Review: The Brothers Karamazov, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Sunday Herald)



The Brothers Karamazov

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 28


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Karamazov - Biggerstaff
Sean Biggerstaff, photographed at the Tron Theatre. Photo: Jamie Simpson/Herald & Times

It isn’t difficult to see why Glasgow’s Tron Theatre chose to stage this revival of Richard Crane’s 1981 adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov. The piece has an impressive heritage.

Originally presented, by the Brighton Theatre Company, as part of the prestigious programme of the Edinburgh International Festival, its four-strong cast included the late, great Alan Rickman and excellent Scottish actor Peter Kelly. Faynia Williams’s Festival production enjoyed critical plaudits. Reviewing for our daily sister paper, then called The Glasgow Herald, my colleague Mary Brennan praised “a lean forceful play”, which was given “uncluttered, pacey direction” by Williams.

This Tron revival is very much an homage to that celebrated production of 36 years ago. Not only is it working with the same text, but it also boasts the original music by Stephen Boxer (who also acted in the 1981 show) and the services, as director, of Williams herself.

If this new staging of the Karamazovs arrived loaded with expectation, sad to say the production dashes one’s excitement quickly and emphatically. Williams has created a production which is so dry and languid that it is difficult to believe that she actually created the fondly remembered show of the early-Eighties.

Dostoyevsky’s novel places the bloody, internecine crisis of the bourgeois Karamazov family within the wider context of a decadent Czarist Russia. As in a Chekhov play, we sense that this is a social, political and religious order that is on the brink of collapse. Indeed, both writers, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov, are so penetrating in their observations of the clash between Czarism and European Enlightenment thought that they seem almost to prophecy the rise of Bolshevism and the revolution of October 1917.

Crane’s adaptation of the Karamazovs pares Dostoyevsky’s novel down to the essentials of the brothers (including Smerdyakov, reputed “bastard” son of the rancid and disreputable paterfamilias Fyodor). Unlike the original production, however, there is little in this revival of the stifling atmosphere of late-19th century Russia.

Williams’s production never achieves the promised, swift, sharply focused evocations of, for example, the dissoluteness of the wayward Dmitry (Thierry Mabonga) or the piety of the youngest brother Alyosha (a novice in an Orthodox monastery, played by Tom England). Instead the piece feels hesitant and disjointed, the acting performances strained and uncertain.

Sean Biggerstaff tries to lend some kind of moral weight to Ivan, the restless nihilist who, like a Lucifer of the Enlightenment, tests Alyosha’s faith. However, his playing is heavy on exposition and emotional hyperbole, and light on subtlety. Likewise Mark Brailsford’s Smerdyakov, who is a caricature of oily servility, rather than a complex schemer capable of violent patricide.

This production isn’t even a decent advert for Boxer’s music, which is characterised in this staging by occasional chimes and awkward singing by the cast. If Williams’s decision to have her actors sing, in pairs on either side of the auditorium, from behind the audience, is intended be emotionally evocative, it fails dismally. One can only imagine the spiritual polyphony that might have been achieved by her original production, because it is entirely absent here.

The show’s set, designed by Carys Hobbs, certainly contributes to the piece’s sense of dull inflexibility. A hard, static arena, the actors either clamber upon the steps upon its walls or roll, barefoot in the too-obviously metaphorical mud. The results are both theatrically unforgiving and visibly unedifying.

It is only four years since director Dominic Hill brought us a superb production of another Dostoyevsky novel (Crime And Punishment, adapted brilliantly by Chris Hannan) at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The inevitable comparison does this listless Brothers Karamazov no favours at all.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 22, 2017

© Mark Brown


Reviews: Cockpit, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh & Dragons Of Drummohr, Drummohr House, East Lothian


Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until October 28


Dragons Of Drummohr

Drummohr House, East Lothian

Until October 29


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Peter Hannah as Ridley in Cockpit

Cockpit, by the late Anglo-Irish writer Bridget Boland, is both an extraordinary historical document and a remarkably prescient drama. First staged (at the Playhouse Theatre, London) in 1948 it is set in a grand theatre in Germany which has been transformed into a post-Second World War transit centre for “DPs” (displaced persons) from across Europe.

