We Are In Time
Touring until March 6
Smile: The Jim McLean Story
Until March 7
By MARK BROWN
As a work of music theatre, We Are In Time (a co-production by the ever-inventive string orchestra the Scottish Ensemble and the acclaimed, experimental theatre company Untitled Projects) is so audacious, in conceptual terms, that it feels almost indecent to receive it with anything other than unalloyed praise. Taking as its subject a heart transplant operation, it is an accomplished, but somewhat uneasy, combination of string concert, chamber opera and elementary medical lecture.
New music by acclaimed Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson is partnered to text by leading dramatist Pamela Carter. The piece is directed by the excellent director-designer Stewart Laing, whose stage is a typically stylish, pared-back approximation of an operating theatre. On-stage the 12-strong Scottish Ensemble is joined by narrator Alison O’Donnell (who, tablet computer in hand, keeps us up to speed with the history and process of the heart transplant), and singers Jodie Landau (Jay, the donor) and Ruby Philogene (Stella, the recipient).
The subject matter – death and the fear of death, the giving of life – is inherently dramatic and as old as human culture itself. Such existential material is the very stuff of artistic expression precisely because it resides in the realm of what Albert Einstein called “mystery”.
There is, therefore, a tension in this production’s attempt to combine that mystery with clinically unambiguous medical language. One suspects the artists are aware of this tension, and have sought to make of it something creatively jagged (like a painting by Georges Braque or a string quartet by Béla Bartók).
The attempt is admirable and, often, affecting, but, ultimately, it fails. Sigurdsson’s score, which is played gorgeously by the Ensemble, is by turns beautifully harmonic and dramatically discordant. However, moments of bald, medical precision, such as the Ensemble singing the words “organ donation and transplantation hub operations”, are (the alliteration notwithstanding), not so much dissonant, as distractingly clunky. Violinist Jonathan Morton’s brief, but grating, speaking of the words of the head surgeon is similarly avoidable.
Which is a pity, because Landau performs the role of Jay with a touching sense, both of his character’s regrets and of his calm familiarity with death. He sings the part with a gentle, almost understated informality.
By contrast, the superb opera singer Philogene sings Stella in an altogether higher register, which raises the emotional stature of the piece. She plays the modern day Lazarus with a tremendous combination of gravity, wry humour, boundless relief and profound gratitude; one only wishes that her operatic singing (in which, inevitably, some words are lost) was accompanied by supertitles.
With so much creative and performative talent at its disposal, We Are In Time promised to be a truly great work of music theatre. Sadly, however, it fails to resolve the contradictions inherent in its conception, leaving one feeling frustratingly unfulfilled.
If Sigurdsson and Carter are dealing in matters of life and death, Dundee Rep’s latest play, Smile: The Jim McLean Story, turns its attention to something that, as the philosopher Bill Shankly explained, is “much, much more important than that”; namely, football. That being so, I feel it is my professional duty as a theatre critic to avoid any clichés associated with the beautiful game.
I will not, therefore, suggest that Philip Differ’s biographical drama plays to the tangerine half of the city of Dundee, or that it tackles the life of Dundee United’s greatest ever manager. It’s more than my byline’s worth to throw-in the observation that the fine and versatile actor Barrie Hunter proves himself to be an agile utility man or opine that debutant main stage director Sally Reid has turned out to be a star signing who has achieved her goal with an assured production.
Joking aside, Differ’s play is very much for the fans. The piece is presented on a set which represents the interior of a dilapidated tenement (a nod to McLean’s trade as a joiner) and is dominated by Oscar Marzaroli’s marvellous photo of Celtic supporters (a sleight-of-hand designer Kenny Miller gets away with on account of the picture being in black and white).
The drama deals in McLean’s personal history, his family life, his famously dour persona, and, of course, his towering achievements as manager of United. Hunter (ably assisted by Chris Alexander in an array of supporting roles) is excellent in his portrayal of the man’s often comical, sometimes sinister rage, his regrets and his underlying decency.
The piece is deliciously funny at times, but can also be a tad saccharine; not least when Differ imagines McLean saying: “I was born in Lanarkshire, but I was made in Dundee.” It also makes too little of the fact that the future footballer and manager was raised in the strict Protestant sect The Plymouth Brethren.
Finally, only an outrageously fanatical, St Mirren-supporting critic would point out that the Buddies beat McLean’s 1987 UEFA Cup finalists in the Scottish Cup Final of that year. So I won’t.
For tour dates for We Are In Time, visit: scottishensemble.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on March 1, 2020
© Mark Brown