JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE HARD MAN at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, WHAT LOVE IS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE FIREBIRD at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts, 7.4.11
The Hard Man 4 stars ****
What Love Is 3 stars ***
The Firebird 3 stars ***
IT”S A MEASURE of the greatness of Tom McGrath’s 1977 play The Hard Man that it never quite fulfils any of the stereotyped expectations aroused by its title, and its subject. Co-written by McGrath and Jimmy Boyle – then only recently released from Barlinnie Prison, where he had been serving a life sentence for murder – it certainly offers a fictionalised version of the story of Boyle’s early life, as a violent “enforcer” in Glasgow’s criminal underworld.
Yet the play’s style is more musical than narrative, swerving through the story of its fictional anti-hero, Johnny Byrne, in a series of short, violent scenes counterpointed by a chorus of comment from two Gorbals women. And in the second half, it begins to explore Byrne’s experience of imprisonment, and the extreme brutalisation he underwent in a “cage” at Peterhead, in a way that is expressionistic and almost mystical; like a musical piece that begins with a great thunder of rhythm and energy, but gradually shifts into a sombre and meditative key, still punctuated by violence, but increasingly threaded with a possibility of shimmering stillness.
The play, in other words, is neither a conventional glamorisation of violence in the guise of a crime story, not a straightforward naturalistic condemnation of Byrne’s crimes and their impact. Instead, it attempts the most difficult thing of all, a deep exploration of Byrne’s impulse to violence, of the way his brutality is mirrored by the licensed thuggery of the criminal justice system, and of his slow discovery of a possible life beyond that cycle of violence. And it’s a tremendous tribute to the intelligence and thoughtfulness of Phillip Breen’s new production of the play, for the Scottish Theatres Consortium, that it remains true to that complex rhythm in McGrath’s work, rather than trying to simplify or popularise it. Max Jones’s set and Tina McHugh’s lighting creates a simple arena for Byrne’s story, at first overlooked by tenement windows, later veiled in a growing darkness pierced by sudden shafts of light. Graham Sutherland and percussionist Chris Wallace generate a strange, resonant soundscape, with an eerie edge of spiritual energy; and Alex Ferns, as Byrne, gives the performance of a lifetime, as a man struggling from an instinctive drive towards survival and dominance in a rough environment, towards a life of thought and self-reflection, full of new possibilities.
McGrath’s play famously ends at the beginning of this new story, in the moment when Byrne first creates his own extreme protest against the conditions at Peterhead; and if Breen’s production has a fault, it lies in a slight failure to pace and orchestrate that ending so that its full meaning reaches the audience. For most of its length, though, the production is almost flawless, with Iain Robertson and Nicky Elliott moving seamlessly and significantly from their early roles as Byrne’s violent henchmen to their later ones as baton-wielding prison officers, and Cara Kelly and Alison O’Donnell turning in fine performances in McGrath’s thoughtful cameos of the women in Byrne’s life.
The Hard Man is not – and is not intended to be – an easy show to watch. Even 34 years on, though, it still seems like a cutting-edge attempt to get beyond conventional attitudes to the deep seam of violence in Scottish life; and to transcend that toxic mixture of hero-worship and hatred that still dogs ex-criminals like James Boyle today, and returns to haunt our national conversation, every time his name and his story are mentioned.
This week’s Oran Mor lunchtime show, by the brave and thoughtful Linda McLean, is also a difficult piece to watch, although much less theatrical. The second of two plays co-produced this season by Play, Pie and Pint and Dundee Rep, it describes an hour or so in the lives of Gene and Jean, an old couple who still love one another, but are increasingly confused about who and what they are. Their daughter Jeanette arrives, visibly exhausted by the effort to hold down a job while caring for them; McLean’s text – almost in the style of a late Samuel Beckett fragment – makes it clear that they have their own fragmented wisdom, to which Jeanette’s “caring” efforts are almost irrelevant. Peter Kelly, Irene Macdougall and Lesley Hart give exquisite performances; but the style, in Emma Falkner’s production, is so subdued and downbeat that the performance steadily loses energy, as if the delivery needed a tougher poetic edge to bring out the full human and dramatic force of the everyday crisis it portrays.
At Dundee, meanwhile, the Rep ensemble company offers some Easter magic for younger audience, in the shape of an in-the-round production of Neil Duffield’s version of The Firebird, the magical Russian fairytale about a breathtakingly beautiful bird that comes to the Tsar’s garden and takes his golden apples, and about the young Prince, Ivan, who tries to win his father’s love by going in search of the bird, across the world. Duffield’s version of the text seems to me a shade archaic and uninspired; and James Brining’s staging is sometimes oddly flat-footed and inept, with major pieces of comic business played out in areas of the stage that are invisible to large sections of the audience.
There are some spectacular moments and decent performances, though, notably from Emily Winter as Ivan’s wicked sister, Princess Katya. And although the storytelling takes a while to find its rhythm, by the end the youngsters in the audience are completely caught up in this tale of epic sibling rivalry; and in the effort to set the record straight about which sibling deserves banishment to the kitchens, and which has richly deserved the love not only of his father, but of the beautiful Firebird, and the lovely Princess Vassilissa, too.
The Hard Man at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday, and on tour to Glasgow, Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee. What Love Is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Firebird at Dundee Rep, both until Saturday, 9 April.