The Red Chair
Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Touring until March 31
If I Had A Girl…
Seen at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Touring until March 16
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Much has been said and written about the crucial role played by the Scottish storytelling tradition. During the centuries when theatre was either prohibited by the Calvinist Reformation or recovering, slowly, from that stern proscription, the telling of tales sustained our culture’s connection to language in performance.
It is to that rich history that one’s mind turns on encountering The Red Chair, writer and performer Sarah Cameron’s remarkable dramatic monologue. First performed in 2015, and revived now for an extensive Scottish tour, this self-described “faerytale” is written and performed in a deep, lush Scots-English.
Simultaneously contemporary and timeless, it tells the tale of a wealthy young man (Godwin Moir Williamson Caractacus) who, following his marriage, becomes so obese that he cannot rise from his chair. Growing into the seat, he literally becomes part of the furniture.
As he does so, the life of his long-suffering wife Andrula is subsumed by his morbid appetite. Extremely slender, on account of her growing revulsion at food, she is a slave to her husband’s gargantuan demands.
The story is told by an eloquent third person narrator and in the desolate-yet-poetic prose of Godwin’s neglected daughter Queanie (aka “The Inveesible Child”). In time, mother and daughter become bound together in their powerful resentment of the corpulent authoritarian.
What transpires next is best discovered either in attending one of Cameron’s performances or in reading the published text (an adaptation of Cameron’s original story co-authored by Suzy Willson and Cameron herself). Suffice it to say that it is the kind of Scots-Gothic tale that might have emerged from a collaboration between Robert Burns and Edgar Allan Poe.
Performed over a brilliantly sustained 90 minutes (which includes brief interludes for samples from Godwin’s larder), the piece is a masterclass in monodrama. Cameron has not only a startlingly evocative facility with language, but also a tremendous capacity in physical and facial expression.
Whether she is describing Godwin’s burgeoning rotundity or evoking Queanie’s stark hopelessness, the performer uses language, space and body with an expertise that is utterly compelling.
The use of sound, music and lighting is (for the most part) beautifully attuned to both text and performance. The “inveesibility” of Queanie, for example, is illustrated in Cameron being only partially illuminated on a pitch black stage; at one point, we see only her mouth, as if the actor were performing Beckett’s famous monologue Not I.
The only slight lapse in judgement comes late on in the performance, when the story turns to the international news coverage of the strange case of the disappearance of the very fat man. A short moment, in which we hear the recorded chatter of 24 hour news media, creates a distracting breach in the show’s otherwise perfectly-sustained atmosphere.
Such a complaint seems almost cavilling, however, given the general excellence of this superb, highly distinctive dramatic monologue. Produced by the London-based Clod Ensemble, this Scottish tour is a very welcome celebration of the Scots tongue, storytelling and theatrical performance itself.
There is a very different contemplation of the abuse of women within marriage in If I Had A Girl…, a verbatim drama from the Glasgow-based organisation Amina – MWRC (Muslim Women’s Resource Centre). Performed by a five-strong cast of four women and one man, the piece bravely and boldly addresses the issue of the violence against women within Scotland’s Muslim communities.
Written by Mariem Omari, and based upon the often harrowing firsthand accounts of Scottish Muslim women, the piece achieves a crucial balance between giving voice to the women’s experiences whilst making no concessions to Islamophobic stereotypes. Much of the violence, denigration and controlling behaviour recounted here will be familiar to many non-Muslim women who have found themselves in abusive relationships.
However, there are also elements in the experiences of the women interviewed by the Amina organisation that are particular to the Muslim community. A case in point is that of a young Scots Muslim woman who remembers her family’s attempts to marry her off, at the age of nine, to a 31-year-old second cousin in Pakistan.
There are re-enactments of sickening acts of violence and scenes playing out issues of wider social pressure, such as parents pressurising women to remain in broken marriages for fear of divorce bringing “shame” on the family. There are also examples of tremendous bravery on the part of the women themselves, and some encouraging instances of solidarity with them.
There can be no doubt that public discussion of vitally important issues such as these is very much needed in our society. There is also no question over the tremendous commitment and courage of Amina, the cast of this production and the women whose testimonies are woven into the play.
With the best will in the world, however, what one cannot say is that this is well-made theatre. The text itself has little by way of dramatic rhythm, whilst the dramaturgy (swaying from side-to-side to represent a Hebridean ferry journey, for example) lacks imagination.
Verbatim dramas often feel like television or film documentaries trapped within plays. So it is here.
The stories Amina wants to tell are extremely important, but one can’t help but wonder whether theatre is truly the best medium in which to deliver them.
For tour details for The Red Chair, visit: http://www.clodensemble.com
For tour details for If I Had A Girl…, visit: http://www.mwrc.org.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 12, 2017
© Mark Brown