JOYCE MCMILLAN on PROMISES, PROMISES at Menzieshill Community Centre, Dundee, for The Scotsman 24.10.13.
4 stars ****
SCIENTIFIC RATIONALISM, secular values, freedom from superstition and unreason. West European nations often present themselves as the guardians of these values, in a world riven by religious fundamentalism; but in truth, those ideas are a couple of centuries old at best, and held little sway in much of our own society, well within living memory.
Miss Margaret Brodie, the sole character in Douglas Maxwell’s stunning two-hour monologue, is a woman of 60 whose life has spanned that entire cycle, from a childhood dominated by a drunken and abusive but outwardly pious Catholic father, through a middle life in which – as a schoolteacher in London – she seemed to have made some kind of escape into sexual freedom, and a more rational world. At the end of her career, though, she sees those enlightened values begin to fail, as her politically-correct headteacher invites a “community leader” into the school to exorcise a little mute Somali girl said to be possessed by demons; and the terrible rage this incident arouses in Miss Brodie, along with her strange sense of affinity with the silent child, provokes a shocking and devastating crisis.
It’s rare indeed to see a play that tangles so directly with the grimmest forces unleashed by our attempts to live in a multi-cultural society, while we still carry so much damage inflicted by our own cultures. And in Philip Howard’s superbly simple Dundee Rep production – now on tour to community centres around the city – Maxwell’s supremely challenging text finds an actress equal to its demands in the wonderful Ann Louise Ross, who gives a performance full of the sexiness, the rebellion, the pride and rage of the woman at the heart of this story; a woman who believed that some progress had been made in her lifetime, and who cannot bear to see the demons that dogged her childhood returning again, to damage another generation.