Young, multilingual Captain Ridley of the British Army is tasked with sorting the multitudinous and diverse refugees into westbound and eastbound convoys. However, as no-nonsense, Geordie Sergeant Barnes (who has been keeping order in the centre ahead of Ridley’s arrival) has discovered, ethnic, national and political conflicts make this a complicated and dangerous task.

It is not difficult, in these days of the Catalan crisis, Brexit and the return of ideology (on both the Corbynite left and the xenophobic right), to see in the play a premonitory metaphor for Europe in 2017. Yet, if the recent war in Ukraine teaches us anything it is, surely, that we are still living in the divided Europe instituted by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta in 1945.

By setting the action in a requisitioned playhouse, the play cleverly puts the audience at the heart of events. Designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita has put additional seating at the back of the stage, thereby enhancing the claustrophobia of the piece.

The splendid Lyceum auditorium itself is hung with drying laundry and (courtesy of superb musical director Aly Macrae) filled with the musics of Europe. One can feel the nervous energy of a broken continent on the move.

Director Wils Wilson and her talented, international cast build excellently on these atmospheric possibilities. Boland’s intelligent conceit, in which the theatre is sealed for a time by a health emergency, magnifies the dramatic intensity.

There are fine performances all over the place, not least from Alexandra Mathie as a Polish professor of anatomy, who is as rusty in her medical practise as she is distrustful of Russians. Peter Hannah (the idealistic Ridley), Deka Walmsley (the deliciously blunt Barnes) and Dylan Read (the comically unctuous stage manager Bauer) also impress.

For all its dramatic sophistication, there is a degree of reductive, political over-simplification in the play. Ridley represents Boland’s doctrine that “belief is dangerous”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his “anti-ideological” liberal humanism is also an ideology.

Unsurprisingly, the politicos among the refugees are often two-dimensional caricatures. A Yugoslav partisan, for example, shouts “Tito! Tito! Tito!”, with clenched fist in the air, at the very mention of his leader’s name.

Depicting a period of crisis-induced cooperation sandwiched between belief-inflamed conflicts, Boland’s anxious and humane drama is a bold and brave exploration of the complexities of post-war Europe. However, it has beliefs of its own, and they are not without their own dubieties.

Dragons of Drummohr
Dragons Of Drummohr

From the besmirched grandeur of an appropriated theatre to the (on Wednesday night) somewhat waterlogged splendour of a Scottish country mansion. The grounds of Drummohr House in East Lothian provide the location for Dragons Of Drummohr, the latest, dragon-inspired “augmented reality theatre adventure” from Edinburgh-based company Vision Mehanics.

With the “Dragon Matrix” app downloaded to your smartphone or tablet you are invited to join the Dragon Protection League (DPL) in their quest to find the various creatures that are inhabiting the grounds of the house. At the DPL’s base camp a little museum exhibition tells us all about dragons and the evil poachers who threaten to eradicate them.

Then, out in the grounds, we explore a variety of splendidly constructed, interactive (and often delightfully eccentric) installations and sculptures. There’s a place where we can assist the survival of dragons through dance, a garden of massive, multi-coloured flowers and, of course, an enormous, very friendly-looking red dragon.

Throughout the grounds there are codes to scan with the app, each of them bringing creatures, from scary spiders to despicable trolls, into your phone. Collect all of the animals and there are prizes to be won from the grateful DPL.

Needless to say, this is all great fun for media-savvy primary school kids. A good pair of wellies, a decent torch and the app on their phone are all that’s needed for an engrossing and active 45 minutes of exploration.

