Reviews: Edinburgh Festival 2021, August 15 (Sunday National)

A gloriously absurd exploration of mental health treatment


Traverse Theatre


Newhailes House and Gardens


Traverse Theatre


Festival Theatre

Reviews by Mark Brown

Domhnall Gleeson in Medicine. Photo: Jess Shurte

Seasoned patrons of the Edinburgh festivals have fond memories of The Walworth Farce, the hit play of the 2007 Fringe by the acclaimed Irish playwright Enda Walsh. From the pen of the author of the tragicomic Disco Pigs and the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s searing film Hunger, the play, which was staged at the Traverse Theatre, was an astonishingly hilarious and deeply moving reflection on the Irish experience of emigration.

   Walsh’s latest drama, Medicine (Traverse, until August 29), which is presented by Dublin-based theatre company Landmark Productions and the Galway International Arts Festival, is in a similar vein. It shares with The Walworth Farce a brilliant, bleak humour and a discernible nod towards the absurdism of the legendary dramatist Eugène Ionesco.

    Playing as part of the Edinburgh International Festival programme, Medicine, in many ways, does for the subject of mental health what the earlier piece did for Irish migration. The play stars the exceptional Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (of the Star Wars series and The Revenant fame) in the role of John Kane, a man who has been diagnosed with psychosis and, seemingly, incarcerated by the state.

   From very early in the play we find ourselves in a world that is tipping vertiginously from something recognisably real into a darkly comic, absurdist fantasia. We see John wandering, in pyjamas and slippers, around the hospital gymnasium. The place is a mess, full of the debris of the previous night’s staff party.

   Given that John is about to embark on his personal testimony, this speaks to a certain neglect of his mental well-being. This is as nothing, however, compared with the “treatment” to follow.

   John’s testimony is being heard, not by mental health professionals, but by a pair of musical theatre performers, both of whom are called Mary. Played with sparkling intelligence and excoriating energy by Aoife Duffin and Clare Barrett, the Marys arrive in the guise of two old men (Duffin) and a lobster (Barrett).

   John hears, and we hear, a disembodied, male voice enquiring about his well-being and eliciting his acceptance of his incarceration. Meanwhile (scripts of John’s, seemingly oft-repeated, testimony in their hands), the Marys take on a variety of grimly hilarious roles, including those of John’s terrifyingly neglectful parents.

   The testimony itself includes an infant memory of being scalded and left to tumble to the floor from a “bath” in the kitchen sink. It also entails anguished recollections of a romantic attachment that was prevented, and, with it, John’s last chance at avoiding medical detention.

   The increasingly manic and violent antics of the mutually antagonistic Marys imply that, if there is madness here, it resides not in John, but in his past life and in the world around him. That impression is strengthened immeasurably in the powerful, poetic monologues Walsh has written for John. In these moments, the utterly mesmerising Gleeson gives spine-tingling expression to the depths of the unfortunate man’s pain, disappointment and despair.

   Excellently designed, with exceptional use of sound, voices and music (live and recorded), this production gives exquisite expression to another outstanding script by Enda Walsh.

Keith Fleming as Doppler. Photo: Duncan McGlynn

   The madness of the world is also the subject of Fringe production Doppler (Newhailes House and Gardens, near Musselburgh, until August 23). An outdoor piece by Grid Iron theatre company, Scotland’s leading site-specific theatre company, the play takes us into the forest in pursuit of writer-director Ben Harrison’s adaptation of Norwegian author Erlend Loe’s acclaimed novel.

   There, seated on logs (complete with cushions, I should add), Fringe-goers meet the titular protagonist (the ever-excellent Keith Fleming), a middle-class professional who has abandoned Oslo in favour of a life in the woods. Following a bang to the head in a cycling accident, Doppler sees with absolute clarity that his response to the greed and destructive consumption of late-capitalism must be to quit his job, abandon his family and live in a tent under a tree. 

   What unfolds is both wonderfully cartoonish and darkly comic. Having exhausted the food provided by foraging, Doppler turns from gatherer to hunter, killing a majestic elk (represented by a superb puppet by Fergus Dunnet). However, the animal has offspring which, riddled with guilt, Doppler adopts and names Bongo.

   As Doppler navigates his new life, complete with bartering (including a “milk deal” with a suburban grocery employee), the tremendous Chloe-Ann Tylor and Sean Hay play an array of boldly-drawn characters, ranging from Doppler’s exasperated (yet remarkably patient) wife to forest homeowner (and disconcertingly proud, Norwegian son of a Wehrmacht soldier) Düsseldorf.

