Daily Archives: August 23, 2010

The Gospel At Colonus

The Gospel At Colonus
The Edinburgh Playhouse
4 stars ****

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to understand the concept behind Lee Breuer and Jim Telson’s mighty Gospel At Colonus.  On one hand, there’s the grandeur of Sophocles’s last Theban play, which shows an aged, blind and broken Oedipus arriving with his daughters in the village of Colonus, and recognising it as the place where he will die, provided he can first make peace with the gods.

On the other hand, there’s the magnificent, ecstatic tradition of gospel worship in the black churches of the southern United States, with its similar traditions of choral singing and response, and similar themes of release and redemption.  Then there’s the theatrical imagination of Breuer and Tilson, who decided 30 years ago to bring these old-world and new-world traditions together; and who have been developing and expanding the idea ever since a studio version of the show first appeared in Edinburgh in 1982.

What’s more difficult to absorb, though, is the sheer force, colour and complexity of the spectacle that unfolds on the huge stage of the Playhouse.  Part church service, part classical drama, part rousing gospel jam session, the 2010 version of the show is a spectacular business, staged against a ruined amphitheatre wall that flickers with images of gods and angels, and featuring a cast of more than 40, led by the legendary singers, The Blind Boys Of Alabama.  It’s also deeply counter-cultural, in that many of the performers are now old and slow-moving, and none of the fabulous women on stage are slim.

Yet the force of the music and singing is often staggering, adding a whole new dimension of inventive freedom, hard-lived experience and sheer soul to the range of Festival sounds.  I’m not sure whether the collision with the gospel tradition finally reveals much that is new about the story of Oedipus.   I’m certain, though, that the collision with Oedipus reveals a great deal about the gospel tradition; about its vocal and musical complexity, and its profound moral wisdom, in raising people up from their suffering, and setting them free at last.

Joyce McMillan
Until 23 August
EIF p.26

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
5 stars *****
4 stars *****
This Is Water
4 stars ****
My Friend Duplicity
4 stars ****
All Is Vanity
3 stars ***

IT FEATURES FIVE NEW HALF-HOUR BREAKFAST  PLAYS by leading British and Irish writers, fabulous actors, and a ground-breaking experiment that involves the intensive filming of the rehearsed readings, with interviews and background material, before this evening’s live transmission of all five plays to cinemas across the UK.

The Traverse’s Impossible Things Before Breakfast, in other words, is the festival project that has everything, including a bacon roll and a cup of coffee for each audience member before each morning show even starts.  The plays, though, are a strangely introverted bunch.  Given the whole world to range over, at least three of the five focus tightly on the affluent middle classes of Britain and Ireland, their angst, their relationships, and their attempts to come to terms with their own mortality; yet what they lack in thematic breadth, they tend to make up in metaphysical depth.

By far the strongest play is Simon Stephens’s haunting monologue T5, performed by Meg Fraser with a truly heart-stopping brilliance.   The speaker is an ordinary wife and mother, living in London, whose life becomes derailed after she witnesses the murder of a young boy by a gang of thugs on waste ground near her home.   Her marriage is rocky, her world  seems meaningless; and one afternoon she simply leaves her life, and heads for Terminal 5 at Heathrow.  After a while, the story becomes surreal; but never in a way that breaches its fundamental integrity, as a vision of a woman whose mind can simply no longer bear the denial and the lies – political, personal, moral – on which her apparently “normal” life is based.

Marina Carr’s Quartet is that rarest of things, a dramatic hymn to love, in all its complexity.  The central character is a middle-aged Irish diplomat, whose well-heeled and well-travelled life allows him to maintain a wife in Washington, an ageing mistress in Ireland, and young lover in New York, all of whom know about, and even like, one another.

The situation is slightly improbable, but it unleashes a torrent of superb lyrical writing about the real nature of sexual love, and its stubborn refusal to conform to the rules we try to lay down for it, even in the face of old age and death.  Vicky Featherstone’s beautifully-paced production features four rich, and profoundly grown-up performances from Andy Gray as the diplomat, with Irene Macdougall, Anne Kidd and Cora Bissett as the women.   And as a dramatic experience, it’s both more optimistic and, in a sense, more original than the other quartet in the series, David Eldridge’s All Is Vanity (Or With Apologies To Nathalie Sarraute),  a profoundly depressing and slightly old-fashioned anatomy of upper-middle-class alienation and self-hatred set in a garden in Kent, where middle-aged boss Roy, and his barren and furious wife Ursula – brilliantly played by Jane Bertish – are entertaining Roy’s new sales manager and his young wife.

