Thon Man Moliere
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Until June 11
Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Until June 4
Reviewed by Mark Brown
It is a delicious irony that, as a consequence of our Calvinist Reformation, Scottish drama later attached itself to the sharp and rollicking comedies of Moliere. Denied a theatre tradition of their own by the prohibitions of John Knox and co., Scottish playwrights such as Robert Kemp and Hector MacMillan turned to the greatest comic writer of Catholic France.
Liz Lochhead is the current standard bearer of the “MacMoliere” tradition. The author of many finely-crafted and hilarious Scottish Molieres, our former Makar has now gone the extra mile and written an original play, inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s biography, about the father of French comedy.
Thon Man Moliere, opens with Jean-Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere (or “Pokey”, to his friends) insisting that it was his satire that got him “intae aw that bother”. However, as his former lover, and stalwart of Moliere’s company, Madeleine Bejart points out, matters were not helped by his marrying Bejart’s teenage daughter, who was widely rumoured to be his own daughter.
What ensues is a poignant and hilarious biographical play that traces the parallel lives of Moliere and his company.
Director Tony Cownie’s beautifully wrought production boasts both memorably theatrical design (by Neil Murray) and tremendous performances across the board. Siobhan Redmond gives powerfully bleak, comic expression to Bejart, a character whose tortured life speaks eloquently of the precarious position of women on the 17th-century stage.
Jimmy Chisholm is equally well cast as Moliere. By turns admirable in his chutzpah and lamentable in his hubris, this is Moliere as both boldly drawn theatrical character and warts-and-all literary portrait.
Laced, in the scenes in which Moliere’s plays are rehearsed, with lines from Lochhead’s own, superb Scots-English versions of the comedies, Thon Man Moliere is an important and welcome addition to the MacMoliere tradition. And its conclusion would bring a tear to a glass eye.
Even more emotive is Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’s magnum opus Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme. First staged, at Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey in Dublin, in 1985, the play demanded a production in this year of momentous Irish anniversaries.
When, in April 1916, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse and their comrades were being executed for their parts in the Easter Rising in Dublin, many thousands of their Ulster Loyalist opponents were in France, preparing to die for King and Country in the Battle of the Somme. More than 2,000 of them would do so by the time the Ulster division was relieved of its duties in France in July of that year.
McGuinness is a master craftsman among dramatists. His play is a perfect balance of robustness (its shape is so perfect that it seems as if it is carved from stone) and subtlety.
Compellingly believable, darkly comic and impressively nuanced, the drama paints in flesh and, ultimately, blood the Ulstermen who were sacrificed in such appalling numbers. We see the play’s eight volunteers, including Millen and Moore, working-class men from Coleraine, and Pyper, the erratic and charismatic son of a wealthy family, both in the trenches of France and at home, on leave, in what will, by 1921, be Northern Ireland.
Designed with beautiful, symbolic simplicity by Ciaran Bagnall, director Jeremy Herrin’s production is blessed by an outstanding cast. Donal Gallery, in particular, is heartbreaking and captivating as the anguished, mercurial Pyper.
Co-produced by the Citizens, Headlong theatre company, the Abbey and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, this extraordinary, haunting production has an extensive tour of the UK and Ireland ahead of it. As its audiences will discover, it measures up entirely to the epic historical scale and the immense poetic stature of McGuinness’s magnificent script.
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 29, 2016
© Mark Brown