JOYCE MCMILLAN on DEAR BRUTUS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, DREAM ON A MIDSUMMER NIGHT at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, and THE MONSTER IN THE HALL/YELLOW MOON at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 13.9.12
Dear Brutus 4 stars ****
Dream On A Midsummer Night 3 stars ***
The Monster In The Hall/ Yellow Moon 5 stars *****
THE FRENCH have a saying for it, as they so often do. If the young only knew, they say; and if the old only could. It’s a classic expression of regret about one of the great paradoxes of human life; and if there is one British playwright who was obsessed by regret – by might-have-beens, and by the dear, dead days beyond recall – it was James Matthew Barrie, the Kirriemuir weaver’s son who rose to become one of the most successful writers Britain has ever produced. Barrie was haunted all his days by the horror of the moment in his childhood when his adored older brother slipped while skating and died, leaving him with a life seemingly accursed by repeated tragic losses. And nowhere in his work is that sense of loss and regret more acute than in Dear Brutus, his strange variation on the idea of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was premiered in London in 1917, at the darkest moment of the First World War.
in formal terms, Dear Brutus is the three-act country-house play par excellence, set in a spacious room with French windows, and in the strange wood just beyond; and John Durnin’s good-looking and absorbing revival at Pitlochry features a truly gorgeous arts-and-crafts set by Adrian Rees, with some breathtaking costumes that might have come straight from a Klimt painting of the period. Against this backdrop, Barrie’s cast of after-dinner characters – the wasters, the philanderers, the childless, the faithless and the harmless – seize the promise of a second chance in life offered by their strange host, a goblin-like ancient called Lob, and wander out into the wood.
There, like Shakespeare’s lovers, they find themselves strangely transformed, or paired with a different partners, in a dream-like world they can scarcely recall once they step back indoors. And although Barrie’s style is precious, old-fashioned, and sometimes cloyingly sentimental, John Durnin’s fine eleven-strong cast succeed in focussing on the narrative, tightening its thread, and keeping the whole strange, poignant show on the road; until most of the characters conclude, with Shakespeare’s Cassius, that their fate is largely their own fault, and just one of them – Dougal Lee’s touching Mr. Dearth – seizes a vital last chance to change his life, for good.
If Barrie reimagined Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s Dream for his own purposes, Wee Stories’ new version of the play, adapted and directed by Iain Johnstone, has just one aim: to make the story crystal clear to young audiences, and less “boring” than most of them fear. Slimmed down to just 75 minutes – and presented by a cast of just four, struggling to cover some aspects of a story that really demands four lovers plus one other actor – this is an abbreviated and sometimes apologetic version of the play, designed on an unfortunate ageing-hippy theme by Natasha Jiggins, and invariably weakest when it attempts a jokey rewrite of the original, strongest when it focusses on the clear delivery of Shakespeare’s magnificent text.
There’s some attractive use of puppetry, though, to convey the fast-moving other-worldliness of the fairy characters, and to compensate for the small cast. And towards the end, the tight focus on shifting allegiances among the four lovers begins to pay dividends, thanks to an outstanding performance from Belle Jones as Helena and Titania, and some thoughtful multi-tasking from Samantha Blaney, Tommy Mullins and Andrew Rothney, in all the other roles.
If you want to see an outstanding example of the kind of conversation between young people and adults that can really help to change lives, though, then you could do no better than catch the current National Theatre of Scotland double-bill of David Greig plays for young people, before it heads off on a visit to China. In both plays, young people are caught in the dark forests of life, and desperately need to make the right decisions for their future; and in both, they finally succeed, although there’s a sense that it takes the benign force of Greig’s superb theatrical poetry – and his intense, loving attention to what young people are actually feeling and saying – to lift them through their respective crises.
In Yellow Moon – subtitled The Ballad Of Leila and Lee – the youngsters in question are two kids from Inverkeithing on the run to find Lee’s long-lost Dad in the Highlands, after Lee kills his mum’s boyfriend in a knife-fight; here, Greig chooses rhyming narrative verse to drive the story, full of energy and a vivid, sudden beauty. In The Monster In The Hall – written with help from young carers in Fife – Greig rolls out a dazzling series of theatrical devices, from sudden outbursts of bubblegum pop to re-enacted computer games, to tell the story of young Duck MacAtarsaney, facing a crisis in her efforts to care for her single Dad, who has multiple sclerosis.
And in both cases, Guy Hollands’s staging offers an object lesson in how live theatre can tell vital stories with an absolute minimum of physical fuss. There are just four actors here, and barely any props; yet it’s hard to imagine how an evening of theatre could say more about the lives of young people in our time, as the Citizens’ studio audience calls this superb company back again and again, thanking them not only for the stories, but for embodying the very spirit of live theatre, at its generous best.
Dear Brutus in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 10 October. Dream On A Midsummer’s Night at the Washhouse, Portobello, tonight, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 4-6 October, and on tour. The Monster In The Hall/Yellow Moon at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 22 September, and on tour until 17 November.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
No ifs or buts here; Gemma McElhinney’s superb performance as young carer Duck MacAtarsaney, in David Greig’s The Monster In The Hall, is a breathtaking piece of work, beautiful, poignant, inventive, funny, and radiant with the energy of a life which – despite all its problems – is still the life of a sweet 16-year-old, crammed with possibilities. And like all the best performances, this one is made possible by some magnificent ensemble work from the other actors in Guy Hollands’s company; a jewel shining in the best of settings, raw, challenging, and infinitely supportive.