The Last Witch (Traverse: 7 – 10 Nov.’18)

Fiona Wood as Helen and Deidre Davis as Janet Horne

“Gendered and topical sparks do fly but at its heart the story stays human, withering, and of its period.”

Editorial Rating:  4 Stars: Nae Bad

 

Put an eighteenth century clergyman in a Scottish play and you know the Enlightenment is going to be disputed. Put him alongside a buff Sheriff with silver buttons and you can be reasonably sure that a woman is going to cop it. Introduce the Devil and you’ll soon be smelling hellfire in the morning, rather than peat.

Welcome to Rona Munro’s The Last Witch from the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. Firebrand Theatre with director Richard Baron stoke it up in its first half and then let it blaze in the second. Gendered and topical sparks do fly but at its heart the story stays human, withering, and of its period. In 1727 Janet Horne of Loth parish, Dornoch, widowed mother of seventeen year old Helen, is accused of witchcraft (as was Helen), is locked up in the church tower, deprived of sleep over four days, confesses, is put in a barrel, is smeared with tar and set alight. She was the last person to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles.

Munro’s Janet, Deidre Davis, is much younger than the real Janet. Youthful, outspoken and defiant, she takes the Sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine), to her bed with no difficulty at all. She’s playful, brazen, and imaginative and is happy to have all believe that she ‘can do great magic’. However, ‘nothing so bad ever happens’, says an exasperated Helen of her mother, until the Sheriff – with his clothes back on – decides that she’s a shameless besom.

Whatever Janet’ skills with medicinal and intoxicating herbs she has not used them to meet the Devil. No, that trick is practised by Helen (Fiona Wood) who finds a long haired tinker who fits the part admirably in a teasing, clever performance by Alan Mirren. Strange then that the mood music before the play starts seemed to be a serenade for strings and not ‘The Deil Amang the Tailors’. There is fiddle music and dancing but the lightness of the piece is in Janet’s levity and in its choice moments of humour: the timing of neighbour Douglas Begg’s ‘Ye al’ right there, Janet?’ and how even Old Nick is afeart of crossing the border.

The second half is all about the irony of praising the Lord whilst being hauled and chained in ‘His’ kirk. Naturally it has more energy but, looking back, I missed the slow and poetic attention to the lives of crofters – the regard for rocks and shore, the bees, and the ‘wee, sleeping, safe creatures’. Perhaps that’s the point: the harsh, outsize opposition of law and order and church session to the defenceless and the wronged.

An all-seeing ‘eye’ is suspended over the crazed circle of the stage floor. It works well in this magnification of a sad, small story that still says a great deal and that manages to end affirmatively.

I have seen Firebrand productions before and this is another very good one.

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Alan Brown  (Seen 8 November)

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The Unreturning (Traverse: 24-27 October ’18)

“The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

The effect of armed conflict on the already fragile male psyche is a deeply fascinating subject. Anna Jordan’s The Unreturning takes a timelessly important issue — the return of the soldier from war — and creatively explores touching and interesting variations on what these returns mean and have meant through time. Told through three constantly overlapping and intersecting storylines, the play paints a gripping and tragic picture of the collision of memory, trauma, and men who will never exist the same way again — for whom a true ‘return’ is impossible. Performers Jared Garfield, Joe Layton, Jonnie Riordan, and Kieton Saunders-Browne take on the production with intense spirit, and compellingly elevate Jordan’s impactful choice of subject matter. One will truly feel moved by the real-life implications of the play’s content, such as meditations on the legacy of war crimes, the role of friends, family, and average people in the return of discharged members of the military, and how truly detached so many of us are from the experience of war. 

This play is produced by Frantic Assembly, a group both admired and infamous for the wall-to-wall physicality of their shows. The Unreturning plays to their strengths in many respects; the extensive and balletic movement all four performers put themselves through over the course of the three stories are a marvel to watch, and embed the stories with clever visual connections. The structure of the show is at its best when the three stories overlap in direct parallel to each other, such as a sequence near the beginning when all three board or initiate their respective transports ‘home’ — home in each case being Scarborough. George (Garfield), boards a train; Frankie (Layton) sits in a cramped plane next to sunburnt tourists; Nat (Riordan) barters with Norwegian boatmen to smuggle him into a war-torn United Kingdom. The parallel is revisited in a breathtaking setpiece following the three men as they wander around the area, each distraught for their own reasons, and deliriously visit Scarborough monuments and landmarks; they stand next to each other onstage, separated by time but alike in their disconnection from what is meant to be their home. George, you see, is returning home after armistice in 1918; Frankie has been discharged for committing a hate crime in Afghanistan in 2013; Nat is searching a bombed-out Scarborough for his brother in 2026. 

