JOYCE MCMILLAN on EVERY ONE at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, THE GARDEN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE HOBBIT at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts 25.3.10
Everyone 4 stars ****
The Garden 4 stars ****
The Hobbit 2 stars **
THE SHOCK OF BEREAVEMENT – particularly when it involves the loss of someone in the prime of life – is a common human experience; thousands must live through it every day. Yet it’s also an experience that our secular and youth-obsessed culture finds extraordinarily difficult to process; and although theatre groups in Scotland have been making some bold attempts to tackle it in recent years, the shows often struggle to move beyond a sense of bewilderment, outrage and shock.
All of that changes, though, with the emergence at the Lyceum of Jo Clifford’s latest play Every One, a beautiful, strange and thought-provoking meditation on the sudden death, at the age of 50 or so, of its heroine Mary, a 21st century everywoman who works as a tax inspector, loves her husband and teenage kids and her old Mum, and is just getting on with the ironing when death comes to claim her. “Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side,” goes the most famous quotation from the mediaeval morality play, Everyman, that inspired Clifford’s work; and it’s not long before a guide emerges from among the Lyceum crowd, to lead Mary through her hard and frightening journey from this world to the next.
It’s no secret that Clifford’s new work is based on her own experience. In a traumatic six years since 2004, the former John Clifford, now Jo, has lost her partner, the journalist Sue Innes, experienced a life-threatening illness herself, and made the profound death-and-rebirth decision to begin to live as a woman; and there are times when the experience she tackles in Every One still seems almost too raw to handle. The style of the play is boldly choric and reflective, rather than dramatic; the characters speak mainly in a series of linked monologues, which often work brilliantly, but sometimes seem just a shade over-laden with stored-up emotion and psychological detail. And in the second act, there’s an effort to use dance to express the moment when the spirit finally shakes itself free, which somehow doesn’t quite catch light.
Despite the odd difficult moment, though – and a production that director Mark Thomson just needs to lift a little in terms of dynamic, song-like vocal delivery – this emerges as a stirringly powerful show, that not only goes straight to the heart of the ordinary human experience of the audience, but boldly links our thoughts about death, and the ultimate meaning of our lives, to the mighty global dramas, from holocaust to climate change, that sweep around our private worlds. The texture of Clifford’s writing is extraordinary throughout, open-hearted, erotic, the unique voice of a middle-aged person absolutely in love with the pulse and richness of life, but wise enough to know that it has to be surrendered, one day. And it draws a magnificent central performance from the beautiful Kathryn Howden as Mary; with fine support from Jonathan Hackett as her bewildered husband, Jenny Hulse and Kyle McPhail as the kids, Tina Gray as Mother, and Liam Brennan as The Man, the one who comes to make it clear to this latterday Mary that no matter how much she loves her world, the time has come when she must move on.
There’s a similar feeling of an ordinary couple facing extraordinary times in Zinnie Harris’s The Garden, one of last year’s 30-minute Traverse Festival shows, now revived as part of the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season. In a high-rise company flat in some American desert town, Mac and Jane stare in amazement at a tiny green shoot that has pushed up through their kitchen floor. The time is a grim, overheated future when power and water are in short supply. He is working on a doomed scientific project to reverse climate change, she has a history of mental distress; their childlessness weighs on them both.
In a strange reverse echo of the story of Eden, she identifies the little plant as an apple tree; and their shared despair at their symbolic decision to destroy it – the act seems rational at the time – drives them towards a conclusion illuminated by love, but also by a recognition that the end has come. It’s a short and infinitely sad play, but an exquisite one; catch it next week at the Traverse, and relish a fine performance from Sean Scanlan as Mac, and an outstanding one from Anne Lacey as Jane.
It’s possible to imagine a stage version of Tolkien’s The Hobbit that might measure up to some of the same questions raised in the rest of this week’s theatre. Bilbo Baggins of Underhill is Tolkien’s Everyman, after all; and the story of his journey into danger, horror, excitement and battle also touches on the idea that we have to let go of our fear of death, in order fully to experience life.
So it’s sad to report that the Vanessa Ford touring production at the Festival Theatre this week never looks remotely like transforming The Hobbit into convincing 21st century theatre. It features an interesting, slightly dour central performance from Martin Howe as Baggins. But everything else about this all-male show – from its creaky dungeons-and-dragons appearance, through its blaring recorded score and sub-Royal-Shakespeare vocal delivery, to its plodding mock-mediaeval script – just seems agonisingly dull and out of time, a pale reflection of a big-screen style that theatre cannot match. There’s more real theatrical energy in the final curtain-call dance than in all the rest of the show put together; and that, in the end, is a sign of failure, even when it involves a cast of fourteen, and a truly spectacular dragon.
Every One at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 10 April. The Garden at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 30 March-3 April. The Hobbit at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sunday.