The only slight disappointment is that Vision Mechanics’ emphasis on computer technology means that the actual physical materials of the piece tend to be sculptures, rather than puppets. An actual moving dragon in the grounds of the house would have been a treat.

For details of Dragons Of Drummohr, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 15, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: The Brothers Karamazov, Tron Theatre, Glasgow (Daily Telegraph)






Reviewed by Mark Brown

Brothers Karamazov
Tom England (Alyosha) and Thierry Mabonga (Dmitry). Photo: John Johnston

In 1981 the Brighton Theatre was the first company to be taken from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and placed on the prestigious programme of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF). The show it presented was Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The great tale, in which we witness the violent implosion of the bourgeois Karamazov family, was adapted by Richard Crane and directed by Faynia Williams. It was performed by a four-strong cast that included Alan Rickman.

According to Crane (writing in 2011), EIF director John Drummond was “looking for rough brilliance.” This revival of Crane’s adaptation by Glasgow’s Tron Theatre Company, with Williams back at the directorial helm, is certainly rough, but it has precious little brilliance.

The four cast members (each of whom plays a Karamazov brother, including Smerdyakov, rumoured “illegitimate” child of the degenerate and neglectful patriarch Fyodor) appear like proverbial fish out of water. Uncomfortable with Crane’s cut-and-paste approach to the text (which necessitates regular and sudden shifts between dialogue, exposition and narration) they anticipate their lines visibly, like greyhounds ready to be released from the traps.

Dostoyevsky’s novel concerns itself with the immense religious, philosophical and cultural anxieties that wracked the soul of Czarist Russia. As such it demands a style and gravitas that is entirely absent from Williams’s production.

The conflicting world views of Ivan (the nihilistic “sensualist”, played by Sean Biggerstaff) and Alyosha (an earnest novice monk, performed by Tom England) are delivered either as dry diatribes or histrionic outbursts. The attempted humour of the piece is frivolous and inconsequential, not least in Mark Brailsford’s characterisation of the servile and slippery Smerdyakov, which is excruciatingly overacted.

Even continuity is a problem. When Thierry Mabonga’s Dmitry removes his blood-soaked shirt, the vest underneath is a miraculously pristine white.

The production boasts Stephen Boxer’s music from the original 1981 production. However, it is delivered here, not with the enigmatic soulfulness of eastern polyphonic song, but with a variably competent lack of vocal conviction.

Carys Hobbs’s set offers no respite from the general dreadfulness of the show. A rigid crucible of wood and soil, it is (that contradiction in terms) a literal metaphor, representing, among other places, a monk’s cell and a courtroom. Ugly and intrusive, its only defence might be that it is no worse than any other element of this crushingly disappointing production.

At Tron Theatre, Glasgow until October 28:

This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on October 14, 2017

© Mark Brown


Review: The Macbeths, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow



The Macbeths

Citzens Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 14


Reviewed by Mark Brown

The Macbeths - Alex Brady
Charlene Boyd and Keith Fleming. Photo: Alex Brady

Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre has a strong tradition of smaller scale, studio work. Famous though it is for the grand productions in its main house, the Citz’s staging of studio pieces dates back to the mid-Sixties.

Initiated in 1965 and destroyed by fire in 1973, The Close Theatre Club sat immediately adjacent to the Citz. It presented a programme which often included leftfield modernist theatre.

In 1992, 23 years into his extraordinary 34-year reign as artistic director, Giles Havergal opened two small studio spaces within the Citizens’ building. These studios allowed the Citz to stage avant-garde work (such as Eva Peron, by Argentine dramatist Copi, in 1997) and some exciting new writing (like Mark Thomson’s Pleasure And Pain, first staged in 2002 and revived in the Citz’s Circle Studio earlier this year).

Current Citz artistic director Dominic Hill plans to replace the studios with a new Close theatre studio as part of the theatre’s forthcoming major renovation. For now, however, he is returning the spirit of the late Havergal era to the Gorbals playhouse with The Macbeths, a pungently abridged version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play.

