JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOVA SCOTIA at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, EDUCATING AGNES (Theatre Babel at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow), and THE TOBACCO MERCHANT’S LAWYER at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 2.5.08
Nova Scotia 4 stars ****
Educating Agnes 3 stars ***
The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer 4 stars ****
SCOTLAND HAS developed a high reputation, over the last decade or two, for its success in finding and nurturing new playwrights; so much so that its new writing infrastructure has become an object of international study. Despite that constant search for the new, though, the old lions and tigresses of the Scottish playwriting scene – the ones who first found their voices back in the 1970’s and 80’s – can still produce a formidable roar from time to time.
It’s a full 30 years, for example, since the first instalment of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys first appeared on the Traverse stage, thrilling auidiences wiith its glittering affirmation of the power, poetry, complexity and hilarity of the cultural lives of two working-class kids from Ferguslie Park, whiling away their teens in the once-masonic stronghold of the slab-room of the local carpet factory. in Nova Scotia – the belated fourth instalment of the Slab Boys trilogy, which opened at the Traverse Theatre this week – we find our hero Phil, now a has-been artist in his Sixties, living in some style in a ramshackle Highland castle owned by his current partner Didi, an award-winning young conceptual artist. Spanky, by contrast, is an ageing rock god still enjoying a measure of global fame; and when he wanders onto the scene, the two are soon sparring in their old, merciless style.
The play that emerges, though is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, the old one-liners still fizz like sherbet across Byrne’s writing, even if his satire on the 21st century world of arts and media is necessarily more muted in its impact than his life-changing postwar portrait of a whole society on the move. On the other, Byrne’s unconvincing denials that these plays are autobiographical have not prevented him from throwing in a great chunk of unprocessed real-life material, about his own parentage, that completely unbalances the final scenes of the play, and forces a downbeat ending that seems at odds with Byrne’s instinctive romanticism.
What’s undeniable, though, is that Paddy Cunneen’s handsome, spacious Traverse production allows Byrne’s dialogue the kind of room to breathe it all too rarely receives; and also makes space for a series of fine performances, not least from an inspired Gerry Mulgrew as Spanky. There’s one fabulous, unchained theatrical moment when Spanky lets rip on the old guitar, in a roaring tribute to the music that helped set Phil and Spanky free, all those decades ago; and for that, and for Byrne’s determination to keep faith with his generation while the shades of mortality begin to gather around them, Nova Scotia is a theatrical event to cherish.
Over in Glasgow, meanwhile, Liz Lochhead has been returning to ground she first patrolled in the mid-1980’s, when her superb Scots version of Moliere’s Tartuffe helped awaken audiences to the sheer power and potential of the language. This time around, she turns her attention to Moliere’s School For Wives, in which an unpleasant, misogynistic old bachelor, Arnolphe, raises his lovely young ward Agnes to be a perfect, submissive wife; only to find, at the crucial moment, that she has developed ideas of her own.
If Nova Scotia is a messy piece of work redeemed by some rich and inspired performances, though, Educating Agnes strikes me as a powerful and disturbing 21st century version of Moliere’s text, flattened into dullness by a surprisingly untheatrical production. The text is written in modern Scots vernacular, and is full of hilarious and sininster echoes of 21st century sexual language, with all its lads’ mag vulgarity and chick-lit frankness. But McLaren sets the action back in the 17th century, dresses it in elaborate period costume, and – worst of all – strings it out in static, tableau-like lines against a huge classical backdrop of an erotic odalisque painting. The image is witty, but theatrically it soon becomes tedious. And although Kevin McMonagle’s Arnolphe bravely evokes the sheer absurdity of the lustful old goat in love, only Anneika Rose’s beautiful, touching and spirited performance as Agnes seems to transcend the restrictions of the staging, and burst into real theatrical life.
As for Iain Heggie, it’s now 20 years since his Wholly Healthy Glasgow propelled him into the front line of Scottish playwrights; yet it’s the same subject – a satire on the identity and pretensions of his home city, albeit with a very different twist – that dominates his new monologue The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer, playing this week in the Oran Mor lunchtime season. In this classic piece of small-scale satire, the wonderful John Bett plays an 18th century buffoon called Enoch Dalmellington, lawyer to Glasgow’s wealthy tobacco trading classes, and frequent victim of their unpleasant money-making scams.
The point about Dalmellington is that he represents some of the most famous ambiguities of Scottish society since the Union. He detests the corruption of Glasgow’s merchant princes, but can’t resist being bought off by them; he nurses private dreams of Scottish independence, but is too canny to mention them in public. Add the off-stage antics of Dalmellington’s brainy daughter Euphemia, his sceptical housekeeper Widow McKay, and McKay’s spiritual advisor, a startlingly prescient Glasgow soothsayer called Madam Zapata, and you have a brilliant satire on lazy-minded male conservatism caught with its breeches down. And there’s also a wake-up call to a city whose history – like that of the whole of the west of Scotland – has always been more rich, varied and morally ambiguous than the dominant narrative of victimhood allowed; until, that is, these fine writers of the 1980’s arrived, to blow it sky-high.
Nova Scotia at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 24 May. Educating Agnes at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until tomorrow, 3 May, and at Perth Theatre, 8-10 May. The Tobacco Merchant’s Lawyer at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow.