Daily Archives: September 21, 2007

Bright Water/Taking Sides – Review 21.9.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN on BRIGHT WATER (Mull Theatre at Easdale Island Hall, Argyll) and TAKING SIDES at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 21.9.07
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Bright Water   4 stars ****
Taking Sides  4 stars ****

ON THE PIER at Ellenabeich, on Saturday afternoon, Mull Theatre Company are half-way through unloading their van when the weather changes, and great salty swathes of West Highland rain begin to sweep in from the sea.  Mull’s latest show, Bright Water, is a reflection on the life of Gavin Maxwell, mid-20th century author, conservationist, upper-class adventurer, and author of the much-loved otter book Ring Of Bright Water; and the set for the short two-handed drama is not a complicated one.  Apart from some basic lighting equipment, there are a couple of upholstered chairs, a lightweight blue gauze backdrop, eight pieces of plywood flooring, a carpet, a box, a tiny side-table, and a fragile-looking standard lamp.

But long before a little flat-bottomed boat arrives to ferry the company and its show across the harbour to Easdale, the chairs are drenched, and the paintwork on the flooring is being tested to its limit.  On the grey sea, as the boat chugs across the narrow sound, the teetering pile of furniture and people looks comically vulnerable, like an image out of an ancient 40’s movie; and by the time the whole show has been carted up the long, slate-lined slipway into Easdale Hall, wet is the hardly the word for everyone involved, from the unflappable boatman, through the three-strong stage management team, to the company’s tour manager Mick Andrew, and the actor Richard Conlon, gallantly lending a hand.

Ever since the days of 7:84 – and even before that, with companies like Glasgow Rep and Theatre Workshop – this kind of “extreme” Highland touring has enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Scottish audiences.  But no other company maintains that tradition with such passion – and on such a relatively modest funding base – as Alasdair McCrone’s Mull Theatre, which will visit a record-breaking 19 Scottish islands on this current tour; and just a few hours after that rain-drenched arrival on Easdale, I walked into the village hall to find Alicia Hendrick’s set looking exactly as it had the night before on Iona, a calm, melancholy, slightly shabby evocation of Gavin Maxwell’s last home at Eilean Ban near Skye, enlivened only by a faintly audible squelch whenever the actors sat down on one of the padded chairs.

When it comes to the show itself, Jon Pope’s interesting script is framed as a dialogue between Richard Addison as the older Maxwell, holed up at Eilean Ban in the months before his death in 1969, and his much smoother and more genial younger self, played with a fine, glowing poise by Richard Conlon; and the difficulty is that the play seems unclear, particularly in the early scenes, about where the main tension lies between these two figures.  Sometimes, the younger man accuses the older of being a “hippy”, the first Highland dropout, fleeing the pressures of urban life on an impulse that is bound to strike a chord with many of those who choose to live in the Highlands and Islands today.  At other times, though, the play seems more deeply focussed on Maxwell’s distinctive history as a compulsive loner, whose failure in human relationships both appals and disappoints his younger self.

The result is a show that takes a long time to find a convincing narrative thread.  But there are flashes of rare beauty and eloquence in Alasdair McCrone’s production, notably in the moments – beautifully illustrated by Martin Low’s music – when Maxwell’s reserve breaks down in the face of his passion for the beautiful animals that became his life. And by bringing Highland and Island communities together not only for entertainment or practical business, but for a couple of hours of complex, grown-up drama on the life of this fascinating local anti-hero, this is the kind of show that plays a valuable part in developing the life of those communities, as places not only of retreat from the urban world, but also of real change, reflection, and renewal.

By common consent, Gavin Maxwell was an immensely complicated man, a charming, vulnerable and sensitive character who could be also be monstrously selfish and aggressive; and it’s this kind of complexity that lies at the heart of Ronald Harwood’s superbly thoughtful drama Taking Sides, given a powerful revival by Richard Baron as the final production of this year’s Pitlochry season.  Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the play revolves around a confrontation between an angry, foul-mouthed, proudly philistine American intelligence officer, Steve Arnold, and the great German orchestral conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, whom Arnold is to interrogate over his alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

Traumatised by the horror he witnessed at the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Arnold sees himself as one of the proletarian “good guys”, Furtwangler as a self-serving member of a corrupt and arrogant elite whom he is determined to destroy; but Harwood’s brilliant drama sets out both to undermine those crude moral certainties, and – even more disturbingly – to remind us that without them, action sometimes becomes impossible.  Baron’s production – played out on a powerfully evocative Berlin-in-ruins set by Adrian Rees – suffers slightly from the occasional lapse into staginess and vocal rigidity, accentuated by the exaggerated stage-German accents sported by the German characters.   But Allan Steele gives a tremendously brave, powerful and dislikeable performance as Arnold, the good guy as willing to bully, corrupt and abuse power as any servant of a totalitarian state.  And there’s some stunning work, in supporting roles, from Grant O’Rourke as a liberal young American officer assigned to the case; and from the wonderful Suzanne Donaldson as Emmi Straube, the office secretary torn in two by her hatred of the Nazis, and her equal hatred of the barbarism displayed by the victors, in their apparent contempt for the very civilisation they claimed to be fighting to defend.

Bright Water at Castlebay, Barra, tonight, at South Uist tomorrow, and on tour until 10 November.  Taking Sides in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 19 October.

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