Between these plays, though, come two slightly more left-field offerings, in terms of form.  Linda McLean’s This Is Water is simply a well-shaped series of quotations from the words of random New Yorkers whom she interviewed, as part of a recent project, about their views on uncertainty in their lives.  This is the one play of the four that, in a sense, speaks with the voice of ordinary people; and what emerges is an oddly beautiful and moving  piece of theatre, sharply directed by Stewart Laing, that offers terrific creative scope to a fine cast featuring Meg Fraser, James Anthony Pearson, Nalini Chetty, and Gary Lewis.

And finally, there’s Enda Walsh’s My Friend Duplicity, a 21st century Waiting For Godot set off the Kilburn Road in London, but featuring two Irish people (“Are we Irish?  Yes, thank god.”) trapped in a room, arguing about the relative merits of reality and imagination.  He is an ageing writer, perhaps; she is his young secretary, or amanuensis, or muse.  Niall Buggy starts off with astonishing charm and charisma as the man, Fergal, although he seems to lose his way as Walsh’s complex script unfolds; Olga Wehrly is briliantly sceptical as the woman.  And the whole play shimmers on a strange cusp between the real world – with all its banality and possible magic – and an imagined world where magic can be created and repeated at will; as if Ireland itself was a place caught between these two worlds, in a limbo that Sam Beckett would have recognised, and that Enda Walsh fills with his own inimitable poetry.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August, with live cine-cast performance of all five plays this evening, 23 August, 7.00 p.m.
p. 261.



King’s Theatre
4 stars ****

THE DARIEN EXPEDITION of 1696 was Scotland’s first and only attempt to establish an overseas colony and trading-post of its own; and the enterprise was such a comprehensive disaster – involving death, disease, and the outright loss of more than half of Scotland’s capital wealth – that it effectively finished Scotland as an independent nation, and left psychological scars that remain visible today, in the strange mixture of vainglory and self-contempt with which many Scots still view their national identity.

And it’s straight into this morass of unresolved patriotic feelings, as well of roaring post-crash scepticism about the whole model of high-risk venture capitalism on which the Darien project was based, that this latest production from the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival boldly marches.  Scripted by Alistair Beaton and directed by Anthony Neilson, Caledonia is both spectacular in staging and satirical in tone, and comes across almost as a comic-book linear narrative of the Darien disaster.  Many of the characters – from Edinburgh MP’s to English king – are presented as Viz-magazine grotesques of greed and venality; jokes about bankers abound, and while some of the show’s satirical comedy is effective, some is over-pitched and cack-handed.

What’s increasingly clear, though, is that these uncertainties of tone reflect a deep ambivalence within the play itself about the story it tells.  If it merely satirises Scotland as a backward dump with foolish delusions of grandeur, it does nothing but flatter  familiar metropolitan prejudices; yet if it takes too seriously the evidence that Scotland’s legitimate attempt to join in the global trading boom was directly scuppered by the machinations of the English government, it risks looking like a piece of nationalist agitprop, an outcome which Beaton and Neilson seem anxious to avoid.

It’s therefore a tribute to the skill of all those involved – including a fine cast, led by Paul Higgins as William Paterson, the visionary financier behind the project –  that what Caledonia finally achieves, in its closing scenes, is a kind of profound  elegiac lyricism about the sheer human cost of the enterprise, expressed in brilliantly theatrical terms.  The play probably insists too much on making the link between crazed venture capitalism and Scottish national aspirations, a link which misrepresents the character of Scottish politics.   But this new NTS show fits superbly, and revealingly, into the “new worlds” theme of Jonathan Mills’s 2010 Festival.  And three centuries on, it makes an interesting, debatable, and hugely theatrical start on the long collective process of coming to terms with a decisive national disaster; a process on which Scotland has perhaps only just begun.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August.  EIF p. 29