ANYTHING THAT GIVES OFF LIGHT
Review by Mark Brown
In 1973 John McGrath and his famous 7:84 Theatre Company staged a play entitled The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil. Connecting Scotland’s present to its anguished past by means of live music and song, and an unambiguously socialist political standpoint, it would come to be seen by many as the most important Scottish theatre work of the 20th century.
Now, some four decades on, the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) and experimental American company The TEAM (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) seem to be attempting to create a sequel to McGrath’s iconic drama. However, as their show, Anything That Gives Off Light, indicates, collaborative theatre making has changed considerably over the last 43 years.
In 1973 7:84’s collectivist approach meant creating a work of communal theatre from a text written by McGrath. By contrast, Anything That Gives Off Light, a collectively devised piece directed by Rachel Chavkin of The TEAM, has no fewer than five authors (namely the director herself, her Scottish associate director Davey Anderson, and the show’s three actors, American Jessica Almasy and Scots Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson).
The story begins with a chance meeting in a Scottish pub between Red (an American woman, played by Almasy, who is seeking refuge from her disintegrating family life) and Scottish friends Brian (Ferguson) and Iain (Grierson). What follows is a postmodern road trip in which the men unfold key aspects of Scottish history (the Battle of Culloden, the Highland Clearances) to their American guest.
When the Scottish narrative becomes too contentious, they ask Red to tell them about America. However, there is no escape there, so enmeshed are Scots in the tortured history of the United States.
In contrast to McGrath’s almost editorial play, this NTS/TEAM production is self-consciously fractured in its approach to both history and politics. However, as a live band plays tunes inflected with Scottish and American folk musics, the piece appears to betray its quintuple authorship.
The show’s structure may be deliberately jagged, but that doesn’t excuse the considerable inconsistency in both its tone and the quality of the writing. As it swings between glib arguments, genuinely painful accounts of historical events and barely dramatised mini-lectures, one can’t but wish that this immensely talented trio of actors were performing a more consistent and, therefore, more compelling play.
Until August 26. eif.co.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on August 22, 2016
© Mark Brown