JOYCE McMILLAN on THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at the Theatre Roysl, Glasgow, and THE STEAMIE at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 29.3.12
The Marriage Of Figaro 4 stars ****
Long Day’s Journey Into Night 4 stars ****
The Steamie 4 stars ****
THE QUESTION of how to handle a classic text is always a vexed one in theatre. Some audiences demand reverence, respect, and grand period costumes; others can’t be bothered with dusty classics at all, unless they’re rewritten for modern times. Yet this week’s range of theatre in Scotland suggests that in the end, the sheer quality and energy of the production itself always trumps any prior presumptions about what makes a good classic revival.
Whatever problems there may be with D.C. Jackson’s new theatre version of The Marriage Of Figaro, for example, they certainly don’t arise from the basic idea behind the adaptation, which sets the plot of Beaumarchais’s late-18th-century comedy – and Mozart’s opera – in the office of a Fred-Goodwin-style Scottish captain of finance, known to his minions as Sir Randolph. Sir Randy – played with terrific shameless aplomb by Stuart Bowman – is a charismatic monster of pride, greed, and general concupiscence; but he is still in danger of being outwitted by his smart upwardly-mobile protege Figaro, who – with his comely fiancee Suzanne – has launched an apparently successful business of his own, and is now about to merge it with Sir Randolph’s outfit, in return for a small fortune.
Jackson’s modern account of the story fairly fizzes with topical relevance, not least because Sir Randolph is constantly taking calls from the First Minister, who regards him as his chief economic adviser. The one-liners are often sharp, and the show offers the occasional startling coup-de-theatre, when Mark Prendergast’s multi-talented Figaro soars off into song, delivering decent accounts of some of Figaro’s best-loved arias.
If the show’s rebellion against the dishonesty and arrogance of Scotland’s banking elite perfectly fits the mood of Beaumarchais’s play, though, Jackson’s sexual politics sometimes seem crude, desperate and confused by comparison, in ways that leave the farcical elements of Mark Thomson’s production looking both over-long and, towards the end, slightly shapeless. In Sir Randolph’s final hymn of love to his neglected wife, Jackson strives for a little of Mozart’s beauty and subtlety in portraying human relationships; and if he had dared to do that more often, he might have written a great play for our times, rather than one that greatly entertains, but also sometimes disappoints.
In Glasgow, meanwhile, Nica Burns and partners present a touring version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night that plays Eugene O’Neill’s mighty 1956 classic straight as a die, but nonetheless achieves a rare and sustained dramatic intensity. Written around 1940, the play is set almost three decades earlier, in the seaside summer house rented by O’Neill’s family when the playwright was in his twenties; and it follows the events of a single terrible day in the life of the family he calls the Tyrones, when younger son Edmund is given a diagnosis of consumption, mother Mary reverts to her hopeless heroin addiction, and elder son Jamie and his actor father James begin a final descent into whisky-fuelled despair.
The central argument of the drama is that despite the love that clearly exists among these four, they have all been damaged too much by life – by poverty, disappointment, or missed vocations – to avoid doing each other harm, and exploding into violent mutual rage; and O’Neill’s great and courageous decision is to show us this moment of dawning disaster almost in real time, with an attention to detail that demonstrates conclusively how the world in which we have to survive shapes and sometimes destroys our private lives. Lez Brotherston’s domestic set, lit by Mark Henderson, is a thing of quiet beauty, gleaming in a dingy, mist-threatened summer light. And Anthony Page’s immaculate production features a dazzling quartet of performances from Kyle Soller and Trevor White as the brothers, from a subtle and impressive David Suchet as James Tyrone, and – above all – from Laurie Metcalf as Mary, a woman finally in denial of almost everything, as the pain of life becomes too much to bear.
Tony Roper’s modern Scottish classic The Steamie, meanwhile, celebrates its 25th anniversary with a rumbustious touring revival, directed by the playwright himself, that obeys all the rules of this famous wash-house drama, but still delivers the script, and a selection of David Andrson’s great original songs, as if its wonderful pattern of humour, pathos, and laugh-out-loud comic set-pieces were still brand new.
Set in a public laundry in the Gorbals on Hogmanay 1950, Roper’s play is a hymn of praise to a communal way of living that was about to change for ever, as postwar affluence began to rise, people moved out of the tenement slums to new council estates, and the time approached when every home would have its own washing machine and television. Roper’s production is superbly well served by his cast, led by a flawlessly vigorous Anita Vettesse as middle-aged mum Margaret, and Jane McCarry as the slightly more elderly Dolly, who gives a heart-breaking account of one of Anderson’s finest blues numbers, Don’t Let The Young Folk See You Cry.
And in a moment almost unique in postwar Scottish theatre, the audience have come to know and love some surreal details of Roper’s script so well – notably the famous Galloway’s Mince sequence – that they actually begin to laugh as soon as they sense them in the offing. That’s popular theatre, all right; and an achievement to be treasured, as this fine postwar classic sets off around the country, not much changed, and still as powerful as ever.
The Marriage Of Figaro at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 14 April. Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until Saturday. The Steamie on tour until 19 May, with dates in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling, Perth, and across Scotland.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
The chance to see her in Glasgow is brief; but it’s worth a journey, this weekend, to catch fine American actress Laurie Metcalf, playing the morphine-addicted mother Mary Tyrone in Anthony Page’s beautiful and compelling touring production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Best known for her role as zany sister Jackie in the television comedy Roseanne, Metcalf is a stage actress of tremendous distinction, who brings rare qualities of beauty, grace, and perfect focus to this great play; and she receives powerful support from David Suchet, as her charismatic husband, James Tyrone.