Yes, 2026. The third storyline takes place in a (presumably Brexit-induced) war-torn futureworld, where everyone’s information is publicly displayed by the government, people are wanted for ‘Dissent,’ and everything has completely gone to hell. For all the immense emotional intelligence at work in The Unreturning, this aspect of Jordan’s script, along with director Neil Bettles’ over-reliance on the overcomplicated revolving set, render a great deal of the actual stage time irritatingly silly. For although the subject matter is compelling, the tone and pace of the Frantic Assembly approach are a poor match. The breakneck energy, high-bravado set-changes and head-spinning multi-roling repeatedly jar against the profundities of the story, producing deeply unfortunate moments like a floating hat and dress cartoonishly symbolizing George’s lovestruck wife, or the discordant wiggling the company members return to over and over when George experiences haunting flashbacks or Frankie succumbs to substance abuse. 

The show has a lot of wiggling. This is not always a bad thing, of course, though it seems to be Frantic Assembly’s bread and butter. To evoke a shaky memory, the actors wiggle. To show the passage of time or space, the actors wiggle. To recreate a pub or a discotheque, the actors wiggle drunkenly. All this wiggling is finely choreographed and expertly executed, but the main result of it all is a simple: why? Why take so much focus away from the intriguing narrative elements to just move around like spaced out dancers? It is pleasant, impressive movement, but mostly has very little to do with the gravity of the situation — like if a bunch of mourners started breakdancing at a wake. Sure, it’s impressive, but is now the time?

When the wiggles pause, and moments of achingly tender performance are allowed to play out, the talent is notable. Garfield, in particular, imbues George with a brilliantly measured depth, wherein he visibly wrestles with both his wartime experience and anxiously rethinks every aspect of the rest of his life. Jordan’s script detracts from itself, especially early on, by piling far too many profound statements on top of each other in nearly every line, yet Garfield turns most of them into affecting ruminations rather than fortune-cookie-esque dictums — his parable about the Christmas day truce near the middle of the show is the performative high point of the piece, without a doubt. Layton is also an electric performer, who displays expert timing and delivery every time he is onstage; while Frankie has much less multi-dimensionality than George (the supposed ambiguity of his character’s racial crimes are a weaker element of the script), Layton nevertheless leaves a lasting impression as a versatile actor. This is not as true for Riordan, who is outmatched by his fellow actors; the 2026 storyline he leads is, again, incongruously silly, and Riordan deserves credit for the desperation and consistency of his take on Nat’s miserable trajectory, but overall he does not bring enough verve to a storyline already lacking justification. Saunders-Browne, playing various supporting parts, does a solid job bouncing around so many characters and time periods, and in his case, the future-set monologue he delivers late in the show is thankfully not so opaque as the rest of that storyline to overshadow his well-measured delivery. 

Overall, The Unreturning is a curious example of a potentially mismatched writer and company. Yet, aside from the more incongruous choices onstage, the performances are memorable and affecting, the treatment of the subject matter is mostly excellent, and one can easily overlook the weaker elements in favor of a truly noble intention.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 24 October)

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Interview: All About My Mother (21 – 24 Nov ’18)

“I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago.”

WHO: Ross Hope, Director

WHAT: “Spain, 1999.

In Barcelona, Manuela makes a new life for herself after the death of her son, working on a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She is reunited with an old transgender friend, Agrado, who she finds working as a prostitute, and makes new friends in the shape of Rosa, a terminally ill young nun, and Huma Rojo, the famous and formidable grand dame stage actress whom her late son idolised.As Manuela rebuilds her life in a new city with a new job and new friends, her son’s estranged father returns to her life with tragic and life-changing consequences for them all.”

WHERE: Assembly Roxy 

DATES: 21 – 24 November

TIMES: 19:30

MORE: Click Here!


Why All About My Mother?

