Futureproof, Ten Plagues, The Wheel

THEATRE
Futureproof
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
Ten Plagues
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****
The Wheel
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
3 stars ***

ONE OF THE CREEPIEST aspects of our media-driven, image-led society is its growing intolerance for real difference. Look at a blockbuster film of the 1950’s, and you’ll see stars in all shapes and sizes, sometimes with crooked noses or imperfect teeth; whereas today, people constantly berate themselves for falling short of a Barbie-and-Ken standard of perfection as dull and uniform as it is unattainable. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the most powerful theatre in this year’s big Traverse programme comes from the edge; from the place where people who are unavoidably different look in on a society that can be both hostile and fearful.

Linda Radley’s powerful first full-length play, for the Traverse and Dundee Rep, is set in a travelling freak show, where the bedraggled team of performers – seven in all, if you count conjoined twins Millie and Lillie as two – have fallen on hard times. As their boss Riley puts it, once they were marvelled at as God’s miracles, now they are pitied as nature’s errors. Riley blames Darwin; and decides that modern times require a new narrative, stories of people once freakish taking control of their own lives, and reverting to the norm. The gigantic fat man slims down, the bearded lady has a shave, the conjoined twins are threatened with separation surgery; and as for Riley’s right-hand man-woman George/Georgina, it seems as if she/he might have to make a self-mutilating choice, to be one sex or the other.

All of this is played out on a fine, battered and timeless fairground set by Colin Richmond; and through a set of complex relationships, among this travelling tribe of outcasts, that is superbly realised both in Radley’s thoughtful and sometimes strongly poetic script, and in some magnificent ensemble acting by the Dundee team. All seven performances glow with a rare combination of uniqueness and connectedness, with Lesley Hart’s George/Georgina, Irene Macdougall’s fabulous bearded lady, and Ashley Smith and Nicola Roy’s magnificent conjoined twins, all burning in the memory. And in Dominic Hill’s assured and sensitive production, Radley’s story achieves a beautiful narrative arc; leaving us with a profound sense of the choice we all face, between freedom on one hand, and obedient self-mutilation on the other.

The astonishing solo oratorio Ten Plagues, by contrast, provides a concentrated hour of reflection from the edge of society, in a single voice. With music by Conor Mitchell and libretto by Mark Ravenhill, the show focusses on a lone character – played and sung with terrific nerve and intensity by Marc Almond, and accompanied on piano by musical director Bob Broad – who is a survivor of the Great Plague of London of 1665, and also, in reflection and imagery, of the great blight of AIDS that wiped out so many in London and other cities during the 1980’s.

In Stewart Laing’s production – which he also designs – Almond stalks a double stage, with outdoor space below strewn with empty music-stands, and above a white room where images from memory play in monochrome on the walls. The music is rich, demanding, varied in tone, from shrieking intensity of pain to elegy and dark comedy. It’s at its strongest, though, in the singer’s closing hymn to survival, as a person forever changed, and unable to connect fully with those who have not walked the same path. “We will never know each other now,” Almond sings to the pianist/shopkeeper, who has absented himself from London during the plague; and a final image shows him walking in black through a familiar city of strangers, busy people untouched by the knowledge of death that now shapes his life.

The woman at the centre of Zinnie Harris’s new mainstage play The Wheel – produced by the National Theatre of Scotland – also walks through a landcape devastated by death; but as a woman, she finds herself accompanied on the journey by three children, dumped upon her along the way by people who recognise both her gender and her strength, and her inability to walk away from those who need her.

For all the brilliance of Vicky Featherstone’s staging of this story – which features a cast of 14, a thundering score by Nick Powell, and a big, impressive set on two levels by Merle Hensel, like a segment of a devastated city – it’s difficult not to see in the narrative of Beatrix and her journey a generalisation from too many conflicts, featuring deliberate visual echoes of Rwanda and Vietnam, Spain, Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia, and played out on a kind of generic battlefield that recalls Mother Courage, or Howard Barker’s Europeans, without adding a great deal to what those plays have to say.

Harris’s theme is the damage that war inflicts on children, and how quickly they cease to be the focus of sweetness or innocence that we often take then for; Beatrix’s feared hell, evoked in the play’s powerful final scene, is to be forced to repeat the sequence of experiences that turned at least two of her little charges into monsters, carrying the virus of violence into the future. If the thought is not original, though, and the horror therefore sometimes seems willed or forced, it’s impossible not to salute the fierce sincerity of the play’s need to get to grips with the evil of war; or the skill and passion of the staging, driven throughout by a breathtaking central performance from Catherine Walsh, as a woman held to ransom by her own need to care, and yet unable to protect those she loves.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
pp. 264, 302, 310.

ENDS ENDS

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