JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROMAN BRIDGE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 4.5.12
4 stars ****
WHAT A STRANGE, dour and disturbing event is Martin Travers’s first full-length play, premiered at the Citizens’ Circle Studio as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Reveal season of new work. The first shock comes with Neil Haynes’s set, a huge solid-looking black stone bridge structure gleaming with damp, that all but fills the small studio space.
Then there is the play, set in some”other Scotland” where a coughing plague has wiped out most of the population, and those who are left are fighting like dogs over basic commodities like food, and – of course – young women. When old Craw, played by Myra McFadyen, arrives at the bridge, she is already dying of the cough. Yet her young friend Catherine is well, a young widow with a sick baby but a strong spirit; and Catherine finds herself fulfilling the old woman’s last wish that she should make a life with Craw’s son Andrew, tollkeeper of the bridge. The main obstacle to their glimmering chance of happiness lies with Andrew’s brother Robert, a jealous, Cain-like villain, who seeks to destroy Catherine when he cannot have her.
It’s a grim tale, which reimagines Scotland as a Howard-Barker-style wasteland of human barbarism, where every fragile sign of love or compassion is in constant danger of being snuffed out. Travers sustains the mood and narrative of his story with terrific energy throughout, and is magnificently served by his cast, which also includes Helen Mallon, John Kielty and Ryan Fletcher. What it all signifies, though, is another question. The point about the thinnness of the veneer of civilisation, and the hell that lies beneath, is strongly made here, and placed in a Scottish setting; but it has been made so often before that I was left wondering what drove Travers to such an eloquent and forceful act of repetition.