Secrets, Poke, Wuthering Heights

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SECRETS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and WUTHERING HEIGHTS and POKE at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 25.4.13.
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Secrets 4 stars ****
Poke 2 stars **
Wuthering Heights 4 stars ****

NOT MANY PEOPLE know this, least of all in Scotland itself; but nonetheless, there are probably now few countries on earth where the quest for the new, in the next generation of theatre, is pursued more intensely or in a wider range of ways than here in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and beyond. The Traverse, the Tron, the Play, Pie and Pint seasons at Oran Mor, and the Arches all have a remit to explore new territories; and we also have a National Theatre which regards new work as key part of its remit.

So it’s not surprising, at Oran Mor on a Monday lunchtime, to find the National Theatre of Scotland going into partnership with David MacLennan’s Play, Pie and Pint season – and with the Bedlam in Edinburgh and the Regal, Bathgate, which will host performances over the coming weeks – to present three new plays from China, each recast in English by a leading Scottish writer, and designed to offer an insight into the tensions surrounding life in China today. The first play – written by Beijing-based writer Lin Weiran, with an English version by Rona Munro – is Secrets, a brief two-handed drama in which a young married woman in a modern Chinese city, comfortably established with a wealthy doctor husband and a baby son, receives a devastatingly disruptive visit from her previous lover, who abandoned her 18 months before.

Over fifty painful and compelling minutes – full of stricken defensiveness on her part, and a kind of desperate emotional opportunism on his – the two explore what happened to their love, reaffirm their continuing passion for each other, and then face the reality of his shocking inability to commit to her. The play sometimes seems a shade rambling and repetitive, as if the most subtle nuances of the evolving conversation were not quite making it into English; there’s a strange, distracting decision to set the show around two obtrusive piles of dusty bricks.

Yet in Graeme Maley’s production, Secrets offers a brilliant central performance from Helen Mallon as the woman, well supported by Mark Wood as her former boyfriend. And the play emerges as a timeless story about love destroyed by the gulf between rich and poor, given an extra edge both by a modern feminist perspective on male cowardice and game-playing, and by an acute sense of China’s booming consumer culture; with all the pressure it creates – for both men and women – to find a partner who can keep them, in the manner China’s new urban culture increasingly demands.

Over at the Arches, meanwhile, this year’s winners of the Platform 18 Award for the development of new performance – co-sponsored by the Arches and the Traverse Theatre – are in playful mood, throwing around ideas about gender with impressive force, and variable results. Amanda Monfrooe’s Poke, which opens the evening, is a strange, obsessive epic poem – part mythological, part satirical – in which the last two women on earth, following a final holocaust of misogynistic violence, meditate upon the penis, and its role in making men behave not only badly, but with catastrophic destructive madness.

The writing ranges from the intensely erotic and the feebly jocular to the atrociously pretentious, sometimes – disturbingly – achieving all three at once; the women, often transformed into goddesses in panto head-dresses, argue violently over how to bring up their imaginary daughter, and are eventually condemned as no better than the men against whom they rail. The whole piece seems uneasily poised between undergraduate sarcasm, raging feminist fury, and a mature, howling grief at the likely fate of the species; often, it’s more like an embarrassing illustrated narrative with weak jokes, than any kind of drama. But its intensity is not to be denied; and it’s performed in truly gallant style by Claire Willoughby and Lesley Asare, who deserve a round of applause for dealing gracefully with the difficult, and – here and there – ploughing on through the downright impossible.

Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, by contrast, is a strikingly graceful and well-shaped show, despite elements that demand an audience with a certain tolerance for the daft. Performed by a group of five fine young male theatre-makers in their twenties, Wuthering Heights is a powerful 50 minute reflection on themes suggested by Emily Bronte’s great novel , and notably on the character of Heathcliff, the damaged, violent romantic hero at the centre of the story.

It’s possible to quibble with some elements of McMaster’s work. The group dance-in to the sound and movement of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is too jokey to sit easily with the rest of the material, which shows a real respect for the brooding darkness of Bronte’s vision; the imagined presence of the horses, neighing and galloping around the place in some scenes, is a high-risk strategy.

Yet time and again, in McMaster’s piece, the sheer quality and focus of the ensemble performance sweeps away any reservations about the show’s content, and vindicates McMaster’s decisions. The acting, the writing and the choreography of the piece are all beautifully prepared and crafted; and the show’s quiet conclusion – a series of meditations on modern male lives, followed by a tiny, vivid final glimpse of Heathcliff and Cathy playing as children – is truly moving, as one of Scotland’s most interesting young theatre-makers moves forward, into new ground.

Secrets at Oran Mor until Saturday, at the Regal, Bathgate on Sunday (28 April), and at the Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 April- 4 May. Poke and Wuthering Heights at the Arches, Glasgow until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 1-3 May.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

Until a couple of weeks ago, Helen Mallon was delighting audiences at the Citizens’ and the Royal Lyceum with her beautiful performance as the battered Francine, in Takin’ Over The Asylum; and now she’s back again, as the woman in Lin Weiran’s Secrets, the first in a series of new plays from China at Oran Mor, the Regal Bathgate, and the Bedlam, Edinburgh. Like an Ibsen’s Nora for modern China, the woman she plays is trapped in a comfortable marriage, with a beloved child. Unlike Nora, though, she is broken by the fact that the man she loves does not love her enough to fight for their future; her grief is terrible, and her journey towards it makes for compelling theatre, from what’s fast becoming the most important country on earth.

ENDS ENDS

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