Preview: Blackbird, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

As David Harrower’s play Blackbird goes global, Mark Brown talks to director Gareth Nicholls about his new production for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre

Harrower
David Harrower. Photo: Philip Hollis

2016 is a big year for Blackbird, the multiple award-winning play by leading Scottish dramatist David Harrower. A film adaptation, directed by acclaimed Australian theatre director Benedict Andrews, and starring Rooney Mara and Ben Mendelsohn, is set for release later in the year.

On stage, a major Broadway production, starring Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels, opened in preview recently. Meanwhile, here in Scotland, director Gareth Nicholls, is reviving the play at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

There may be something freakishly coincidental in this sudden flurry of activity around the play. However, few would deny that Harrower’s drama is a contemporary classic which deserves to be taken to as wide a public as possible.

Blackbird was first staged by the great German director Peter Stein at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005, in a production starring Jodhi May and Roger Allam. The drama takes place in a filthy factory refectory where Una (a woman in her late-20s) has tracked down Ray (in his mid-50s).

Ray (now known as “Peter”) had a sexual relationship with Una when she was 12 years old. Having served time in prison, Ray now works, seemingly in a managerial role, at the factory. Having stumbled across his photograph in a trade magazine, Una felt compelled to confront him.

The play that unfolds from this scenario is one of the bravest, most nuanced and most brilliant dramas ever written by a Scottish playwright. A work of constantly shifting power relations, searing ambiguities and compelling poetics, it is reminiscent, in many respects, of the best plays of Harold Pinter.

Little wonder, then, that when I meet Nicholls at the Citizens Theatre during a break in rehearsals, I find him energised by Harrower’s drama. Blackbird is not, the director insists, simply a “paedophilia play”.

In fact, he continues, it would be “incredibly boring” if it was simply a drama about how reprehensible child sex abuse is. That, he says, is beyond doubt.

“It’s a play about identity, memory and how we label people in society, and that’s the interesting territory. It’s a psychological thriller in many ways.”

That thriller will be played out at the Citz by the theatre’s young intern actor Camrie Palmer (seen recently in David Greig’s acclaimed adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark) and Paul Higgins (whose many screen and stage roles include spin doctor Jamie McDonald in BBC sitcom The Thick Of It). Nicholls is happy that the pair, who have never acted together before, are finding the personal chemistry required by the complex and distorted relations between their characters.

Navigating their way through Harrower’s piece is, says the director, very similar to grappling with a Pinter play. “The brilliant, but also challenging, thing about Blackbird is that what the characters are saying is often the exact opposite of what they’re thinking. We have to pick up on all the threads of thought, which is very similar to Pinter.”

So complex are the psychological relations in the play that Nicholls brought in a clinical psychologist to talk with the actors and himself. The director was pleased to discover that the psychologist thought Harrower had depicted the characters with great insight and accuracy.

An important outcome of the discussions with the psychologist was that, “you don’t leave your personal politics at the door.” However, Nicholls explains, “you have to work out a way of not judging the characters. That’s especially hard for Paul with Ray, obviously.

“It’s about putting yourself in the position of these people with an honesty, authenticity and integrity.”

Blackbird is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, February 25 to March 5. For details, visit: citz.co.uk

This preview was originally published in the Sunday Herald on February 21, 2016

© Mark Brown

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