JOYCE MCMILLAN on MY ROMANTIC HISTORY at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, DR.ANGELUS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and ARTHUR – THE STORY OF A KING at Perth Theatre, for Scotsman Arts, 15.9.11
My Romantic History 4 stars ****
Dr. Angelus 4 stars ****
Arthur: The Story Of A King 5 stars *****
SOMEWHERE near the beginning of D.C. Jackson’s acclaimed 2010 rom-com – now revived on tour by Borderline Theatre, in a fine production by Jemima Levick – our hero, Tom, argues that all men, if they’re honest, have a faint understanding of the mentality of the axe-murderer, the one who has sex with women, and then just chops them up. “Let’s face it,” says Tom, “it’s one way of making sure that you’ve seen the back of them, for good.”
It’s a horrible thought, of course; and for all I know, in writing it down, Jackson may be committing a shocking libel against his entire sex. To judge by the shrieks of laughter and recognition from the audience, though – not only at this line, but throughout Jackson’s blazing 100-minute account of the squalor, desperation and occasional ecstasy of the office romance, 21st century style – his sharp and often shocking insights into Tom’s inner life, always delivered with a magic twist of comic energy and flair, are much nearer the mark than we might think, and much darker in their implications than they seem at first glance.
My Romantic History is essentially the story of what happens to male sexuality when it is set free in the modern city, adrift from the bonds of family and community, or from any serious sense of responsibility. Tom and Amy, his colleague from the fourth floor, get drunk in the pub after work, and fall into a relationship which Tom claims he cannot wait to get out of. At 33, she is two years older than Tom, and on the brink of a serious biological clock problem. By Tom’s own account, he sees her as needy, possessive and boring, and behaves as badly as he can, in an effort to shake her off; and the first half of the play passes in a riot of laddish laughter, and groans of female recognition.
In the second half, though, we hear Amy’s side of the tale; we see a much more needy side of Tom, and her sad sense of settling for something less than what she truly wanted. In the end, they seem to be about to try to work something out. What Jackson demonstrates, though, is how Tom’s culturally-approved self-image as a 21st century “lad” almost entirely blocks his progress from the life of a teenage idiot to the life of a grown man; and how, in the these times, our freedom means that we actually have to choose love and commitment, rather than simply being cornered into it, by the oldest biological trap in history.
If D.C. Jackson is frighteningly frank about the dark side of masculinity, then it’s fascinating to discover – in this year’s final Pitlochry production – that that apparently dusty icon of 20th century Scottish theatre, James Bridie, was experimenting with a similar bruising honesty more than 60 years ago. The hero of Bridie’s 1947 play Dr. Angelus is an eccentric and brilliant medical doctor, practising in Glasgow, who has just taken on a young and earnest English assistant, Dr. Johnson. And in the deepening conflict between them, Bridie shows two sides of the male psyche locked in struggle; the one decent, restrained, and governed by a strong set of moral convictions, the other increasingly deranged by the sheer force of his sexual and self-aggrandising impulses, and driven into a series of horrific midlife acts of misogynistic cruelty and murder.
Dr. Angelus is not a perfect play; in a strange and compulsively over-written final act, it revisits in long-drawn-out monologue and dialogue the whole unfolding of its own story, and its old-fashioned West-End-thriller style sometimes undermines the seriousness of the content. Yet Ken Alexander’s fine Pitlochry production – on a wonderful skewed-perspective set by Charles Cusick Smith – makes a strong case for the sheer intrinsic interest of the play; reflected in an outstanding performance from Sandy Batchelor as young Dr. Johnson, and a bravely demonic one from Alan Steele as the play’s murderous and charismatic anti-hero.
Wee Stories’s superb three-man touring show Arthur: The Story Of A King, first seen back in 2003, also deals with the question of what it means to be a man, and with definitions of heroism; but here, Andy Cannon and Iain Johnstone come on stage as two 21st century innocents abroad, with sixteen cornflake-packets to transform into essential props, and their mate Dave (Trouton) on keyboards to provide the music. With exasperation, and confusion, and then with growing sadness and wonder, the three men tell us the whole contested story of the reign of King Arthur – of his birth, his hidden childhood, the magic moment when he emerges to pull the sword from the stone; then of his efforts to create the Round Table as a model of peaceful, consensual government in dark times, of his apparent betrayal by Lancelot and Guinevere, and his tragic death at the hands of his own secret son, Mordred.
There’s no easy way of describing, to those who have not seen it, the special atmosphere of this multi-award-winning show: the way it conjures up one of the greatest stories ever told, while celebrating and enhancing the pure magic of theatre itself, as an arena of dreams, ideals and possibilities, as well as nightmares. What’s clear, though, is that it’s one of those rare shows that enhances the life of everyone who sees it, with its humanity and ingenuity, its beauty, joy and sorrow; and at Perth on Saturday night, the audience cheered the show to the echo, as they sent it on its way around Scotland.
My Romantic History at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 24 September, and on tour acrosws Scotland until 15 October. Dr. Angelus in repertoire at Pitlochry until 12 October. Arthur – The Story Of A King at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 22-24 September, and on tour until October 15.