Deep Cut, Architecting, Finished With Engines

Deep Cut   4 stars  ****
Architecting   5 stars *****
Finished With Engines  4 stars ****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)

THE MORE A NATION is supposed to represent some of the best and highest human values, the more bitter the disappointment of its people when it transpires that the founding myths are false, and the values often betrayed.  For perhaps a century before, during and after the Second World War, most people in Britain considered it obvious that whatever its faults, Britain was obviously the home of freedom, and the most decent and democratic of countries.  And although there have been many moments of disillusion since the 1960’s, it’s still impossible not to hear a note of almost bewildered disappointment in the voices of people like Des and Doreen James, the couple at the centre of Sherman Cymru’s powerful new documentary drama Deep Cut, which opened this year’s Festival programme at the Traverse over the weekend.

Like the parents of the three other young recruits who died in baffling circumstances at the Deep Cut barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002, Des and Doreen had entrusted their young daughter, Cheryl – only 17 when she enlisted – to a British Army which they assumed would operate to the highest ethical and peofessional standards.  Instead, when their daughter was found dead from a single gunshot wound, close to a woodland guard-post where she had been working alone, what they experienced was a long decade and more of cover-up, obfuscation, botched investigation, and blatant dishonesty, compounded by such a lack of basic courtesy that they never even received a letter of sympathy from the camp commandant.

There’s nothing dramatically obscure or complex about the style in which writer Philip Ralph and director Mick Gordon tackle the teling of this heartbreaking story.  The scene is set in the James’s living-room in Wales, and uses their own words, and other documentary material, to tell the story of Cheryl’s life and death from the point of view of her father, Des – beautifully played by Ciaran McIntyire – with strong interventions from his wife Doreen, and from a superb Rhian Blythe, playing not Cheryl, but her army friend Jonesy.

What the play has, though, is a terrific narrative and moral energy, and a straightforward integrity that makes its final cry for truth and justice almost irresistible.  And it’s also, in its way, a beautifully-observed fanfare for the common man; for people who – untouched by power, its smooth manners, and its sleazy moral compromises – are sometimes able to see the truth, and to speak it, far more clearly than the establishment figures they challenge.

If there is one nation on earth, though, that above all others believes it has a special role as the land of the free and a beacon of democracy, then it is the United States of America; which is why the young TEAM company of New York’s latest show Architecting, co-produced with the National Theatre of Scotland’s Workshop, is such a sensationally timely piece of American self-analysis and deconstruction.  The title, I think, refers to the ancient human business of nation-building, and the physical structures that reflect it; but for the most part,  Architecting represents a brilliant, witty, surrealist encounter – part cabaret, part movie-fantasy, part dramatic poem – between a young New York architect and the American south, as experienced in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Full of strange, sexy drifts into song – country, blues, abstract –  that reflect a profound truth about a civilisation whose deepest feelings often find expression through popular music, Architecting is rooted in the idea of a dialogue between Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With The Wind, and a modern film crew, working in New Orleans, who cannot cope with the fierce, complex truthfulness of her portrayal of the slave-based civilisation of the Old South, now largely written out of the American national myth, or treated with a contempt perhaps reflected in the nation’s utter failure to respond adequately to the New Orleans disaster.

This whole theme, of course represents a tough stretch for a young, all-white company entirely based in New York; and it would be foolish to suggest that the show is perfect – it certainly should know when to shut up, about ten minutes before it finally does.  But imperfect or not, this is a craggy, complex gem of a show, that says a huge amount about our screen-image-driven, American-dominated civilisation, and the point of crisis it has reached.  And it does it while also achieving some extraordinary moments of humour and beauty and pure theatrical energy, in which the still, sad music of humanity – and the true erotic pulse of heart meeting heart, difference meeting difference – can be heard, beneath all the clattering roar of our old and dying world.

By comparison with this New-York-meets-New-Orleans torrent of brilliance, Alan McKendrick’s Finished With Engines – first produced at the Arches Theatre in 2006 – looks like a relatively single-minded indictment of American military attitudes, albeit a memorably strange and surreal one.  Performed by Stephanie Viola and Drew Friedman of the fine American company Riot Group,  the show features two sailors – Megan and Hemingway – at a marine observation post just off a South Sea island which, it seems, is about to be blown away in some cataclysmic demonstration of US military power.

In a series of ten short scenes, the two embody and negotiate the odd mixture of earthy, sometimes brutal realism and total, naive self-delusion that often characterises the thinking of doomed imperial powers, and particularly of their more humble servants.   At first, Megan seems like the ruthless realist and survivor, Hemingway like the naive fool.  But in the end, it seems her delusions are the more lethal; and not only to the world she inhabits, but also to herself.

Joyce McMillan
Deep Cut and Architecting until 24 August, Finished With Engines until 10 August
pp. 194, 184, 200.



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