Using a carefully cut version of the text, this two -hander, created by Dominic Hill (director) and Frances Poet (dramaturg), is assiduously modern. Imagine a version of Tracey Emin’s famous 1998 artwork My Bed hosting, not the solipsistic detritus of a supposedly dissolute youth, but a powerful, human drama of loss, ambition and, above all, desire.

Here the Macbeths, Charlene Boyd (Lady M) and Keith Fleming (Macbeth), crash headlong into violent chaos through a haze of cigarette smoke and vodka. The modernisation and domestication of the drama reduces the significance of the witches’ prophecies, putting the greater motivating influence upon the sexual relations between Macbeth and his wife (which is where it should be in any case).

Boyd’s Lady M urges her husband to regicide with a sharp, forceful argument that brooks no disagreement. However, in this intense, domestic setting, the crux of her persuasiveness is her sexual power over her spouse. Rarely have I encountered a Lady M who appears so menacing when she speaks the crucial words: “When you durst do it, then you were a man;/ And, to be more than what you were, you would/ Be so much more the man.”

As the play’s title suggests, these king killers are a double act, joined not only in sexual desire and vaulting ambition, but also in anguish. When Lady M pulls open a drawer beneath the bed, from which she takes toys that belonged to her child who died in infancy, due heed is paid to her remembrance: “I have given suck, and know/ How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.”

For his part, Fleming’s Macbeth is the perfect embodiment of public, militaristic swagger combined with private uncertainty. Sweating like a bull, his sensuality is craving, rather than domineering. In the boudoir, at least, he and his wife are equals.

The bigger political picture of Macbeth’s burgeoning tyranny, complete with speeches by other characters, comes, cleverly, in the shape of surveillance technology which is more 20th-century analogue than contemporary digital. As events undo the minds of, first, Lady M and, then, Macbeth, one wonders whether these are the private interactions of modern murderers (such as the Ceausescus in Romania or the Marcoses in the Philippines), or a bleak, mutual, psychotic fantasy.

Either way, this is Shakespeare’s play delivered in powerfully concentrated form, as if straight into the bloodstream. Cleverly set and superbly acted, it is a reminder of the possibilities of studio theatre at the Citizens.

A slightly abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 8, 2017

© Mark Brown

Review: Faithful Ruslan, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow



Faithful Ruslan

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow

Until October 7


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Faithful Ruslan
Martin Donaghy (The Master) and Max Keeble (Ruslan). Photo: Robert Day

Georgi Vladimov’s novel Faithful Ruslan: The Story Of A Guard Dog is not an obvious candidate for adaptation to the stage. Set before and immediately after the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, it tells the story of the Gulag forced labour camps, and their dissolution, from the perspective of a guard dog.

It takes a special skill, both in performance and design, for an actor to represent an animal without unintended pathos or inadvertent comedy. This three-way co-production (between Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre, the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and London-based KP Productions), adapted and staged by Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson, avoids the pitfalls brilliantly, delivering the story with tremendous ingenuity and emotional power.

Kaut-Howson is joined by Polish designer Pawel Dobrzycki, Italian movement director (and co-founder of the great, London-based theatre company Complicite) Marcello Magni and Polish composer Boleslaw Rawski. The production they have created combines the bold atmospherics of the great Polish theatre-makers (from Jerzy Grotowski to Tadeusz Kantor and Krzysztof Warlikowski) with the very particular physical training and aesthetics of the French master Jacques Lecoq (at whose school, in Paris, Magni trained).

Max Keeble (a recent graduate from Drama Centre London) gives an outstanding physical and vocal performance as Ruslan, the guard dog whose world is torn asunder when Stalin dies and the Gulag is dissolved. Trained to trust no-one but his now demobilised master, Ruslan is left disorientated and famished by the sudden disappearance of master, prisoners and, the only purpose of his life, The Service.