Honestly, it’s quite a simple reason. I read the script after seeing the film and enjoyed it so much I knew wanted to direct it. I buy and read a lot (and I mean a lot) of play scripts and I bought this one only because as I was curious about how they would adapt the film into a play. I read it cover to cover in one sitting. The last time I reacted to a script like this was when I read ‘Jerusalem’ by Jez Butterworth, which I was also lucky enough to direct, I knew if I felt the same way as I did about Jerusalem I wanted to direct this too.

You first saw the movie version at the Filmhouse in 2000. Has the story aged well?

I think it has, although you would expect me to say that wouldn’t you? At its heart, this is a story about family, not necessarily the family you are born into but the family you create for yourself; friendship and acceptance. These themes are still important, interesting and relevant nearly 20 years later. So this story of these characters creating families, forming friendships and gaining acceptance has aged perfectly well as far as I am concerned.

The film on which the play is based was a critical success (an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA) can audiences expect to see anything new in this adaptation?

The play is actually slightly different to the film. It is longer for one thing and the tale is told in a different, as you’d expect more theatrical and not cinematic way, and not all the characters in the film are present in this production. If you are an Almodovar aficionado and are wanting to compare the two you’ll just have to come to the Assembly Roxy in November and see where the differences are for yourself!

Art tends to imitate life, but do you think All About My Mother has played a part in developing and progressing our attitudes over the last couple of decades?

I still find it breath-taking that Almodovar was talking about gender, identity and sexuality in the totally commonplace way he did nearly 20 years ago. I am not sure I realised myself then how progressive it was for the late 1990’s as I was a lot younger then because it truly was and still is. Maybe art does imitate life, as you say, but I also think art gives life the kick starts it needs to get to where we are. A lot of the attitudes that are being challenged in the play still need to be challenged today and as much as we have come so far as a progressive society, we still have a long way to go.

What’s the one thing you know now that you wish you’d known at the start of rehearsals?

I wish I had remembered what an undertaking rehearsing in a small rehearsal space was like. It might have stopped me telling the cast, night after night, “you’ll have more room in the venue!”


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Cyrano de Bergerac (The Lyceum: 12 Oct. – 3 Nov.’18)

Image result for Cyrano de Bergerac Scotland 2018

Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

“A production that oozes professionalism”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars Outstanding

Good theatre, I think, is both a puzzle and a pleasure. A treat for the eyes, ears and heart – but also something layered, where the picking apart of each thread in a production leads only to more curiosity and wonder. To that end, Dominic Hill’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac is the theatrical equivalent of a delicious chocolate cake with a Rubik’s cube shoved in it.

The year is 1640, and much like every other time prior to the 21st century, things aren’t going so great: the Spanish are acting up again, social conduct is bloodier than ever, and everyone seems to be talking in rhyming couplets. Enter Cyrano de Bergerac, a witty warrior and poet cursed with a face like a production of “Eyes Wide Shut” starring Pinocchio. Deeply in love with his cousin Roxanne but damned by his features, Cyrano soon finds himself helping another man win her heart with his words. Hi-jinks ensue.

It seems prescient here to point out that the first thing that struck me about this performance was its language. The original verse drama becomes – in Edwin Morgan‘s lyrical translation –  a mix of modern, light and heavy Scots and is wonderfully effective from the outset. I was surprised – as someone who is naturalised Scottish enough not to mispronounce “Cockburn” but who falters on “Kirkcaldy” every time – surprised that I was never confused.

And make no mistake: this review could just as easily been a list of the cast from ensemble to music, with associated favourite lines and individual strengths. Part of the joy of this production (especially from a reviewing standpoint) is that the acting chain suffers no weak link. Keith Fleming’s pompous and yet strangely respectable portrayal of De Guiche and Jessica Hardwick’s firecracker rendition of Roxanne stood out as particular favourites, but that isn’t by much – each ensemble character could have acted alone on an empty stage, and I still would have paid to watch it.

However, I would be remiss not to give extra praise to Brian Ferguson’s portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. And what a portrayal it is: the sting of heartbreak, the fever of victory and the occasional misery of acting morally – combine alchemy-like in Ferguson’s performance, which stands out as the most singularly believable portrayal of De Bergerac since Depardieu’s on screen. Whether duelling with steel or syllables, Ferguson not only succeeds in creating a character who is larger-than-life, but is also imbued with a vulnerable, raw kind of groundedness.

