JOYCE MCMILLAN on INCIDENT AT THE BORDER at Oran Mor, Glasgow, IN TRANSIT at the GRV, Edinburgh, and THE MAKING OF DOUBT and GHOSTS IN THE MACHINE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 26.11.09
Incident At the Border 4 stars ****
In Transit 3 stars ***
The Making Of Doubt 4 stars ****
Ghosts In The Machine 3 stars ***
IF SCOTLAND became independent, so we’re told, the border between Scotland and England would be one of those faint Euro-frontiers where traffic never stops, and they don’t even bother to glance at your passport. In this week’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime drama, though – the last of the autumn season – the brilliant young Glasgow writer Kieran Lynn offers a fierce reminder of an alternative truth; the idea that borders tend to create their own divisions and conflicts, and to provide an excuse for some of humankind’s most brutal behaviour.
Young couple Olivia and Arthur are sitting in the park, you see, enjoying a bit of Sunday morning peace, when a man in uniform appears with a roll of tape, and places a border between them, right down the middle of the bench. Olivia, who tries to read the newspapers and keep up with events, has a suspicion that this may have something to do with the recently agreed “independence deal”; Arthur couldn’t care less about politics, and wishes he was a duck on the nearby pond.
No names of countries are mentioned; so that we could be anywhere from Bosnia to the Baltic, although the voices are Scottish and English. Reiver, the man with the tape, is a classic postmodern jobsworth; not exactly vicious, but neither bright nor brave enough to resist the culture of ridiculous security paranoia and kneejerk authoritarianism in which he has been trained. And so the peaceful day in the park gradually dwindles into a militarised nightmare, with both men carrying machine-guns, Olivia an agonised and vulnerable bystander, and any idea of progressive gender politics dumped in the dustbin of history.
It’s a dystopian vision, of course, with many fine touches of absurdism, particularly in Keith Fleming’s masterly portrayal of Reiver as an ordinary man managed into a culture of crazed control-freakery. But it comes as a sharp and timely reminder of the primitive forces that can be unleashed – particularly, Lynn suggests, in the male psyche – whenever human beings give themselves any new excuse for “us and them” thinking. And in Selma Dimitrijevic’s brilliant and heartfelt production, it achieves all this in a brief and vivid 35 minutes; with the help of fine performances not only from Fleming, but from a pitch-perfect Ashley Smith and Laurie Brown as the two young lovers, separated for good.
For good or ill, though, borders always create a powerful sense of drama; which is why international airports have become a key setting for postmodern theatre. From Suspect Culture’s Airport to Grid Iron’s massive site-specific work Roam, Scottish theatre has seen its share of thrilling airport shows; and now, here comes the newly-formed Edinburgh group Actors’ Kitchen – four writers, eight actors, a producer and a director – with a not-half-bad airport drama of their own. Set at Glasgow Airport on the day of the controversial deportation of Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, this 80-minute show, in fifteen short scenes, follows the fate of half-a-dozen groups of travellers whose journey has been delayed by the massive security restrictions at the airport.
To say that the show fails fully to exploit the potential of its theme is to understate the case; there’s only one scene – a slightly laboured one – which even mentions Megrahi. But there’s something about the sharp interweaving of scenes and characters, the slow build-up of an effective narrative climax, the smartness of Mark Prebble’s production, and the sheer quality of the acting, that promises a serious future for this impressive group of young Edinburgh-based professionals.
Over in Cambridge Street, meanwhile, the Traverse’s boundary-busting Autumn Festival is playing to packed houses. This second and final week’s programme included a first Edinburgh showing for Scottish choreographer Colette Saddler’s 2008 work The Making Of Doubt, a thoughtful, knotty and interesting dance theatre piece for four live performers and two life-size puppets, all initially dressed as faceless kids in hoodies.
Co-commissioned by the Tramway, Glasgow, with companies in Potsdam, Essen and Antwerp, The Making Of Doubt is perhaps more convincing in detail than it is in overall structure; Saddler eventually becomes seduced by a familiar and slightly sterile investigation of the puppet-like qualities of her real dancers, whereas what is most striking and moving about the show – particularly in its fine opening sequence – is the positive sense in which the presence, the support and the sensual touch of the real performers can turn puppets into people. But there’s real brilliance here, not only in the outer edges of the choreography, and in the performance of the dancers, but in a superbly subtle and varied soundscape, featuring not only music, but live and recorded voices, and plenty of intense, reflective silence.
Also at the Traverse, until tonight, is Billy Cowie’s witty 25-minute 3-D film-installation Ghosts In The Machine, a short but cheeky exploration of the border country between live theatre and film. On a small set featuring three doors with white bead curtains, the separately filmed images of three actresses appear, one in each doorway. To the audience, wearing 3D specs, they look astonishingly like live actors, moving towards us, talking, interacting, reaching out with preternaturally long arms. The girls do not have much to say; their script is an old-fashioned piece of meta-theatre – call it Three Characters In Search Of A Storyboard – in which they spend most of their time discussing whether they can remember the play. But the look of the show is immensely stylish, all effortless neo-Sixties chic; and the ease with which it mimics the appearance of live performance is usefully disturbing, to anyone who cares about the future of theatre.
Incident At The Border at Oran Mor until Saturday, Ghosts In The Machine at the Traverse until tonight. In Transit and The Making Of Doubt, runs completed.