Played out on Dobrzycki’s fine set, an abstracted Gulag exercise yard, the piece takes us forward, through the dog’s desperate, confused attempts to survive (including a period “guarding” a former prisoner who, foolishly, thinks he has become Ruslan’s new master). We are also taken back to the early days of The Service and the harsh lessons the dog is taught in order to make him perfectly obedient and ferocious in his loyalty.

The cleverly alternative, canine perspective combines with the performances of a superb ensemble to create a stark and memorable evocation of the unrelenting human misery of the Gulag. This is enhanced by Rawski’s excellent, mainly eastern European music (including affecting singing by Camrie Palmer); although an early, entirely incongruous blast of rap music seems badly misjudged.

Reminiscent of the glory days of Scottish touring company Communicado, Faithful Ruslan is a very welcome addition to our theatre’s explorations in European aesthetics.

This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on October 1, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: What Shadows, Lyceum, Edinburgh & The Steamie, touring




Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Until September 23



Seen at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy

Touring until November 11


Reviewed by Mark Brown

What Shadows
Ian McDiarmid as Enoch Powell in What Shadows. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

Chris Hannan is one of the most important dramatists that Scotland has ever produced. The author of such plays as Elizabeth Gordon Quinn and Shining Souls, he helped pave the way for the writers, such as David GreigZinnie HarrisDavid Harrower and Anthony Neilson, who brought international recognition to Scottish playwriting in the 1990s.

Like some of the authors who followed him, Hannan’s work has often emerged in the English theatrical context as well as the Scottish. It is appropriate, therefore, that his latest play, What Shadows, should grapple with the modern history of national and ethnic identity in Britain.

Directed by Roxana Silbert for the Birmingham Rep, the drama (which premiered in Birmingham in October of last year) focuses upon the right-wing, British nationalist politician Enoch Powell. Shifting back-and-forth between the 1960s and the 1990s, the piece hinges on the infamous “rivers of blood” speech Powell made in Birmingham in 1968, in which he warned of a bloody civil war in the UK if non-white immigration were not stopped and, by implication, reversed.

The play is built of two converging narratives. One involves the tortured friendship between the Powells (Enoch and his wife Pamela) and the Joneses (Powell’s journalist friend Clem and his wife Marjorie). The other follows the fictive field research of Rose Cruickshank (a black Oxford academic who was brought up in Powell’s constituency in Wolverhampton) and Sofia Nicol (a white former academic forced out of Oxford following accusations of racism, levelled by Cruickshank, among others).

For the most part Hannan’s play navigates its sensitive and weighty subject with a compelling, forensic theatricality. The intellectual and moral jousting between Enoch Powell and Clem Jones is reminiscent of the arguments between the nuclear physicists Niels Bohr and Weiner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn’s drama Copenhagen.

Cruickshank and Nicol’s project (to interview Powell after tracing some of the people who Cruickshank lived beside in the late-Sixties) seems unlikely, and the black professor’s sudden and complete denunciation of her childhood self stretches one’s credulity too far. However, this plot line does allow Hannan to build a credible, human, sometimes humorous picture of the growth of modern multiculturalism in the West Midlands of England.

Silbert’s production is played on a simple set, with a few trees evoking a park or a forest, and carefully employed, unobtrusive projections evoking other locations as and when required. It boasts a universally fine cast, including Amelia Donkor (excellent as both Rose Cruikshank and, back in the Sixties, her mother Joyce) and Nicholas Le Prevost (captivating as Clem Jones, caught between his Quaker morality and his personal loyalty to Powell).

The sun around which the entire play revolves is, of course, the character of Powell himself. He is played with brilliant understanding and nuance by the great Ian McDiarmid.

