JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOBODY WILL EVER FORGIVE US at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, HEER RANJHA (RETOLD) at the Tramway, Glasgow, and THE BONES BOYS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 28.11.08
Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us 4 stars ****
Heer Ranjha (Retold) 3 stars ***
The Bones Boys 3 stars ***
IN THE BADLANDS of a society that has lost most of its core beliefs, one of two things can happen. People can turn their violent anger against those they hold responsible for their sense of powerlessness and loss; this is what happened in Gregory Burke’s superb debut play Gagarin Way, directed by John Tiffany at the Traverse back in 2001.
Or, more commonly, they can turn that violence on themselves, gradually drinking and drugging themselves to death, out of a dull sense that their lives have no value. This is the story of Paul Higgins’s debut play Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, the last in the series of four NTS/Traverse Debuts at the Traverse; and if John Tiffany’s production never looks like reaching the heights of Gagarin Way, it nonetheless retains some of that wild, surreal energy, the sense of a people raking through the ruins of all the dreams and theologies that once offered them hope, and finding that little remains.
Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us is set in Wishaw, in the living-room of a hysterically dysfunctional ex-Catholic family (the Lanarkshire Royles, if you like), of wehom only the mother – brilliantly played by Susan Vidler, with a sharp-faced righteous misery – retains any religious faith. The younger son, Patrick, has just returned from the seminary for trainee priests, having decided that he no longer believes in God. His elder brother Johnny, at 25 or so, is already a debt-ridden wreck. His little sister Cath (the excellent Carmen Pieraccini) is plagued by stress-induced eczema. And Gary Lewis turns in a towering performance as their father, an intelligent but devastated brute of a man whose bombastic assertions of power – and occasional bizarre rhetorical flights into romantic poetry and advanced political thought – only act as a smokescreen for his violent, self-destructive alcoholism.
In the first act, Higgins has huge fun setting up this larger-than-life cast of characters; later, the tone and narrative flag a little, as the play’s wrecked violence moves beyond a joke. But in the closing scene – with help of sharp performances from all five actors – Higgins succeeds in pulling the play together brilliantly, with a final fierce assertion of faith not as an expression of certainty, but as the voice of doubt itself, groping for some sense of meaning and redemption in a dark world. As in the previous two plays in the Debut season, there’s a faint sense, here, of that voyeuristic middle-class fascination with imagined underclass lives that has often been such an irritating feature of the work of the Royal Court Theatre. But in Higgins’s play, the comic and surreal energy is just fierce enough to hold stereotypes at bay; and in Sam Holcroft’s schoolroom nightmare Cockroach, the first of the four plays, this Debut season has produced at least one huge dramatic talent, blazing with promise.
The traditional Indian tale Heer Ranjha is also about the political of class; but here, the theme is worked out through the story of two classic star-crossed lovers, the poor wandering musician Ranjha, and the beautiful landowner’s daughter Heer. Ankur Productions’s ambitious new Tramway version – written by leading young British Asian writer Shan Khan – sets the story in contemporary Glasgow, where Ranjha is a poor Muslim boy estranged from his oppressive family, and Heer is the daughter of a wealthy curry king, owner of Scotland’s most successsful chain of restaurants.
The truth about this shift in location is that it raises so many complex issues – not only about the relationship between Heer and Ranjha, but about the overall position of Asians in British and Scottish society – that they can hardly be handled within the framework of the story. While the lovely Nalini Chetty looks poised and believable throughout as Heer, the texture of the script is often jerky and graceless, and Taqi Nazeer, as Ranjha, sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of different meanings carried by the character. In its favour, though, this show has huge emotional courage and energy, some superb Bollywood-influenced dance-sequences for its big cast of extras, and a burning determination to create space on stage for the tense and vivid life of Scotland’s Asian communities; and for all those reasons, Daljinder Singh’s production is a theatre event to welcome, and enjoy.
As for a more traditional kind of Scottish heritage – well, it’s almost St. Andrew’s Day, and Oran Mor celebrates with a lunchtime co-production of Colin MacDonald’s The Bones Boys, the short tale of two 8th century Northumbrian monks who flee north towards Scotland with the bones of the saint, after their abbey is attacked. Eardwulf , at 30, is a middle-aged sensual sceptic, fond of breaking his vows with comely local wives; Osred is a young prig, full of pious belief. But in the end – in a transition movingly conveyed by Mark McDonnell, as Eardwulf – it’s the older man who finds the courage and faith to sacrifice himself.
Co-produced by BBC Radio Scotland, and jointly directed by Marilyn Imrie and Rosie Kellagher, the play never quite shakes off its radio identity; the hooded figures who float and chant around the stage might as well have been on tape. But McDonnell’s performance has something to say, in the end, about the special value of faith that lives alongside a healthy human scepticism and disbelief. And in that sense, this play is not a bad companion-piece to Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us – rude, cynical, and often irreligious, but still searching for meaning, all the same.
Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Heer Ranjha at the Tramway, Glasgow, and The Bones Boys at Oran Mor, Glasgow, all until tomorrow, 29 November.