JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE UNCUT for Scotsman Festival magazine, 13.8.14.
IT BEGAN in the autumn of 2010, at a time of widespread anger over proposed government spending cuts; the Occupy movement was at its height, when young directors Emma Callander and Hannah Price unleashed their first series of short 15-minute plays, written by a thrilling mix of new and well-known playwrights from across the world, and made available to everyone for free performance anywhere, for a week every November. And almost four years on, Theatre Uncut is still there, although the political movement that inspired it has largely faded from the scene; and every Monday morning at the Traverse, throughout this Fringe, Callander and Price are staging performances of at least five short plays, read script-in-hand by impressive teams of actors who happen to be in Edinburgh for the Fringe.
The content of the plays, though, often shows the intense pressure involved in trying to write plays with a political edge, in an age when politics itself seems to have move beyond parody. This first Theatre Uncut session of this year, staged last week, reflected the company’s new Flagship Plays project, on the theme Knowledge Is Power, Knowledge Is Change. The second, this week, dealt with Scotland’s independence referendum; and the third, next week, is the result of a joint project with four leading playwright from Turkey, following the massive Gezi Park protests of 2013. The Knowledge Is Power plays circle tentatively but with huge imagination around a range of key issues in current UK politics, from the recent series of historic sex abuse trials, to the threat of “domestic” terrorism, the growing grotesquery of “reality” television, and the belief-systems of the present British government.
So Vivienne Franzmann’s The Most Horrific is an unsettling counterpoint between pub chat about a celebrity sex abuse chase, and some of the other”most horrific” things happening in a world riven by conflict. Hayley Squires’s Ira Provitt And The Man evokes the inner life of a Gove-style Conservative minister, as he confronts his own long-lost conscience over breakfast. Inua Ellams’s This Is Us brings a cast of contemporary South London characters – the unemployed son, the Dad, the social worker, the eccentric bedroom-tax lodger – together in a room where a home-made bomb ticks, about to explode. Clara Brennan’s Pachamama and Anders Lustgaten’s Finger Of God become increasingly unsettling and surreal, as an ordinary mother acquires shape-changing powers in London restaurant, and a television producer pitches the ultimate reality-cum-lottery show, complete with ever-escalating live on-screen punishment of those unlucky enough not to win.
The Scottish referendum plays, by contrast, are partly recycled from last year, suggesting that the Theatre Uncut form is not immune to the sheer difficulty of writing coherent plays about an event to imminent, so huge, and so unresolved. There’s no harm in a second glimpse of plays like A J Taudevin’s The 12.57 – about an imagined completely meaningless border post on the railway-line at Berwick – and Rob Drummond’s gorgeous Party Pieces, in which a traditional Scottish family falls apart and hangs together during the ritual performance of party pieces at a New Year get-together.
It’s striking, though, how much more energy there is in three very short contemporary monologues produced this year by Davey Anderson and Kieran Hurley. Anderson’s twin pieces – Don’t Know Don’t Care and Fear And Self-Loathing In West Lothian, brilliantly performed by Ross Allan and Keith Fleming – represents a “yes” supporter’s angry and incredulous repetition of some of the “no” arguments to be heard in parts of working-class Scotland, reflecting the levels of self-hatred, self-doubt, and sheer contempt for democracy that Anderson sees underpinning those attitudes.
And Kieran Hurley’s monolofgue Close, performed with terrific passion by Iain Robertson, reaches deep into the heart of what is happening in Scotland now; as we face the inevitability of a nation deeply divided by the referendum result, whichever way it goes, and wonder whether Scotland can rise to the challenge of healing those wounds. The speaker wakes up on the morning of 19 September, delays for as long as he – or she – can before switching on the television, recognises the reality of defeat, and confronts the next big question – what now? The texture of the writing is deep and rich throughout, as Hurley’s character moves through the landscape of Edinburgh on its night of decision. And whatever emerges from next week’s potentially thrilling series of plays from Turkey, it’s hard to imagine that any of the writers will be more completely engaged with the fate of their country than Kieran Hurley is with Scotland, in this pivotal piece of writing for referendum day.
Theatre Uncut: Turkey is at the Traverse Theatre at 11 am on 18 August. Texts of all Theatre Uncut plays are available on http://www.theatreuncut.com.