Here is the Powell who, as a Conservative government minister in the 1950s, encouraged immigration from Britain’s former colonies and voted, in 1967, for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality; in one poignantly comic scene, a young, gay Asian man approaches Powell to thank him for his role in the gay rights vote in parliament.

However, this is also Powell the unduly certain, patrician politician who, insisting upon the separation of his British nationalism from racial supremacism, made the most dangerous speech on immigration to afflict British politics in the second half of the 20th century. To represent these personal and political contradictions, both when Powell was at the height of his powers and in his twilight years, is an extremely demanding task. McDiarmid achieves it with a shuddering sense of truth.

The Steamie
Carmen Pieraccini (Magrit) and Fiona Wood (Doreen) in The Steamie. Photo: Douglas Richardson

There has only ever been a grain a truth in Tony Roper’s popular comedy The Steamie.

Currently on its 30th anniversary tour, this shamelessly nostalgic play invites us to once again don the rose-tinted specs and have a gander at a Glaswegian communal washhouse circa 1949.

It’s New Year’s Eve and old Mrs Culfeathers is still “takin’ in a washin’, at her age!” Protestant Dolly asks probing questions of Catholic Magrit, as if the latter is a religious scholar, rather than a working-class woman with an alcoholic husband.

Young Doreen, her head in a whirl of American movie stars and post-war optimism, dreams of a palatial home, with front and back doors, in Drumchapel. Meanwhile, washhouse manager Andy is well lubricated, having taken more than a tipple from the Hogmanay bottles the women have secreted among the dirty washing.

This production, which is directed by Roper himself, delivers The Steamie, the whole Steamie and nothing but The Steamie. Kenny Miller’s beautifully detailed set is the quintessence of nostalgia, while the cast (which includes Carmen Pieraccini and Steven McNicoll on fine form) is unquestionably up to the mark.

The play’s the thing, however, and Roper’s (with songs by David Anderson) is so sentimentally saccharine that it seems to have been chiselled from a pillar of sugar. More a collection of music hall skits than a well-made-play, it had the Kirkcaldy audience laughing in advance of (its greatest comedic hit) the “Galloway’s mince” story.

Such is the affection the play has accumulated over the last three decades that to say one doesn’t like it is equivalent to breaking wind in church. I beg your pardon, therefore, because sitting in an adoring audience for The Steamie makes me feel like I’ve turned up at a Star Trek convention in a Chewbacca costume.

For tour dates for The Steamie, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 17, 2017

© Mark Brown

Reviews: August: Osage County, Dundee Rep; A Streetcar Named Desire, tour; & The Sky is Safe, tour




Dundee Rep

Until September 16



Seen at Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Touring until October 7



Seen at Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Touring until September 23


Reviewed by Mark Brown

Osage County
Ewan Donald and Beth Marshall in August: Osage County. Photo: Tommy Ga Ken-Wan

Andrew Panton, newly appointed artistic director at Dundee Rep, has chosen a big, challenging drama with which to make his debut. American writer Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, which had its world premiere at the famous Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago a decade ago, has been richly awarded (with a Pulitzer and a Tony, among many others). In 2013 filmmaker John Wells collaborated with Letts on a successful screen version, starring President Trump’s bête noire Meryl Streep.

Panton’s production marks the Scottish premiere of the play. It is, glad to report, a scintillating triumph.

Alcoholic poet Beverly Weston takes on a live-in housekeeper (a young, native American woman) to care for his prescription drug-addicted wife Violet. He then promptly disappears. The ensuing drama is like 1970s American TV series The Waltons being gatecrashed by Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

A superb, 13-strong ensemble gives powerful expression to both Letts’s bleak comedy and the resounding humanism that underlies it. Ann Louise Ross, in particular, is memorably anguished, desperate and vindictive in the crucial role of Violet.

Designer Alex Lowde’s set, which is comprised of an entire, transparent, two-storey house, complete with loft room, on a massive stage revolve, is an extraordinary achievement. It allows the audience to see into every room, following the various characters as they confront each other and their demons, or seek refuge from the darkly humorous chaos engulfing the household.

