© Mark Fisher
Thursday June 19, 2008
Peter Arnott's satirical target is a good one. In Swindle and Death, the playwright contends that state subsidy of the arts, with all its requirements for civic accountability, has the effect of neutering the very work it seeks to support. Such is the hold of the bureaucrats that the only way for a theatre company to survive, he would argue, is to adopt the same dull, utilitarian values.
Arnott invents actor-managers Brian Swindle and Eric Death, who have sustained an ensemble for centuries without a penny of public money. All would be well, if it were not for a Scottish Arts Council that regards itself as an instrument of control, sending a young apparatchik to go undercover as an actor and bring the company into line. "You can't escape," she says in one of the play's funnier lines. "No one escapes from the Scottish Arts Council."
Wild, careless creativity versus a state that wants "a vehicle for positive cultural enforcement" sounds like something from Howard Barker's Scenes from an Execution. Arnott's approach, however, is altogether more throwaway, a Crackerjack comedy in which the artists are as clapped out as the bureaucrats. Even before the story takes a silly turn into undead zombie territory, we have to put up with endless scenes of deliberately hammy acting and clunky historical verse dramas. Despite valiant efforts by the actors in Alasdair McCrone's Mull theatre production, it is not funny, largely because it trades in cliche more than truth. Apart from the mole's amusing reinterpretation of Mary Queen of Scots as a woman sensitive to gender equality issues, the play squanders a worthy debate on a feeble fantasy.
· At Byre theatre, St Andrews, tonight. Box office: 01334 475000. Then touring.