John Michie

The Winter’s Tale

14/02/17

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The Winter’s Tale is famously a play of two halves, and Max Webster’s production for the Lyceum exaggerates and develops this juxtaposition in every possible way – and the result is thrilling.

This is an modern-day version of the play: ‘Sicilia’ is now Edinburgh; ‘Bohemia’ is Fife. Although Leontes (John Michie) and Polixenes (Andy Clark) are still ostensibly ‘kings’, they are presented more as middle-class business men, rich and successful, with teams of staff assisting them. The set design helps to cement the contrasts between them: Leontes’ apartment, slightly raised and framed in black, looks exactly like the glass boxes lining Edinburgh’s Quartermile; a walled-off sound-booth reinforces this image. It’s an inspired idea: those apartments look like stage-sets anyway, their fourth walls removed to allow us to peep in. And they are sterile and hard, seemingly perfect but ultimately lacking – just like Leontes’ relationship with Hermione (Frances Grey). The pastoral scenes, on the other hand, are deliberately hokey. The fake grass is rolled out before us: there is no attempt at realism here. The props are more panto than serious Shakespeare, all bright-bunting and shopping trolleys and rickety wooden stuff. The costumes  all look hand-made, in a local am-dram kind of way. It’s hard to imagine we’re watching the same play. Polixenes  is a big fish here, but he’s in a very different kind of pond.

The contrasts are further underlined by both dialogue and acting style. While acts one, two, three and five retain Shakespeare’s original language, act four has been recast in Scots, an audacious undertaking performed with evident delight by writer James Robertson. The performances are mismatched too: whereas the Sicilian scenes are very serious and actorly, the Bohemian scenes are played for laughs, with comedic exaggeration and audience interaction; it’s beautifully done.

If I’ve a criticism of this play – and I haven’t much – it’s that the fayre goes on too long, without adding much to the plot. It is a lovely interlude, and the scene-setting is vital, but it starts to drag after a while: we want to know what happens next.

The performances here are universally strong, but Maureen Beattie’s Paulina is a definite stand-out; she imbues the character with warmth, vitality and strength. The musicians, led by composer Alasdair Macrae, deserve a mention too: their on-stage accompaniment is integral to the story-telling, and their presence adds a strange unearthliness that really elevates the play.

Do get yourself along to the Lyceum to see this: it’s really rather wonderful.

4.9 stars

Susan Singfield

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Grain in the Blood

03/11/16

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Grain in the Blood is the second play by Rob Drummond we’ve seen this week, but it’s so different from the rambunctious, slapstick humour of The Broons that it’s hard to believe it’s from the same pen. This is a clearly a playwright who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, who likes to experiment with a wide range of forms and genres. And this is all to the good, because Grain in the Blood feels like a real one-off, a spare, stark, unnerving chiller that is at once contemporary and classical. Its remote farmland setting is precise and detailed – and yet it could be anywhere. The dialogue is taut and ultra-modern in style, all fragments and silences and unfinished thoughts – but it could be any time. This is a complex, angular, unwieldy play – and it’s fascinating to see the plot unfurl.

Sophia (Blythe Duff) is a retired vet. Her son, Isaac (Andrew Rothney), has been in prison for years, ever since he murdered his wife, Summer. Sophia lives on the family farm, with her sickly granddaughter, Autumn (Sarah Miele), and Summer’s sister, Violet (Frances Thorburn). Autumn is dying; she needs a kidney transplant to survive. Under the careful watch of his minder, Bert (a wonderfully monosyllabic John Michie), Isaac is released from gaol for a long weekend, to meet his daughter and make a decision: will he donate a kidney to help her live?

There’s a sinister atmosphere on stage throughout, an uneasy sense of what might come to pass, accentuated by the presence of the shotgun we know is in the chest, by the slaughtered lambs and the kitchen knives. And the verses, recited by Autumn, conjure up an ancient world of witchcraft and folklore and bloody rituals.

The tension is palpable. There’s a school group sitting in front of us in the auditorium, and they’re so invested in the action that they gasp out loud as one, breathe out a collective “no” as the final plot point is revealed.

Orla O’Loughlin’s direction is subtle: these are actors who have been told to play the silence, explore the stillness, consider proxemics and use the edges of the stage – and this all helps authenticate that all-pervading sense of dread. Autumn’s bedroom, revealed by sliding walls at the back of the living room where everything else takes place, looks like the final picture on an advent calendar: the double doors opening to show an ethereal figure poised between life and death, bathed in yellow light and speaking truths. This potty-mouthed youngster is the moral heart of the play.

Grain in the Blood does what the best theatre should: it entertains, of course, but it also makes you think. It raises questions, demands answers. This is one I highly recommend.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield