Until October 24
Not About Heroes
Seen at Traverse, Edinburgh
Touring until October 24
Reviewed by Mark Brown
If Henrik Ibsen was alive today would he be making movies, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen, under the terms of the Dogme 95 manifesto? Megan Barker’s ambitious new version of Ibsen’s classic bourgeois family drama Ghosts certainly suggests so.
In this production by the Tron Theatre Company, directed by Andy Arnold, Barker relocates the story of the rich and powerful Alving family to 21st-century Scotland. Here, Helen Alving (Alison Peebles) and her son Oswald (John Hogg) are struggling, not with the syphilitic inconstancy of the late Captain Alving (as in Ibsen’s play), but with a much darker history of child sexual abuse.
At the outset, Oswald, clad in biker’s leathers, drags the carcass of a stag (which he has accidentally killed with his motorbike) onto the stage, where it will remain in constant symbolism. Neil Warmington’s set, the trendy interior of Helen’s bespoke, modern country house, is completed by huge video screens, which loom overhead like a cross between hi-tech TVs and solar panels.
There is an impressive, bold intelligence in the bringing together of Ibsen’s play with a very topical British scandal and a contemporary Scandinavian screen aesthetic. In particular, one admires Barker’s implication that the psychological and emotional damage of paedophilia has a legacy which is at least as potent as that of syphilis.
Yet, for all its developing horror, one can’t help but feel that Arnold’s production doesn’t quite achieve the impact it should. Partly, this is to do with the script’s frustrating slips in linguistic register, from the poetic to the banal.
Despite its ingenuity, the adaptation strays into soap opera territory. The consequent uncertainty in its identity seems to show up in the performances, which, despite a generally fine cast, sometimes lack conviction.
Uneven though it is, however, Barker’s clever and sensitive take on Ibsen’s classic offers a rewarding evening’s theatre.
At least equally rewarding is the touring production of Stephen MacDonald’s acclaimed play Not About Heroes, by Eden Court Theatre, Inverness. Directed by Philip Howard, the drama is, effectively, a two-hander about the great First World War poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (with nice support from Ewan Petrie as the ever-present officers’ batman).
Kenneth MacLeod’s simple, impressionistic set collides the comforts of Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital for shell-shocked officers with the bomb-blasted hell of the battlefields. We witness the developing friendship and artistic collaboration between Sassoon (a beautifully aristocratic Ali Watt) and his initially star-struck protege Owen (the convincingly enthusiastic Thomas Cotran).
It is a simply structured, but splendidly well-made play, cutting between imagined conversations between the young men, Owen’s letters to his mother and excellent readings of the poems themselves. Watching the play develop is like seeing a sculpture being created before one’s eyes.
As Sassoon’s protective pomposity and Owen’s self-deprecating deference are slowly chipped away, a profound respect between the two emerges. So, too, does the moral anger and political outrage that fuelled the poems.
There is something deeply touching, not to say utterly credible, in the painfully diffident flowering of the love between the poets.
Howard’s production has a superb sense of rhythm that fits the careful development of MacDonald’s play perfectly. The addition of EJ Boyle’s choreography sits a little uncomfortably with the sure-footedness of the directing.
It is as if Howard thinks, wrongly, that the piece is lacking something by way of emotional drama, and requires some evocative, choreographed movement. Nevertheless, although it sometimes seems superfluous, the movement does have its moments of poignancy.
Ultimately, the piece does splendid justice, both to the men themselves and to their enduringly significant poems.
For tour dates for Not About Heroes, visit: http://www.eden-court.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 18, 2015
© Mark Brown