ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Alasdair Gray’s magnum opus Lanark is the novel so unstageable it has now been adapted for the theatre twice. Published in 1981, it was first staged (in a version by Alistair Cording) in 1995. Now, the Citizens Theatre of Glasgow presents a new adaptation by David Greig as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
Greig’s “life in three acts” (which compresses the four books of the novel into four hours of theatre) was originally intended to celebrate Gray’s 80th birthday. Dreadfully, however, the writer and painter recently suffered a serious fall, and is currently critically ill in hospital.
Lanark is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest achievements in Scottish literature. Greig’s rendering of it is respectful, ambitious, uneven and, ultimately, successful.
Directed by Graham Eatough, the play interweaves Gray’s liberally fictionalised autobiography with bleakly dystopian, often surreal science fiction and sharp political, social and cultural observation. As it does so, there are shades of James Joyce and Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
The title character (played masterfully by the outstanding Scottish actor Sandy Grierson) takes us through time and space, from a frightening, futuristic vision of Glasgow (renamed “Unthank”), to anguished remembrances of an early 20th-century youth on Clydeside, and back to a hellish world where people suffer from a disease that turns them into dragons. Like the novel itself, Eatough’s production, which is splendidly designed, for the most part, by Laura Hopkins, and blessed with amazing video work by Simon Wainwright, is undeniably modernist and quintessentially Scottish.
The second act (which, mirroring the careful disorder of Gray’s novel, is actually Act One), is not without difficulties. As Oracle (represented by a Greek-style chorus dressed like the young Lanark) takes our hero back to his early life, the play suffers from its visible descent from the imaginative heights of the neon-lit dystopia of the opening section. There is, at times, too much exposition from a talented cast who sprawl around Hopkins’s utilitarian scaffold set.
If it sags a little in the middle, however, this Lanark more than justifies itself by the time it reaches its poignant conclusion in which our hero, who has not, he says, had enough love, demands a new ending of the author.
At Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh until August 31, then transferring to Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 3-19. For more information, visit: citz.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 24, 2015
© Mark Brown