JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROMEO AND JULIET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, ROPE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and PRIVATE LIVES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 5.7.12
Romeo And Juliet 4 stars ****
Rope 3 stars ***
Private Lives 4 stars ****
WHEN IT COMES TO DECODING THE HISTORY of the 20th century, there are plenty of theatrical strategies available, from outright nostalgic celebration, to the kind of deliberate collision with much older classics that is often deeply revealing; and the whole range of responses to the ferocious century just past is on view in Scottsh theatre this week.
So at the rain-soaked Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, the Bard In The Botanics season follows up its traditional-looking but fascinatingly Tempest with a short, youthful Romeo And Juliet, set by director Gordon Barr on a fierce collision-course with a street culture that seems rooted in the pork-pie-hat-and-braces mood of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Romeo And Juliet die to the sound of the Tori Amos version of the huge 1979 Boomtown Rats hit, I Don’t Like Mondays; and rock music with the same streetwise aesthetic punctuates the action, as the Friar’s cell is transformed into a burned-out car inhabited by a priest in a hoodie, and the street-fighting boys of Verona turn out in leather jackets, t-shirts and DM’s.
Presented under canvas in a memorably ugly wire-fence pen at the back of the Kibble Palace – or, much better, inside the Kibble in the event of heavy rain – this bold version of the play has a predictably hit-and-miss relationship with the original. The street-fighting is excellent, with a shocking feel of real danger, as the boys whip tiny, lethal knives out of their pockets; the role of the Friar, on the other hand, seems more or less incomprehensible, and – given a cast of four men and one woman – the Capulet family dynamics that make Juliet’s plight so shocking lose most of their force.
At the centre of the play, though, there’s a desperate teenage love story that really works, beautifully navigated by James Rottger as a bullet-headed Romeo, and a brilliant Stephanie McGregor as Juliet, a little vocally rushed, but full of wit and understanding, and therefore all the more poignant, as her story darkens into tragedy. And in Glasgow, of all cities, this is a tale that never seems out of date; of young lives ended too soon by the single stroke of a blade, and of all the spiralling nightmare of grief and revenge that follows.
At Pitlochry, by contrast, Patrick Hamilton’s fascinating 1929 thriller Rope is given a production so stiffly confined in its own period that it loses much of its resonance. Set in a first-floor drawing room in Mayfair during a single evening in that year, Rope tells the story of Brandon and Granillo, two repellent young Oxford men of twenty or so who have killed an innocent friend for the sheer of thrill of it, and brought his body back to Brandon’s flat, where they have stashed it in a chest in the drawing room. Brandon’s plan is to use the chest as a table for a macabre supper-party, involving two young jolly young friends, and the dead man’s innocent old father and aunt.
At Pitlochry, Richard Baron’s eight-strong cast plod their way through the story with as much energy as they can muster, under the circumstances; Charlie Tighe is not bad as the panic-stricken Granillo, and deals as best he can with the production’s half-hearted hints at a gay relationship between the two young men .
Given the play’s striking reflection on the right-wing politics of the time though – on ideas about the Nietzschean superman, and the redundancy of ordinary “bourgeois” morality – it seems a shame to have it presented in a such a banal, nostalgic style, on a heavy period set with just a touch of Oscar-Wilde decadence. Even the smallest sense of political context – in the set, in the soundscape, or the odd visual image – might have lifted the whole production, and given the cast a greater sense of purpose around which to build their performances. As it stands, though, the show is one of those period pieces that ends up being about very little except costumes, accents and decor, and how well the various actors can model a cigarette-holder.
And then there is a third way of reflecting on the 20th century; which is to take one of its dramatic masterpieces, whip it out of time altogether, and play it for dear life, as if it had been written yesterday. This is the technique preferred by Jennifer Hainey and Susan Worsfold, the adaptor and director behnd this week’s lunchtime Classic Cut at Oran Mor; and their 55-minute version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives is a real triumph, a fine, thoughtful and penetrating production of one of the most familiar plays in the canon.
The essence of the show’s success lies in its grasp of the fact that if wealthy good-time people like Coward’s Elyot and Amanda once seemed to have faded into history, or at least to have become less central to the story of our society, they have made a serious comeback in recent years. There’s something about their restless travelling, their boredom, their affluence, and their easy citizenship of the world, that powerfully recalls the great credit-card years of the boom that ended in 2008; something about their preoccupation with pleasure, and with death as the inevitable end of pleasure, that seems overwhelmingly familiar. Richard Conlon makes a fine Elyot, and Selina Boyack is an absolutely stunning Amanda, clever, elegant, alluring, infuriating and funny. And both are brilliantly supported by James Mackenzie as Amanda’s stuffy second spouse Victor, and Jennifer Hainey herself as Sibyl, Victor’s female counterpart, and – in the end – his increasingly passionate sparring-partner.
Romeo And Juliet at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 20 July, and on tour to communities around Glasgow. Rope in repertoire at Pitlochry until 12 October. Private Lives at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, 7 July.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
Selina Boyack has been one of the most elegant and intelligent actresses on the Scottish stage for more than a decade; but ths week, she finds a whole new level of comic brillance, in a superb performance as the beautful, mercurial and enraging Amanda, in Oran Mor’s short lunchtime version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s “jagged with sophistication”; and she also looks breathtakingly glamorous, in one of the outstanding performances of the season.