Othello, Top Dog/Underdog, The Elephant Man, Kes
JOYCE MCMILLAN on OTHELLO and TOP DOG/UNDERDOG at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, KES at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE ELEPHANT MAN at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts, 29.10.09
Othello 3 stars ***
Top Dog/Underdog 4 stars ****
The Elephant Man 4 stars ****
Kes 4 stars ****
THERE’S TRAGEDY as far as the eye can see, around Scotland’s stages this month; two tragedies of race, one of class, one of extreme physical deformity. Where they vary, though, is in their power to turn tragic events into a cathartic and meaningful dramatic experience. Tradition suggests that there should always be a certain dramatic exhilaration in the bringing to light of tragedy and violence, a sense of cleansing, and of possible new beginnings. The difficulty is that many modern directors and actors find it impossible to follow that conventional curve through violence and despair to resolution and hope; and the result can be a gruelling evening of unredeemed misery.
This, roughly speaking, is the fate of Guy Hollands’s new Citizens’ production of Othello, perhaps the most despairing of all Shakespeare’s tragedies. In the week of the controversy over the BNP’s first appearance on Question Time, it’s easy to see what Hollands is trying to do with this terrible catastrophe of racial hatred, in which the mighty black general Othello, and his young bride Desdemona, are utterly destroyed by the vicious spite of his trusted adjutant, Iago. In the final scene, when Iago’s schemes are exposed, Hollands’s production allows us no sense of moral victory. Andy Clark’s subtle, chilling, and defiant Iago – part blokish man’s man, part shape-changing devil – never bows his head, never concedes; we can see his racism as a snake in the bosom of our culture, always scotch’d, never killed. And Pauline Knowles’s heartfelt Emilia is never allowed to blaze into the glowing force for moral truth she should be, at this final crisis; she is just too fragile, physically and vocally, to make that kind of dramatic impact.
On the way to this grim conclusion, Hollands’s production reveals many fine qualities. There’s an effective stylised grey wall of a set, by Philip Witcomb, that opens to reveal vivid glimpses of the world in which Sarah Howarth’s bright, forceful Desdemona – incongruously dressed like a grungy modern rock-chick – will never live to grow old. And if Jude Akuwidike’s Othello seems a shade hesitant and under-rehearsed, he still captures the emotional heart of the role. But the dominant colour of the show is grey, the mood shifts only from foreboding to despair; and the audience plods from the theatre in the kind of depression that only disempowers, as the best theatre never should.
There’s more of a sense of true catharsis in the Cits’ current studio production, Top Dog/Underdog. Directed with memorable intensity by Citizens’ trainee Leann O’Kasi, and breathtakingly well performed by Tyronne Lewis and Nicholas Pinnock, this Scottish premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Pulitzer-winning 2002 play offers us another tragedy of race in the story of two iconically-named black brothers, Lincoln and Booth, who are sharing a miserable room in 1990’s New York. There’s some great, rap-style poetic writing here, and some profound insights into the impact of parental abandonment, the legacy of slavery, and the limited repertoire of roles and language available to black men – either craven servant of white society, or street kid using loud rap and three-card trickery as a macho denial of powerlessness. And although the conclusion, when it comes, is both inevitable and shocking, there’s a cultural energy and anger in the journey that makes it seem worthwhile.
There’s almost too much gentle catharsis in Bernard Pomerance’s stage version of The Elephant Man, first seen in London in 1977, and now revived at Dundee Rep in a stunningly effective and moving production by the Rep’s new associate, Jemima Levick. The play has a short story to tell, of the horribly deformed Victorian Englishman Joseph Merrick, of his adoption by Dr. Frederick Treves of the London Hospital, and of the civilised if confined few years he spent there, until his early death; and the text frankly struggles to turn this brief cameo into a full-length play, resorting to irritating dream-sequences to pad out the action.
Lewick’s production, though, plays brilliantly to the text’s meditative strengths. Alex Lowde’s sensational design, with sound by Jon Beales, holds Merrick in a brilliantly-lit curtained room, surrounded by a towering skeleton structure of staircases and corridors that perfectly evokes the impressive institutional architecture of the age. As for the Rep Ensemble, they throw off their Scottish voices as if they were currently more of an encumbrance than an asset, and deliver a pitch-perfect account of an impressive rage of Victorian Londoners. Kevin Lennon is heartbrakingly brilliant as Merrick, conveying his sense of deformity entirely through voice and gesture; Robin Laing is in magnificent form as Treves. And Irene Macdougall is dazzling as Merrick’s broad-minded actress friend, Mrs. Kendal, who becomes the focus of all his romantic yearnings, and of the tragedy of his unfulfilled life.
Of all this week’s tragedies, though, it’s perhaps the Touring Consortium’s stage version of Kes, currently in Edinburgh, that most perfectly strikes the balance between disaster and hope. The tone of Barry Hines’s great 1960’s story about young Billy Casper and his kestrel is famously bleak and monochrome. But the sense of freedom, beauty and purpose Billy finds in his short time with Kes remains in his heart, as a symbol of what human life can be; and all of this is captured with great passion in Nikolai Foster’s dark-toned touring production, which involves both a professional cast and young people from the Liverpool area. Stefan Butler gives a memorable performance as young Billy, unprepossessing, bullied, but with an almost shocking core of sweetness; and although its detail is often grim, there’s something about this great story of working-class England that breaks free and soars, like the hawk itself, high above the bleak landscape it describes.
Othello and Top Dog/Underdog at the Citizens’ Theatre until 14 November. The Elephant Man at Dundee Rep and Kes at the King’s, Edinburgh, both until Saturday (31 October).