The sheer energy and verve of Ferguson’s act is amplified even further by a director with a clear talent for the physical. Each group movement and mime is executed so expertly, it’s akin to watching a single organism twitch, undulate and react to its own dramatic movements. My theatre partner for the night, a stage combat instructor and enthusiast, had particular praise for the fights (especially in the first half, where rapiers abound).

However, this is not a flawless production. Any criticisms, though, are minor in comparison to its strengths, and are mostly relegated to the second half, where accents occasionally slipped and lines of dialogue were directed to the back of the stage. It also proved a little difficult to see some of the beautiful physical accompaniments performed in the background of many scenes, owing to actors being swallowed up by the impressive scenery.

A thought may also be given to the length of the show itself: the first act alone stretches to just under two hours. And whilst the production is of high enough quality that its length does not detract too much from the experience, I found myself hoping that it did not receive a deserved standing ovation for fear of my legs giving out for numbness.

These moans do very little to muddy the sheen of care and talent which is buffed into every scene of Cyrano de Bergerac. This is a joint production that oozes the professionalism of Edinburgh’s Lyceum, Glasgow’s Citizens, and the National Theatre of Scotland.  Its ability to mix what many might consider disparate ingredients into glorious, singular, drama cannot be understated. Just admire the dramatic polish!

Give this one a watch while you still can.

outstanding

StarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Jacob Close (Seen 13 October)

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Russian State Symphony Orchestra. Uryupin, Douglas. (Usher Hall: 14 Oct.’18)

Image result for russian state symphony orchestra

“.. We had just experienced something magical”

Editorial Rating:  5 Stars: Outstanding

 

Orchestras from foreign lands are always a pull, whether they be good, bad or indifferent, and so the Usher Hall’s annual Season of international classical orchestras, along with recognisable and highly accessible programmes, is a clever marketing tool. It pulls in not just the regulars but irregular concert goers as well, and is thus to be lauded. Unfortunately there are some downsides in terms of concert etiquette.

 

The Stalls and the Grand Circle were full and the Upper Circle pretty empty, symptomatic of the target demographic, relatively well off retirees, a sort of silver screen for music lovers, but without the coffee and biscuits. I was pleased to see evidence of champagne being taken at the interval. Dress code was pretty smart too. Many had been out to Sunday lunch, the opposite of what I have experienced in Vienna, where the well heeled visit the Brahms Halle in the morning for a recital from members of the Philharmonie before retiring to the Imperial Hotel for torte or wurst. 

However, such slightly patronising thoughts were brought up with a short, sharp shock as the players got going. Russian orchestras sound different, play differently, interpret very differently. The Russian State Symphony Orchestra (they change names so often it is hard to know who you are hearing: I remember booking to hear the Leningrad PO only to find because of political changes the programme on the night referred to them as the St Petersburg PO ), the RSSO, is officially known as the State Academic Orchestra of Russia “Evgeny Svetlanov” and is one of Russia’s older ensembles having debuted in Moscow in 1936 under the baton of Erich Kleiber and Alexander Gauk.

The orchestra’s take on Suite and national dances from Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) almost blew me out of my seat. No gentle Sunday afternoon lollipops here. The collection was their own “cherry pick” from the ballet and covered the full gamut of well known sketches and dances, the ‘Black Swan’ being very much in evidence in the full on, almost clodhopping interpretation of all bar the opening “Scene” (Morecambe and Wise, anyone?”) as dance music as opposed to an orchestral suite, and of course this was portraying the music just as it was originally scored. For sugar plum fairies kindly look elsewhere. Aggressive almost brutal harshness with strong rhythmic intensity, incredibly strong tone, yet never harsh or crude. The Waltz, for example, was played as yearning and passionate rather than gentle and coy. Oh those Russians!

Somewhat taken out of myself I was pleased for the pause as the strings went off stage to bring on the Steinway. A couple of days ago it was in situ as the orchestra played before it was needed. Spoiled the view, and anyway, this is a big orchestra to stage.

Shostakovich is not guaranteed to bring in the casual concertgoer, but his second piano concerto is short, and an aural treat. The audience loved it. Barry Douglas, very much on form, dispatched the first movement in the composer’s tongue-in-cheek mode with easy precision, but as a movement it was unremarkable. It was in the second movement Andante that we began to drool. The strings’ opening bars are of such tangible emotion and the plaintive sadness of Douglas’s introduction and exposition got everything out of the music without overplaying. Real judgement and artistry. If you don’t know it, you can hear the composer play it himself on You Tube. In fact, you should.

