JOYCE MCMILLAN on INTERIORS (Vanishing Point at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh); STAGE FRIGHT at the CCA, Glasgow; and THE LITTLE MERMAID at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts, 9.4.09
Interiors 4 stars ****
Stage Fright 3 stars ***
The Little Mermaid 4 stars ****
IN THESE early years of the 21st century, most thinking theatre artists are all too aware that their art-form faces a certain troubling contradiction, a creative Catch-22. On one hand, any live performance that takes place in real time, over a fixed period, needs some kind of dynamic forward movement – a narrative structure, or something very like it – to hold the audience’s interest. Yet on the other hand, we live in an age when conventional narrative is often mistrusted, as providing too neat and comforting an account of a world in crisis; and it’s the effort to solve this conundrum that has produced some of the finest theatre of the post-modern age.
Matthew Lenton’s new production Interiors – made for his Glasgow-based touring company Vanishing Point, inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1895 symbolist classic Interior, and co-produced by the Napoli Teatro Festival Italia and the Traverse – is a strikingly fine example of this kind of work, full of the energy of conventional narrative, yet aware of its limitations in every physical detail. On a dark stage, we see the outer wall of a house, with a huge jagged hole or picture window through which we can watch the domestic action within. An elderly widower called Andrew (all the characters simply take the actor’s own first name) is giving a midwinter dinner-party for a group of six friends, including his pretty teenage grandaughter Sarah, his middle-aged neighbour Myra, and a bright young couple, Barney and Aurora.
The world outside – evoked in the play of cold light on the outer wall, and in Alasdair Macrae’s bleak Arctic soundscape – is a place so threatening that all the guests arrive carrying guns . And as the party gradually deteriorates into a tragi-comic evening from hell, we become aware of the presence of a narrator, at first invisible, then present, but always outside, looking in; someone who was once part of the beautiful and ridiculous hurly-burly of life, but is now an invisible wanderer, endowed with a sad knowledge of how each character will end.
Created with a mixed company of British and Italian actors, this show is unable to use language in any conventional way; we never hear the actors speak, only see them acting out their story. Yet this necessary separation between the audience and the actors is precisely what enables the show both to use narrative, and to stand apart from it; and the result is a hugely clever, rich and entertaining piece of theatre, that shifts effortlessly between farce and tragedy, laughter and dread, domestic familiarity and abstract mystery.
There are moments when the show seems to take easy, middle-of-the-road options rather than pushing its potential to the limit. The posh-estuary narrative voice begins by inviting an ugly, facile snobbish laughter at the characters’ pretentions and limitations, which is never really challenged. And given the strength and energy of the play’s structure, it could perhaps aim for a more original conclusion than a final sorrowful recognition of the transience of human life and longing. But the acting is immaculate, the production technically superb, the comedy sharp and funny, and the rhythm of the show both beautiful and compelling. In Interiors, Lenton has created a world-class piece of international theatre, that turns the limitations of the genre into genuine strengths; and in that achievement, everyone involved can take great pride.
In style, Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point is one of the natural successors to Suspect Culture, the brilliant Scottish-based exponents of cool global modernism and sorrowful lyricism that has been led for the last 19 years by director Graham Eatough, writer David Greig, and music man Nick Powell. Now, Suspect Culture are winding up operations; and their last hurrah is Stage Fright, an extended series of installations at the CCA in Glasgow, questioning the nature of live performance and theatre in our time.
To say Stage Fright is a show of variable quality is an understatement. Some of its elements are frankly inscrutable; others are glaringly irrelevant to the subject in hand. But at its best – in David Greig’s video installation about the process by which writing on a screen becomes performance by an actor, or Nick Powell and Johnny Dawe’s haunting Automatic Scene Changer with its shifting images of the same door, or Dan Rebellato’s image of a caged actor endlessly trapped in repetition – it dives to the heart of what we mean by theatre; and offers a fitting enough creative farewell from one of the most gifted theatre companies Scotland has ever produced.
If you want to see a great narrative framed and questioned in the most simply effective way possible, though, then you could do much worse than catch a performance of Dundee Rep’s current beautiful show for children aged five and over. Mike Kenny’s fine version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid takes the material of that most disturbing and complex story, and sets it in a framework of play and let’s-pretend that makes it bearable for children, without diminishing any of its power. Ali Allen’s beautiful undersea design, Ivan Stott’s choice of music and sound, and inspired performances from twin narrators Emily Winter and Kevin Lennon, all combine – in a brief 50 minutes – to make this an unforgettable study of tough subjects like unrequited love, loss, self-damage and death, as well as fun ones like love, romance, and true friendship. And when the two storytellers finish the tale with a good cry and sob, followed by some lusty nose-blowing, we know that something has been learned about the power of theatre; both to dramatise our deepest fears, and to hold them in a framework where we can see them clearly, and begin to deal with them.
Interiors at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 11 April, and on tour to Stirling, Aberdeen, London, Glasgow and Naples; Stage Fright at the CCA, Glasgow, until 23 May; The Little Mermaid at Dundee Rep until 11 April.