JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CONE GATHERERS at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, SHE TOWN at Dundee Rep, and CHALK FARM at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 20.9.12
The Cone Gatherers 3 stars ***
She Town 4 stars ****
Chalk Farm 4 stars ****
POLITICAL THEATRE: it’s often said to be dead, or out of fashion. Yet every show worth the name has dimensions that reach out beyond the individual story, towards the big currents of change that shape whole societies; and this week, Scotland’s autumn theatre season moves up a gear, with three major shows all set in the borderlands between the personal and the political, and all committed to very different ways of exploring that territory.
For the great Scottish novelist Robin Jenkins – whose 1955 masterpiece The Cone Gatherers has now been adapted for the stage in a new touring version by Peter Arnott, directed by Kenny Ireland for Aberdeen Performing Arts – the politics of the war-torn 1940’s come from deep within the characters, and from their broken hearts and minds. The time is 1941, and the place is a Highland estate where the lady of the house has taken charge, while her husband “does his bit” in the British army. The lady leaves many decisions to her head gamekeeper, the taciturn Mr. Duror; but when two gypsy brothers arrive on the estate as casual labourers for the annual cone-gathering, Duror’s mounting hostility to the younger brother, a boy with learning difficulties, triggers a devastating crisis.
What Jenkins has constructed is a magnificent story about the impulse of fascism in the human mind; the cruel, bitter need to objectify , distance and destroy the thing we most fear, whether it is weakness, poverty, cultural otherness, or some physical imperfection. Yet although the whole of this great story is present in the Aberdeen production – and back-projections of Hitler rallies and death-camps make the political context clear – there’s something about the show that seems theatrically lifeless, and oddly distant. Kenny Ireland’s production rejects simple naturalism, but never seems to find a consistent alternative, choral, poetic, or immersive; instead, it often seems awkwardly caught between conventional drawing-room drama, and 80’s-style ensemble narrative, with even a passing nod to the current interest in puppetry.
There’s a memorably atmospheric forest set though, designed by Hayden Griffin, with shimmering projections by Greig Dempster. And the cast – led by Jennifer Black and Tom McGovern, with John Kielty and Ben Winger as the brothers – give a series of thoughtful and intense performances, in a show that strives to do full justice to a great novel, even if it never quite transforms itself into great theatre.
There are also questions of style in Sharman Macdonald’s She Town, the second play in Dundee Rep’s double-bill about 20th century working-class life in the city. Here, though, the play itself absolutely forbids naturalism, as Macdonald lines up a cast of 40 women, and starts to intertwine such a fragmented series of jostling plot-lines that only recurring soliloquies from the characters – stark, stylised, and often downright poetic – can possibly keep us abreast of what’s happening.
The play is set in the “backies” or tenement back courts of Dundee in the mid-1930’s; the title reflects the experience of a town where women, as textile mill workers, were more likely to be employed than their menfolk. Yet the main storylines reflect a familiar story of wage cuts and unsuccessful strike action on one hand; and on the other, a glimpse of a richer cultural and political world, as the women audition for a choir to accompany the great singer Paul Robeson, in a concert at the Caird Hall.
In the end, Jemima Levick’s bold production – featuring nine ensemble actors, plus a community cast of three dozen, a looming, stylised back-court set, and some finely-choreographed movement in the manner of a 1920’s expressionist film – doesn’t quite succeed in making a fluent evening of this hugely complex play. Compared with its companion piece The Mill Lavvies, though, it’s a brave and original piece of theatre; and one that recalls Giles Havergal’s great 1982 production of Men Should Weep, in its determination to avoid a nostalgic or sentimental view of tenement life, and to offer something more challenging, and more truthful.
Neither of these big mainstage shows, though, packs as fierce and well-targeted a political punch as this week’s Play, Pie and Pint show Chalk Farm, a new piece by Kieran Hurley, the latest rising star of Scottish playwriting, and his partner and fellow-writer AJ Taudevin. Set during last year’s London riots and their aftermath, Chalk Farm is set mainly in the tower-block flat of Maggie, a single mum brilliantly played by Taudevin herself. With tears in her eyes, she is making a packed lunch for her 14-year-old son Jamie; through flashbacks, we learn why this is no ordinary day, and how a society searching for scapegoats has destroyed the life of a woman who has worked desperately hard to keep things together for herself and her boy.
The premise is simple; but the writing is brilliant, sharp, poetic, passionate, full of searing insight into the politics of blame, matched with a brilliant eye for the detail of life in divided Britain today. And if Taudevin, as Maggie, gives a performance impossible to forget, she is matched all the way by Sean Brown as her vulnerable son, and by Andrew Cowan’s superb sound design; in a magnificent little play driven by the best politics, the politics of love for ordinary hard-working people, and contempt for those who sweep their hopes and dreams aside, like so much rubbish on a post-riot street.
The Cone Gatherers at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, until Saturday, at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-27 October, and on tour to Glasgow, Inverness, Dundee and Perth. She Town at Dundee Rep until 29 September. Chalk Farm at Oran Mor until Saturday.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
As both writer and performer, Julia Taudevin is fast emerging as one of the most exciting forces in Scottish theatre; and she is magnificent in this week’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show at Oran Mor, which she has also co-written. In a play barely 45 minutes long, she creates an unforgettable character in Maggie, the single mum who works long hours in a call centre to keep a life together for her teenage son, but who is left to feel, in the aftermath of last year’s London riots, that the fault is somehow hers. It’s heartbreaking stuff; but also brilliant, beautifully written, and true.