The third movement by contrast is pure bravura. I was frankly amazed at Douglas’s technique, making as if nothing of these incredibly demanding Allegro passages in double time. It is to me quite extraordinary that Shostakovich thought so little of the work, notwithstanding writing it as a birthday present for his nineteen-year-old son. Perhaps composers are their own harshest critics, for this work, in microcosm, has much to commend it.

After the interval we were treated to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, an hour-long treat that never palls unlike some of the extended passages we get in symphonies of similar duration from Bruckner or even Mahler. It was particularly interesting to me having heard the first symphony (written twelve years earlier and to general opprobrium) a couple of days earlier. Here was a fully developed work deploying every part of the orchestra to full effect. The interpretation of the orchestra was much more mainstream than in the Tchaikovsky and none the worse for that. From beginning to end it was a textbook example of how the work should be played compared to the more esoteric, but entirely valid Tchaikovsky interpretation.

Notwithstanding a two hour performance the orchestra generously gave us the tactfully chosen Elgar’s Menuet de Matin as an encore.

I cannot finish without complaining about the insensitive and self-indulgent coughing throughout much of the performance. It was particularly hard to bear in the beautiful Shostakovich Andante, and the unrestrained coughing so soon after the interval could, I assume, have been despatched beforehand. Holding a rolled handkerchief to the mouth and coughing into it can greatly limit the noise of unavoidable coughing, as the Royal Festival Hall advise in all their programmes. Also, but thankfully after leaving a few seconds silence after the Andante, there was a small outbreak of applause ( … Noooooo!). There has been talk of this at the Proms this year. On this particular occasion I could not find it in me to complain, for we had just experienced something magical.

 

outstanding

StarStarStarStarStar

Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 14 October)

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RSNO. Sondergard, Morison (Usher Hall: 12 Oct. ’18)

Illus. Vesper Stamper.
‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’

“Well played throughout. One has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars

 

I have written before of the RSNO’s skill in programme selection. Often a short warm up piece, followed by a concerto, and after the interval a symphony. Last night we were completely spooked. For sure, we had the symphony after the interval, but we started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2, a good 30 minutes worth, and finished the first half with Ravel’s Scheherazade. That’s right, Ravel’s Scheherazade, not Rimsky-Korsakov’s. I suspect that many people didn’t realise it wasn’t the one they knew until it was over, in about eighteen minutes as opposed to the better known version’s fifty.

 

Moreover, Thomas Sondergard in addressing the audience before the concert started, as is the RSNO custom, pointed out that he had moved the various movements of Peer Gynt around to make for a better musical flow, and it worked. We started, as we absolutely had to, with “Morning Mood”, commonly known as “Morning” and hijacked by virtually everyone from TV commercials to Monty Python. A confident opening with crystal clear flutes and oboes before the glorious strings took over. Following on such well-loved sketches as Solveig’s Song and Anitra’s Dance Sondergard rightly chose to end with the splendidly tub-thumping In the Hall of the Mountain King. The trolls seemed to be clambering all over the Usher Hall as we left for the interval. A much underrated work, I would suggest that the Peer Gynt Suite is one of the most gloriously lyrical orchestral pieces ever written, and the RSNO did more than justice to it.

 

Not unlike its counterpart, Ravel’s Sheherezade is an exotic, ethereal yet sensual piece, and the excellent 2017 first British winner of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Catriona Morison had less time to get us in the mood. The work comprises just three songs taken from Tristan Klingsor’s poem, Asie (Asia), La Flute Enchantee (The Enchanted Flute) and L’Indifferent (The Heedless One). At first a little arid in interpretation and finding balance with the orchestra, Morison wowed us with ‘La Flute Enchantee’ and began to develop some of the magic and mystery of this short piece. ‘L’Indifferent’ showed nuances of world-weariness of a woman watching a young man walk by, apparently indifferent to her charms. I detected in the music shades of the Pavane pour un infante defunte and also –  albeit arranged later –  Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. A pleasant interlude.

 

If anyone’s symphonic career got off to a terrible start it was surely Rachmaninov, the more extraordinary considering how popular his works are today. Poorly played and conducted by a supposedly inebriated Glazunov it was a critical and popular disaster, so much so that the composer retired from composition for three years and returned only after hypnosis therapy, (and to great acclaim) with his second piano concerto.

