JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ARTIST MAN AND THE MOTHER WOMAN at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, IRON at the Heart Of Hawick, Hawick, and GLASGOW GIRLS at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 8.11.12
The Artist Man And The Mother Woman 4 stars ****
Iron 4 stars ****
Glasgow Girls 4 stars ****
MOTHERHOOD AND APPLE PIE; it’s the phrase we use to remind ourselves of the received wisdom about motherhood – that the mother-child bond is sacred, and that all mothers are kind and nurturing. Yet as Scotland’s rare autumn season of female-dominated theatre reaches its climax, here are two terrific plays sent to remind us that in the real world, things are much more complex.
Morna Pearson’s The Artist Man And The Mother Woman is Orla O’Loughlin’s first main-stage production as artistic director of the Traverse; and if its theatrical power, cultural boldness, and dark, skewed poetry are harbingers of things to come, then we can expect exciting times at Scotland’s new-play theatre. In this play, the apple pie of motherhood has decayed into something more like a rancid Forfar bridie, as timid thirtysomething art teacher Geoffrey Buncher and his all-consuming mother Edie argue and bicker over their increasingly fraught domestic arrangements, in a small town somewhere in north-east Scotland.
Edie, played with show-stopping power by Anne Lacey, is a strange monster of late-middle-aged sensuality and weird self-satisfaction, outwardly calm, yet demonic when thwarted; Geoffrey – an equally brilliant Garry Collins – is an innocent abroad, unacquainted with his own passions until the fateful day when he meets a pretty former pupil at the help desk in the local Sainsburys.
What’s most striking about this first full-length play by Pearson, though, is its stunning post-post-modern mix of grotesque comedy, heightened naturalism, lurid neo-Doric language, and sheer horror. It is one of the funniest plays the Traverse has staged in years, full of razor-sharp observation about a small-town world dominated by low-level domestic affluence, crime-obsessed junk media, and the battle for our allegiance between giant supermarket chains; the moment when Geoffrey returns from Lidl with a random shopping that features a pair of pink ear-muffs and a packet of bratwurst is a 21st century comic gem.
Yet Pearson finally turns the tables on us with a savage reminder that what we are laughing at here is the stunting and destruction of human lives, in ways that can provoke a terrifying reaction; and the negotiation of this bold journey between comedy and nightmare has its rocky moments. In the end, though, O’Loughlin’s production is a triumph of brave, high-risk writing, magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestic design. And as we’re played out of the theatre to the strains of the late Michael Marra’s Hairmless, we have the feeling of having witnessed a vital staging-post in Scotland’s long journey towards greater self-knowledge, and a less sentimental view of its own inner life.
Rona Munro’s acclaimed play Iron was first seen at the Traverse a decade ago; but here, too, the image of the mother as nurturer and saint is taken apart piece by piece, in a mighty two-hour dialogue between Fay, imprisoned for life for killing her husband in a domestic row, and her daughter Josie, now in her early twenties, who returns to visit her in prison after 15 years of silence. Meanwhile, in the background, two prison officers, George and Sheila, patrol and reflect, bouncing back some of society’s confused and disturbing attitudes to lifers like Fay.
At the heart of the play, though, is the figure of Fay herself, a passionate woman who is paying a terrible price for her crime. In this new touring production by young Borders-based company Firebrand – due at the Traverse next week – Fay is played by Blythe Duff with an intensity and depth that is simply heart-stopping. And director Richard Baron excels himself, in an austere but good-looking production that features fine music, light and sound; and immaculate supporting performances from both Irene Allan as the daughter who resembles her mother a little too much; and from Crawford Logan and Claire Dargo as the officers, as flawed and human as the woman they guard.
And meanwhile in Glasgow, seven mighty young women – mothers, if you like, of the city’s emerging future – are celebrated in the explosive energy and political passion of the National Theatre Of Scotland/ Citizens’ Theatre’s new musical Glasgow Girls, already reviewed in the Scotsman last weekend. Co-produced with a whole range of partners, the show is an exuberant piece of popular theatre, direct, unsubtle, and sometimes sentimental in its retelling of the story of seven Drumchapel schoolgirls who, half a decade ago, launched a now-legendary campaign against the brutal UK immigration regime that was dragging their asylum-seeker schoolmates from their homes in dawn raids, and taking them away to imprisonment and worse.
In its more self-indulgent moments, Glasgow Girls plays up shamelessly to some of Glasgow’s favourite dreams about itself; battling grannies sing hymns to the city’s tradition of radical resistance, and teenage asylum-seekers fall in love with its rugged beauty, as glimpsed from the balcony of a high-rise flat. Yet David Greig’s script – and the score, by a team of five songwriters – also involves some moments of sharp political drama, comedy and excitement, as the girls travel to Edinburgh to lobby first minister Jack McConnell. Natasha Gilmore’s choreography takes the stuff of the story, and turns it into thrilling bursts of dance and movement. And at the core of the show stand the six radiant young actors who have taken on the roles of the Glasgow Girls; each one full of the same youthful passion for the fight against injustice that inspired the girls in first place, and is now flowing out over the footlights every night, into the hearts of new generation of Glasgow theatregoers.
The Artist Man And The Mother Woman at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and Glasgow Girls at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, both until 17 November. Iron at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 14-17 November.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
In what has perhaps been the strongest week of the year for Scottish theatre, there’s finally no getting past Blythe Duff’s astonishing performance in Iron, as a mother who has killed her man in a terrible fit of passion, and who finds herself confronted in prison, 15 years on, by the daughter thought she had lost for ever. The play is a tough one; but Duff was a mighty stage actress before she ever appeared in Taggart, and this is a world-class performance, as deep, complex and heart-rending as life itself.