JOYCE MCMILLAN on VALHALLA at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and NOISES OFF and ROUGH CROSSING at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 15.7.10
Valhalla 4 stars ****
Noises Off 4 stars ****
Rough Crossing 2 stars **
HERE’S A THEORY for you: that when art-forms are strong, robust, and in their prime, they waste very little time thinking about themselves, and use all their force to grapple with the real world, its triumphs and tragedies.
When they go into decline, though, they become obsessed with their own oddity and artifice. At first, they flatter and amuse audiences by constantly referring to the oddness of the experience they are undergoing; then suddenly, they find that the audience has disappeared, in search of a form more interesting, and less self-obsessed. Live theatre has been on the cusp of this kind of disaster for a century now, ever since the invention of cinema; and although vigorous waves of new writing and formal reinvention have saved it from oblivion, the danger is ever-present, even when the art of meta-theatre – or theatre that reflects on theatre – falls into the hands of a talent as fierce as that of New York playwright Paul Rudnick.
Rudnick’s Valhalla – first seen in New York in 2004, and now revived in a mind-blowingly vivid and shamelessly self-adoring Tron Theatre production by director Andy Arnold and designer Kenny Miller – is a bizarre but brilliant melodrama which links the life of the “mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria (1845-1886) with the mid-20th-century loves and yearnings of a not-very-regular guy called James. James is a bi-sexual tornado of wicked impulses and fierce aesthetic longings, who cuts a swathe through small-town Texas – seducing both his best friend Henry Lee and Henry’s luscious fiancee Sally – before signing up for service in the Second World War.
The play’s point is that whereas ordinary “straight” culture seems mainly driven by money and power, there’s something about the liberated bisexual mind that yearns instead for beauty, and the benign spiritual exaltation it brings. Trapped by the dynastic expectations of the Bavarian court, Prince Ludwig becomes a fancy dresser and a compulsive Wagnerian opera addict. But after he ascends to the throne, his genius finds expression in the construction of a series of staggeringly beautiful and fantastical castles, culminating in the astonishing Neuschwanstein; and when James and Henry Lee are parachuted into Bavaria by the US army, they soon realise that in the man who built this palace, they have encountered a rare kindred spirit.
At the Tron, all this is delivered in high and hilarious style by a superb cast, led by Johnny McKnight as the hapless Ludwig, Mark Prendergast as James, and Joyce Falconer as his battleaxe of a mother, in fabulous black mourning gowns from the Citizens’ Theatre wardrobe. There’s no attempt to reproduce Ludwig’s palaces on stage. The set is the elaborate proscenium arch of a tiny 19th century court theatre, with the backs of some scenery flats stacked against the wall; the vividness of the play is poured into Miller’s fabulous costumes, all dizzying heels and powdered wigs, with the odd lapse into sugar-pink Texas kitsch.
Yet it’s a measure of the quality of the production that despite so much outright silliness, the cast bring the play home to its serious, almost tragic conclusion with an unerring sense of pace and tone. This is a play about theatre and illusion, all right, and often teeters on the verge of indulgent self-mockery and pure summer camp. But in the end, it has something vital to say about the role of beauty, fantasy and illusion in freeing the human mind; and allowing its deepest impulses to take a creative form, rather than a destructive one.
At Pitlochry, meanwhile, this year’s season of showbiz-inflected plays offers a couple of contrasting productions that reflect – in turn – the potential and the pitfalls of plays about theatre. Michael Frayn’s 1982 hit Noises Off is a brilliant farce about farce, in which a clapped-out old-fashioned touring company performs a ghastly sex comedy called Nothing On in unglamorous venues from Weston-super-Mare to Stockton-on-Tees. The play’s trick is to offer us the first act of Nothing On three times, twice from the front of the set – at the hopeful beginning of the tour and its chaotic end – and once from the back; and the brilliance with which Frayn exposes the ferocious rivalries of the average touring theatre company, and the speed and precision with which he combines onstage and off-stage action, is famously irresistible.
Ken Alexander’s Pitlochry production is pitch-perfect in its homage to the play, with every hilarious twitch and pratfall delivered with real comic and emotional energy by a fine cast, led by Jacqueline Dutoit as the company’s grande dame, Dotty. And if what we see at the end of the show is the collapse of a conventional art-form in terminal decline, at least Frayn gives it as brilliant and affectionate a farewell as a dying form of theatre could ever wish to have; along with a hint that if the form is decaying, the human passions and follies that drove it are still alive and kicking, often quite viciously.
Of Richard Baron’s Pitlochry production of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing, by contrast, perhaps the best that can be said is that Adrian Rees’s lovely 1930’s shipboard sets are works of art in their own right. The play, loosely based on a Hungarian farce by Ferenc Molnar, is a piece of lightweight bourgeois nonsense about a couple of old showbiz types trying to write a new musical on board a transatlantic liner; and it’s performed at Pitlochry with a mannered rep-theatre ponderousness that largely robs it of whatever meringue-like elegance it may once have possessed. George Rae turns in a nicely-pitched performance as the ubiquitous ship’s steward, Dvornichek. But everything else about the play is instantly forgettable; and so dull, in its self-referring showbiz complacency, that despite the occasional sharp one-liner, it’s difficult even to raise a laugh.
Valhalla at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 24 July; Noises Off and Rough Crossing in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 16 October.