 

It is not difficult to see why. Rachmaninov’s 1st Symphony is clearly a nascent work and never published in his lifetime. “Bold as brass” is an appropriate description of the opening followed by the strings playing as if in marching order. Very little development of a melodic line, lots of noise not really going anywhere. The second movement was again striking but cannot be described as good music, although there was a definite promise of things to come by the time we came to the third and fourth – a lot of good stuff trying to get out. It is a courageous decision to programme this work (no faint praise intended): it is of considerable interest, and terrific if you like noise. The closing Tan Tam and Timpani were an audiophile’s delight! Well played throughout; one has complete confidence in the RSNO’s craft.

 

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Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 12 October)

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Arctic Oil (Traverse: 9-20 Oct.’18)

Photo: Roberto Ricciuti

“An intelligent piece from an ambitious team.”

Editorial Rating: 3 Stars: Nae Bad

In the genre of ‘home drama’ (call it neo-kitchen sink realism), blood relatives screaming devastating jabs and hurling haunting revelations back and forth feels oddly natural; what kind of play would deny an audience their fair share of soul-baring conflict and painful familial reconciliation when there is literally a functioning washbasin onstage? Claire Duffy’s new play Arctic Oil both soars and drops as it follows this particular approach to dramatic storytelling. It goes high, with its airtight atmosphere and its dialogue’s sweeping scope, and achieves a good deal. 

However, Duffy’s script, while clever and relevant by all means, flaps a few times too often, mixing stale melodrama into its more striking twists, and thereby takes the air out from under it. Not much harm comes of this, for actors Neshla Caplan and Jennifer Black are very capable of holding the audience’s attention and heartstrings as necessary, and imbue their respective characters with internal torments and desires. 

Caplan is Ella, an activist and young mother struggling with existential guilt for staying at home to raise her baby, Sam, rather than fight the forces of capitalism alongside her more daredevil comrades. Black is Margaret, Ella’s entirely different-minded mother — or so it initially appears — a woman so concerned that her daughter’s activism will cause irreversible damage to herself and her son that she takes her worry to uncomfortably strict lengths. Set on “a remote Scottish island,” it’s all contained within a pristine bathroom, in which Margaret has chosen to lock Ella and herself so that Ella does not pursue what might be a fatal mission protesting an oil rig. As with any home drama worth its salt, while the characters spar and try to explain their side, accusations of abandonment, betrayal, and shoddy parenting fly, harrowing family secrets are uncovered, and certain thematic topics are eventually revealed to have been proxies for familial resentments and personal demons. Climate change gets a number of notable and nod-worthy statements, but the political discussions melt away fairly quickly into allegories for generational divide and reconciliation with past wrongdoing between mother and child. The effect is literary, but rather loses the environmental focus of the first half.

Director Gareth Nicholls builds the rage and personal angst but once the initial shock of the play’s claustrophobic setting has worn off, and apart from one or two sharper later moments, a sense of what is important goes missing. In particular, one ill-measured fakeout sequence near the middle is so hammed up that whatever energy the play had been coasting on is visibly squashed for no discernible reason, other than melodrama.

Visually, Nicholls does well to trap the viewer in this oppressive box of anger and anxiety, with considerable credit due to his and Kevin McCallum’s cleverly imposing set design, a warped construction of a modern bathroom that looms over both the characters and audience to morbid effect. Duffy’s script also generously offers moments of levity that land well, most memorably in the head-turning line: “The truth? You wouldn’t know the truth if it farted in your face.”

Less successful is the uneven and unnecessary musical underscoring. The soundtrack mostly consists of glum electronic hums and whirs, which does set the tone at the beginning, layering the fateful onto the domestic surfaces. Frustratingly, these sounds are brought back again and again and again, undercutting some interesting dialogue and generally siphoning the clarity out of the show . The use of music seemed like a safeguard against the audience possibly not understanding that a conversation was ‘Important’, but in reality, Duffy’s characters and the skilled performances are capable enough on their own without the heavy-handed signaling. 

Arctic Oil uses mother and daughter in conflict to cut through to political topics of current consequence. Its conversations are difficult and compelling but do force inconsistencies into the drama.  It is, regardless, an intelligent piece from an ambitious team.

 

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Star (blue)Star (blue)Star (blue)

Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 11 October)

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