rather than with book in hand.
His unexpected difficulty in memorising the poem set him off on a journey in which memories personal and political are inextricably intertwined. The 887 of the show’s title is, we are told, a reference to Lepage’s address as a child.
However, if 887 Murray Avenue, Quebec City evokes reminiscences of a working-class upbringing, a lonely, housewife mother and a mostly-absent taxi driver father, it also has a political meaning. The streets in Lepage’s district carried the names of military leaders, British and French, from the 18th-century battles for Canada. His family lived on the road named after James Murray, the Scotsman who was the first British governor of the province of Quebec.
The ensuing exploration of how memory constructs us, as individuals, communities and nations, is comprised of informal lectures, benign poems and, of course, Lepage’s trademark, a beautiful use of stage technologies. A model of the theatre maker’s childhood apartment block (complete with delightful projections of the interesting array of neighbours) opens out to become the interior of his current abode.
In the latter, we witness his side of phone and face-to-face conversations with an old student friend, now fallen on hard times, who, Lepage hopes, has the necessary mnemonic skills to help him memorise Lalonde’s poem. These dialogues for one are humorously self-deprecating, with Lepage portraying himself as an insensitive, over-anxious egotist.
Interestingly, given the piece’s concern with memory, they also evoke remembrances of the artist’s Elsinore, his great, one-man Hamlet, which played at Glasgow’s Tramway venue in 1996. There, as here, he offered solo representations of exchanges between two people; albeit that, in Elsinore, they included sword fights.
Concluding with Lepage’s compelling rendition of ‘Speak White’, delivered as it was in Montreal in 2010, 887 is, typically of this outstanding theatre artist, a gorgeous coming together of form and content. Concerned, as it is in large part, with the evolution of culture and (often radical) politics in a small, stateless nation, it seems particularly pertinent to Scotland in 2015.
Memory is also an important feature in Butterfly, Scots-Singaporean theatre artist Ramesh Meyyappan’s beautiful, wordless take on the multi-authored story of Madame Butterfly. Revived with a new cast, and performed as part of the Made in Scotland programme on this year’s Fringe, the piece casts Butterfly (Nicola Daley) as a kite-maker, abandoned by her lover and living in an imagined world of tenderness and love which she creates from her fondest memories.
Exquisitely and delicately constructed, Meyyappan’s piece interweaves charming design and subtle object theatre with elegant music (by the wonderful David Paul Jones) and tremendous puppets (by the ever-impressive Gavin Glover). The duets between Daley and Meyyappan (who plays Butterfly’s lover, the meaningfully named Nabokov, a collector of butterflies) are fragile, sensual, yet somehow tangible.
The seeming palpability of the woman’s consoling visions renders her suffering at the hands of the brutal “customer” (Chris Alexander) all the more distressing. Rarely in Scottish theatre do we see sexual violence represented in such a non-naturalistic, evocative and, consequently, horrifying way.
In Nicola Daley (nominated in the 2015 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for her Hedda Gabler at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre) Meyyappan has found an excellent Butterfly. Almost like a quiet sister to the fiery, frustrated Hedda, she conjures a lovely world of kites, butterflies and gentle passion with tremendous physical and emotional dexterity.
Meyyappan’s superb, simple, deeply emotive aesthetic is a very welcome addition to Scottish theatre. Let’s hope there is much more to come from him.
One can’t help but wish for a little more from young American writer Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians, which is currently receiving its UK Premiere, courtesy of London’s Gate Theatre, at the Traverse. It is, it must be said, a promising, and often rewarding, piece about an evangelical American church at a moment of internal crisis.
Indeed, in these days when many people seem to worship ultra-atheist Richard Dawkins almost as a secular saint, it is refreshing to see religion treated seriously on our stage. In Hnath’s drama William Gaminara’s pastor has come to a point of theological revelation.
There is, says the charismatic clergyman, a “crack” in the church which must be repaired. Contrary to past teaching, proper study of the Bible in its original Greek reveals that there is no such place as Hell and no such process as the separating out of human wheat from human chaff. Heaven’s door is open to everyone.
Needless to say, this new liberalism causes a split in the congregation. The bitter theological dispute is further complicated by the fact that the pastor only preached his radical sermon at the moment the mortgage on the huge church building had finally been paid off. Many members of his flock suspect him, not only of bad religion, but also of bad faith.
The play is an interesting exploration of the theology of evangelical Protestantism. After all, having been expelled, largely to North America, by the absolutist monarchies of Europe, such evangelism is now, in its various guises, the fastest growing branch of Christianity on the planet.
More than that, Hnath’s drama deals clearly and directly with broader, secular difficulties in day-to-day human relations (the pain and disappointment of Lucy Ellinson’s financially-struggling, working-class congregant will resonate with people of all religions and none). However, the play’s clarity is a vice as well as a virtue.
The Christians promises at the outset to be a theatre work of real intellectual and emotional substance. Sadly, however, both the play and director Christopher Haydon’s well-acted production suffer from an excess of explication and a lack of depth.
There’s more religion and explication in Jo Clifford’s monologue The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven. Clifford, one of Scotland’s leading dramatists, who is transgender herself, has been writing and performing on this theme for many years, and this humanistic sermon has much to commend it.
Castigated and protested against by some Christians in the past, the writer and performer once again casts herself as a transgender Christ, offering 21st-century parables to her audience. For instance, she reimagines the Good Samaritan as a half-cut drag queen, who, stumbling along Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, his stockings ripped, one of his high heels broken, takes pity on the beaten drunk who has been neglected by the policeman and the bishop.
Clifford’s plea for universal love and understanding will, no doubt, appear somewhat naive and sentimental to some. However, even a non-believer like me can see that it is rooted meaningfully in the teaching of the New Testament.
Some conservative Christians may wail at the very idea of a trans Jesus, but this theatrical sermon is redolent with Christ’s embrace of the socially marginalised and his admonishment of those who thought themselves fit to judge others. Such a Jesus, Clifford suggests, might well choose to make his second coming as a woman.
Directed by Susan Worsfold, Clifford concludes her piece (which has a one-off performance at Edinburgh’s St Mark’s Unitarian Church tonight) with communion. As much religious service as theatre, this Gospel will not go down as the author’s most complex or finest piece of writing, but it is, in both text and performance, admirably honest and affectingly compassionate.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 23, 2015
© Mark Brown