The Straw Chair

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE STRAW CHAIR at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, for The Scotsman 6.4.15. _____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

IN THE ONE TOUCH THEATRE at Eden Court, there’s a packed audience for Hirtle Productions and Borderline’s touring revival of Sue Glover’s 1988 play The Straw Chair, set almost three centuries ago on Hirta, the main island of St. Kilda.  All over the world – and not least in the Highlands – people are fascinated by this wild Atlantic outcrop, and by the people who, until 1930, found a living there.  And no story in its history is stranger than the tale of Rachel, Lady Grange, held prisoner on St. Kilda after her husband of 25 years – a powerful Edinburgh establishment figure – grew tired of her jealous rages, and frightened of her sharp intelligence when applied to his secret political dealings, and had her forcibly removed from children, home, and – he hoped – from life itself.

Yet Rachel survived, and was transferred to St. Kilda, where she drank, complained, noisily asserted her high rank, and tried to smuggle out letters; and it’s this not entirely unsociable exile that forms the backdrop to Glover’s conventionally-structured but richly enjoyable play, in which the catalyst for the drama is the arrival from Edinburgh of a young minister, Aeneas Seaton, and his 17-year-old newlywed wife Isabel.

As young Isabel gets to know Lady Grange – with her high drawing-room manners, filthy clothes, and precious straw chair, the only one on the island – she learns a thing or two, not least about sex; meanwhile, in the background, Rachel’s gentle St. Kildan minder Oona sews and cooks, and gradually persuades  Aeneas that the islanders understand far more about Christianity than he has ever done.

There’s something here about the classic split in the Scottish psyche between intense religious respectability and something much wilder; also something about lusty married sex, as a largely unexplored area of life and theatre; and beyond that, a political story about powerless people caught up in the corrupt machinations of state power.  In Liz Carruthers’s gentle, sensitive, and carefully-paced production, punctuated by the the soaring psalms and soft dance music of the islands, Selina Boyack turns in a stunning performance as Rachel, on the brink of madness, but still funnier and more truthful than anyone else on stage; and she is beautifully supported by Pamela Reid as young Isabel, Cait Kearney as Oona, and Martin McBride as Aeneas, in a play that demands attention for bringing so many unheard and marginalised  voices – Gaelic, St. Kildan, and intensely female – to the very centre of the stage

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-25 April, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 2 May, and on tour.

ENDS ENDS

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