ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
UNTIL MAY 14
UNTIL MAY 7
Reviewed by Mark Brown
After 13 years as artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre Company, Mark Thomson takes his directorial leave of the grand old playhouse on Grindlay Street in epic fashion with Chris Hannan’s new stage adaptation of Homer’s great poem The Iliad.
There can be little doubt that the director is handing the company over to his successor, outstanding playwright David Greig, in rude artistic health. Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, the company has been elevated by, among many fine productions, Thomson’s superb renderings of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author (2008), Brecht’s The Caucasian Circle (2015) and Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (also last year).
He subscribes to Beckett’s famous exhortation: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” As he told me when I interviewed him recently, Thomson believes in the absolute necessity of artistic risk.
Staging The Iliad, which is the foundation stone of Western literature, is nothing if not risky. It takes a considerable measure of confidence, some might say hubris, on the part of a writer and a director to attempt to compress Homer’s monumental narrative of the siege of Troy into a little over two-and-a-half hours of theatrical drama.
Hannan has done a lovely job on the script. His capricious gods, heroic warriors and besieged civilians speak in a sparing, poetic, often bleakly ironic language that combines the classical and the modern.
The production itself struggles to maintain the epic tone. It swings, frustratingly, between a lively, inventive and affecting engagement with Hannan’s text and a seeming loss of confidence in its capacity to measure up to its demands.
This inconsistency is most apparent in the cast. Some actors deliver copiously. Emmanuella Cole is brilliant as Hera, furious and sultry wife of Zeus, who, in turn, is played with comically lecherous indolence by Richard Conlon. Ben Turner is muscular and articulate as Achilles, who is driven to crazed war crimes by his grief at the death of his friend Patroclus.
Others in the cast seem less certain, not least in the play’s inevitable moments of exposition. Hannan’s words are often spoken falteringly, breaking the production’s momentum.
If the piece seems a little rigid at times, this is down in no small measure to Karen Tennent’s stage design. Comprised of two opposing sets of blood-stained columns built around modern steel girders, it is, contrarily, monolithic in its miniaturisation.
Moments of Greek song never acquire any real emotional weight, functioning, instead, as mere lubrication in scene changes. The battle scenes are well choreographed and impressively executed, but serve to remind us that direct representation of epic violence is not theatre’s strong suit; not for nothing did Sophocles have Oedipus’s blinding of himself reported to us, rather than depicted on stage.
This Iliad, then, is a brave and bold attempt to steal fire from the literary gods. However, one can’t help but feel that it could have failed a little better.
There is no failure in Right Now, acclaimed theatre director Michael Boyd’s English-language premiere of the 2008 work by Quebecoise playwright and actor Catherine-Anne Toupin. Set in a well-appointed flat in a middle-class district, Toupin’s play (which is translated beautifully into English by Chris Campbell) explodes the platitudes of domestic realism as invigoratingly as the dramas of the greatest modernists.
A co-production between the Traverse, the Theatre Royal, Bath and the Bush Theatre, London, the piece opens, naturalistically, in the apartment of Alice (Lindsey Campbell) and Ben (Sean Biggerstaff), a young couple who are struggling in the aftermath of the loss of their child to cot death. However, the invasion, one-by-one, by neighbours Juliette (Maureen Beattie), her son Francois (Dyfan Dwyfor) and her husband Gilles (Guy Williams) throws the play headlong into the dark comedy and extreme moral uncertainties of absurdism.
The neighbours do not so much insinuate their way into the lives of Alice and Ben as take forceful residency, like an army of occupation. This taking of liberties is met, not with resistance, but with equivocation and, startlingly quickly, willing embrace on the part of the young couple.
The ensuing drama – a searing combination of genres, ranging from psycho-sexual comedy to emotive dream play – is one of constantly shifting sands. Urbanity mixes casually with stunning sexual impudence. Characters’ seeming motivations clash with their actions, confounding us as powerfully as any great work of the avant-garde.
Indeed, Toupin’s play deserves to be considered alongside such dramas as Eugene Ionesco’s The New Tenant, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming and Edward Albee’s The Goat. It shares Ionesco’s radical domestic unpredictability, Pinter’s disconcerting sexual shock and the angular tragicomedy of Albee.
Juliette and Gilles’s apparent sympathy with Alice and Ben’s loss (born, they say, of their own painful experience) sits uncomfortably beside their comically blithe pronouncements (in their surviving son’s presence) that they loved their departed baby, Benny, more.
The Alice who carelessly encourages Ben to take part in a bizarre game involving Juliette’s underwear contrasts starkly with the image of a young woman consumed by loneliness and grief. By the play’s brilliant conclusion (which it would be simply criminal to divulge), we are almost as unsettled and disconcerted as Alice herself.
To achieve its unlikely combination of the comic, the erotic, the emotive and the psychologically compelling, the piece requires the poise and timing of the most complex of farces. Boyd has crafted an inch perfect production, played beautifully by a flawless cast.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 1, 2016
© Mark Brown