   The beauty of Harrison’s clever production is that it creates a brilliant balance between the character of Doppler (as the fixed, if somewhat unhinged, centre of the story) and the other characters (such as Bozza, the consummately named posh, reactionary eccentric). While Fleming gives a performance that is a perfectly calibrated combination of plausible rationale and wide-eyed lunacy, Tylor and Hay are at liberty to play the orbiting characters as gloriously colourful caricatures.

   This larger-than-life dimension to the piece is enhanced by the live sound effects and music, composed by David A. Pollock and performed by Nik Paget-Tomlinson. It is strengthened, too, by the smart, deceptively simple set and costume designs by Becky Minto.

   For sure, 90 minutes sitting on a log (albeit padded) takes its toll on one’s rear. Also, the working conditions for the actors mean that costumes and props are muddied, when, naturalistically speaking, they shouldn’t be. These are mere trifles, however, when such an original, funny and thought-provoking piece of theatre is on offer.

   If the new plays by Walsh and Harrison hit the mark, Still (Traverse, until August 22), the latest Fringe piece by Scotland-based playwright Frances Poet, sadly, does not. The drama offers a collection of converging stories: a woman confined to her home by chronic pain; a hungover man who finds himself, his mind a blank, on Portobello beach; a young woman watching her father die with late-stage dementia; and a young woman and her partner hurtling towards a difficult pregnancy.

   Any one of these narratives could form the basis for a play. In attempting to fit all four together, Poet has ended up with a drama this is, paradoxically, overwrought and underwritten.

   Running at a little over an hour-and-a-half, this awkwardly constructed piece, which is directed by Gareth Nicholls, gives none of its characters enough space to breathe. Indeed, it is reminiscent of many plays we have seen at the Traverse over the last 20 years, in seeming like a soap opera with a twist.

   Such theatre works attempt to elevate thinly drawn issues of everyday life by enhancing them with action or language that wouldn’t be acceptable to the producers of run-of-the-mill, naturalistic TV dramas. They, nevertheless, remain moored to the predictable, unimaginative platitudes of realism.

   Which is a great pity, as Nicholls has assembled a universally fantastic cast. Few Scottish theatre productions can boast a line-up that includes the likes of superb actor and singer Naomi Stirrat (Gilly, daughter of the man with advanced dementia), Mercy Ojelade (pregnant veterinary surgeon, Ciara) and Martin Donaghy (Ciara’s partner, Dougie). 

   Yet Poet’s variably written script gives the actors too little to do. The brilliant Gerry Mulgrew’s Mick (the confused hedonist) speaks largely in regurgitated jokes. The wonderful Molly Innes (fibromyalgia sufferer, Gaynor) is stuck with a narrow, disagreeable temperament that would be understandable in a person with her condition, but which makes for poor theatre.

   Efforts are made to distinguish the play from an episode of River City. The compartmentalised set has a minimalist, semi-realist aspect. Outstanding theatre composer and musician Oğuz Kaplangi provides bespoke sound and music, which, too often, feels like it’s straining to give the play a rock ‘n’ roll dimension that it simply doesn’t have.

   In fairness, Poet resolves the stories of two characters with real poignancy, but, by then, it is too late. Her play simply does not amount to the sum of its overloaded parts.

   There’s nothing overloaded about David McVicar’s staging of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff (Festival Theatre, run ended). Directed and designed by McVicar for Scottish Opera and Santa Fe Opera, this hilarious, thoughtful and stylish production premiered in a purpose-built, outdoor theatre at Scottish Opera’s Glasgow studios before transferring to Edinburgh as part of the International Festival programme.

   It was worth a second look to see (and hear) how the piece adapted to being played in a classical theatre. The cleverly constructed, two-level, wooden structure (complete with gantry and balcony) that was made for the Glasgow shows sits on the Festival Theatre stage more comfortably than one might have expected.

   The theatre’s acoustics make it easier to understand what is being sung (in a libretto that has been translated into English); although surtitles (which were necessarily absent in Glasgow) also assist on that score. The cast, led by the glorious Roland Wood in the title role, is as wonderful as ever, as are McVicar’s spectacular costumes.

   We can only hope that, following its shows in New Mexico next year, this magnificent Verdi has a future life on Scottish stages.

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday National on August 15, 2021

© Mark Brown

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