IMMEDIATELY in front of us, a woman is crouched down chopping turnips with a cleaver. In the middle of the stage, two others are knocking the earth off a crop of potatoes, while beyond them the lady of the house is chatting to one of the farmhands. And beyond them still, half hidden in the low winter mist, a figure is collecting sticks in a wicker basket.
This sense of space distinguishes Lu Kemp’s painterly staging of Sue Glover’s play, an evocation of life on a 19th-century Borders farm. From the moment the cast appear in silhouette at the back of Jamie Vartan’s elemental set, Kemp treats the stage like it had the full dimensions of a field. Thanks to Simon Wilkinson’s superb lighting, those dimensions are always uncertain. As the colour temperature increases from cold monochrome to chilly sepia, the landscape is always bigger than those who tread on it.
First seen in 1991, this contemporary Scottish classic is set at a time when male farm workers would be hired on condition of bringing a female worker, or bondager, with them. Poetic, musical and elliptical, the play rises organically from the soil, its narrative line about a sexual assault emerging almost accidentally from its imagistic collage.
Kemp’s six-strong cast hit a strident note from the start, their delivery as tough and hard-edged as the bondagers’ lives. Though they’re a tight acting ensemble, they’re playing women who are atomised and self-reliant. They are more likely to catch the audience in the eye than each other.At times the pitch is brash and unrelenting, but the production brilliantly captures the play’s swirling impressionism, segueing from folk ballad to clog dance to field tilling as it feeds on Glover’s understated feminist rage.
Published in the Guardian Greyscale/Dundee Rep Three stars
NOBODY is what they seem in Nikolai Gogol’s comedy of card sharps and confidence tricksters. The play that set the template for David Mamet’s House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, not to mention eight series of the BBC’s Hustle, recognises the innate theatricality of the grifter’s art. The pretence of the stage neatly parallels the pretence of the conman. Before long we’re dealing with deceits within deceits within deceits.
That seems to be why Selma Dimitrijevic’s production for Greyscalebegins in a locker room with the six actors getting changed from their everyday clothes into the trousers, braces and jackets of Gogol’s 19th-century gamblers. It also seems to be why they change, in the process, from female to male.
Along with Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in Manchester and Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female Henry IV in London, Dimitrijevic’s production is part of an unofficial autumn assault on theatre’s well-documented male dominance. Valuable corrective it may be, but whether it adds anything to the play, newly translated by Dimitrijevic and Mikhail Durnenkov, is a moot point.
This man’s world of status games, brinkmanship and bravado is neither illuminated nor satirised by the casting. Although the actors make some attempt at male body language, they go only so far and don’t appear to have anything to say about male behaviour. Less aggressive, more accommodating and quicker to smile than your average group of men, they call attention to the pretence without offering any insight in return.
All the same, it’s a fluidly staged production, with a strong ensemble spirit and a lively musicality. Amanda Hadingue proves there’s no one more gullible than a conman as her Iharev goes from self-satisfied trickster to bewildered victim, stitched up by a cool and confident Hannah McPake as Uteshitelny who shows herself master of “social engineering of the highest order”.
Published in the Guardian Tron Theatre, Glasgow Four stars
WATCHING John Byrne’s new adaptation of the Chekhov classic, it’s hard to put aside the memory of Alasdair Gray’s notorious “colonisers and settlers” essay. This was the pre-referendum broadside in which the novelist used the loaded language of imperial Britain to describe incomers to Scotland. As Gray saw it, there were those who used the country as a stepping stone for a career elsewhere and those who stayed to make a lasting contribution.
Seen in these terms, Byrne’s three sisters, renamed Olive, Maddy and Renee Penhalligan, plus brother Archie, are instinctive colonisers. They’re an upper-class English military family at the start of the 1960s, shored up in small-town Dunoon because of its proximity to the Holy Loch submarine base, but wishing all the while to be in London. Circumstance, however, makes them settlers. They may dream of the big city, they may be bored by provincial life, they may quote Rupert Brooke’s line about “some corner of a foreign field” being “for ever England”, but, whether as teacher or as district councillor, they are slowly becoming rooted.
If anything, it’s the locals who are most damaged by the dysfunctional relationship. Somewhere off stage, an officer’s wife is making suicide attempts, while Louise McCarthy as Archie’s new wife Natasha replicates the class power structure as she goes from Wemyss Bay innocent to tyrannical lady of the manor. With Byrne’s characteristic wit, she takes on a strangulated hybrid Anglo-Scots accent as she does so.
Elsewhere, the Anglophone setting minimises the opportunity for Byrne’s most baroque language, but director Andy Arnold does the adaptation tremendous justice in a beautifully controlled staging that’s loaded with fine performances. With their radiant red ringlets and sliding scale of accents, Muireann Kelly, Sally Reid and Jessica Hardwick make a compelling central trio, all dry wit and tough sisterly honesty, resignedly tolerating Jonathan Watson’s touchingly ineffectual Archie.
Published in the Guardian Seen at Heart of Hawick Three stars
WHEN civilisation finally catches up with Shakespeare’s Prospero and Miranda in The Tempest, there’s the assumption that they’ll leave their island behind. This magic and wildness is all very well, but it’s no match for society. Heading back to Italy, with all its order and discipline, is taken as read.
There’s a similar conflict between the tame and the wild in David Greig’sOutlying Islands. First seen in 2002 and now revived by director Richard Baron in a quietly absorbing production for the Borders-based Firebrand company, it begins with two young men from the ministry showing up on an Outer Hebridean rock.
This is 1939 and, with war breaking out in Europe, the island could be the wilderness the authorities need to carry out their anthrax tests. That’s news to James Rottger’s buttoned-up John and Martin Richardson’s libertarian Robert. As far as they’re concerned, they’re here to conduct an ornithological survey. To spend a few weeks in such a pristine environment has been their lifetime ambition.
As in The Tempest, it’s assumed they’ll go back home at the end of their stay. But what would happen, speculates Greig, if nature overwhelmed their stiff-upper-lip reserve? What if the island’s Miranda – Helen Mackay’s wide-eyed Ellen – offered an alternative way to live with her seductive mixture of innocence and sexual freedom? What if the opportunity to swim naked, to be unobserved, to be as unburdened by morality as the animals, became too great to resist? Why leave the island at all?
In this way, John and Robert are opposing aspects of our own personalities. We empathise with the self-restraint of one, but envy the lack of inhibition of the other and, once they’ve seen off the paternalistic hand of Crawford Logan as Ellen’s uncle, it’s hard to see why they shouldn’t answer the call of the wild.