The production (which boasts typically assured accent work by voice coach Ros Steen) delves deep into the guts of the play. As it does so, it achieves both a recognisable family drama (not least in the relations between the Weston’s three grown-up daughters) and a resonating, metaphorical portrait of the “hubris” of the United States as a national and imperial project.

Streetcar, Rapture
Kazeem Tosin Amore (Mitch) and Gina Isaac (Blanche) in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Photo: Richard Campbell

If the Rep’s latest offering excels in staging a modern American classic, Rapture Theatre’s touring production of Tennessee Williams’s celebrated drama A Streetcar Named Desire, sadly, does not. Agonisingly miscast and misconceived it is a very poor follow-up to the company’s deservedly celebrated rendering of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Director Michael Emans tends to play the modern canon with a pretty straight bat. Here, however, he has fashioned an uncomfortable combination of faithful naturalism and radical revision.

Although he keeps the play very firmly in late-1940s New Orleans, the director opts for black actors to represent characters who are living in what is very much a white neighbourhood. This includes Joseph Black as the famous Polish-American protagonist Stanley Kowalski.

The problem here is not the inclusion of black actors (the almost complete invisibility of African-Americans from Williams’s Deep South is ripe for adaptation), but, rather, Emans’s lack of directorial confidence. If, as a German stage director might do, he had broken the play’s naturalism entirely, altering its time and place, he could have created an interesting new take on the play. As it is, Black and Kazeem Tosin Amore (as Stanley’s friend Mitch) struggle against the assiduous realism of the production, white men, played by black men, listening to the casual racism spoken, without irony, at the poker table.

If Emans lacks the courage of his conceptual convictions, he also lacks the actors who might salvage his limping production. Gina Isaac gets close to the tragic essence of the fallen southern belle Blanche DuBois, but she is fighting a losing battle.

For the most part the cast appears insecure and rudderless. Lines are garbled and accents slip. Julia Taudevin (who plays Blanche’s sister Stella) gives a performance that is painfully uncertain and, often, barely audible.

To add insult to injury, designer Richard Evans’s cutaway set is ugly (like an apartment block which has been partly eaten by some huge monster), while the use of music is cumbersome and invasive. One could be forgiven for thinking this production was the work, not of a professional touring company, but of an amateur dramatics society.

The Sky is Safe
Matthew Zajac and Dana Hajaj in The Sky is Safe. Photo: Dogstar

It would be damning with faint praise to say that The Sky Is Safe, the latest piece by Dingwall-based company Dogstar, is better than Rapture’s offering. Based upon the testimonies of women who have fled the devastation of the war in Syria, and supporting the NGO Small Projects Istanbul (which works with refugees in Turkey’s largest city), its heart is very firmly in the right place.

Whether it impresses as a work of theatre is another matter entirely. Written and, along with fine Palestinian-Lebanese actor Dana Hajaj, performed by Dogstar’s artistic director Matthew Zajac it is an awkward mix of verbatim testimony with a fictional narrative about Gordon, a Scottish military aircraft engineer, who seeks the services of Amal, an intelligent and educated refugee from Syria who has turned to prostitution in Istanbul.

This latter drama is too short and obviously point-making to be truly engaging. Likewise the dramatisations built around the women’s testimonies. A representation of the xenophobia many Syrian refugees face in Turkey is brief and histrionic.

Although directed by Ben Harrison (of Grid Iron theatre company fame), the piece has little of the theatrical flare that characterised his splendid production of The Tailor Of Inverness, Zajac’s excellent account of the life of his Polish father. Despite good intentions and committed performances from Hajaj and Zajac, this play never quite succeeds in marrying drama with documentary.

For tour dates for A Streetcar Named Desire, visit:

For tour dates for The Sky Is Safe, visit:

These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 10, 2017

© Mark Brown