JOYCE MCMILLAN on UNDER THE MULBERRY TREE at the Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 7.4.14.
3 stars ***
THE BEAUTIFUL NEW studio at the Festival Theatre is an immensely flexible space, ideal for dance, puppet theatre, and every kind of experimentation. This week, though – until Saturday – it plays host to a thoroughly conventional middle-class drama, presented by brilliant young London-based director Hannah Eidinow, and the play’s author, Timothy Jones.
Set in the 1950’s, Under The Mulberry Tree begins like a Noel Coward play, as middle-aged idler Monsieur Guillaume, at his shabby small hotel in the south of France, receives an unexpected visit from his smart Parisian sister Gilberte; things take a more emotional turn, however, when Gilberte confesses that she is pregnant, following a rash affair with a younger man undertaken in revenge for her husband’s serial infidelities. It’s not until later, though, that the play’s tragic heroine Connie appears, a desperate 40-year-old childless Englishwoman travelling in France with her cruelly undemonstrative husband; and we begin to understand how Guillaume’s handsome young companion Julian preys not only on Guillaume, but on lonely older women.
Somewhere inside Timothy Jones’s two-hour play, there lurks a potentially radical – almost Ibsenesque – critique of middle-class hypocrisy around women’s sexuality. Connie is damned to misery and barrenness because of an early extramarital affair; Julian has been sexually abused by his own mother. The style of the play, though, is so relentlessly conventional and picturesque – and so beautifully lit by Simon Wilkinson – that the effect is somehow more soothing than challenging; the medium is the message, in the end, and the old-fashioned approach chosen by this play robs the message of at least some of its force.