Rona Munro

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

18/06/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Louis de Bernière’s novel was a huge hit when it was first published back in 1995, but – despite being something of a bookworm – I didn’t read it. The blurb just didn’t appeal; I’ve never been one for sentimentality. I didn’t see the film either, which – by all accounts – was even more schmaltzy. But, twenty-five years on, I’m feeling a bit more mellow and forgiving, and looking forward to finding out what the fuss was all about.

And I love this theatrical production, adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Melly Still. That is to say, I love the way it’s done: the kooky choreography and Mayou Trikerioti’s ingenious design. I’m not keen on the story – a predictably mawkish affair, covering every war-romance cliché out there – but the telling is rather wonderful.

We’re in Cephalonia, represented here by a huge rumpled metal backdrop, hanging skew-iff above the Iannis’s dainty herb garden, its sharp edges poised to destroy what they have grown. It dominates the stage, with light and video projections capturing the impact of war and natural disasters on the islanders’ lives.

Madison Clare is Pelagia Iannis, a young Greek woman whose first beau, Mandras (Ashley Gayle) leaves the island to join the war. When Cephalonia is occupied by the Italian army, Captain Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) moves in to her home, and – despite their initial hostility – the pair soon fall in love.

There’s more to it, of course – this is a saga that spans fifty years – but theirs is the central story, the focus of the tale. Which is a shame, in a way, because some of the subplots seem more interesting: the gay soldiers, for example, or young Lemoni (Kezrena James)’s money-making schemes. Still, both Clare and Mugnaioni give compelling performances, and their affair is tender and believable.

What makes this, though, is the sheer theatricality, the way it revels in its form. The transparent white sheets, for example, that capture the horrific images of soldiers frozen in ice; the lazer-beam-like strings conducting the actors through the caves; the brutality of the firing squad in all its strobe-lit choreographed glory.

I like the animals too: Luisa Guerreiro’s goat, with its plaintive bleating and simple crutch-aided walk; Elizabeth Mary Williams’ lithe and playful pine martin, Psipsina, with its trusting nature and comic responsiveness. These add a light touch to a sad tale, providing warmth and humour, and representing innocence.

The lighting (by Malcolm Rippeth) is inspired: all coppers and golds, evoking the gorgeousness of the Ionian sea and the might of a volcano, the reflections from the metal backdrop rippling across the auditorium.

This is an accomplished production, that soars above its source material.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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The Last Witch

 

10/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

It’s 1727, and Janet Horne (Deirdre Davis) is eking out a living in the Scottish Highlands with her teenage daughter, Helen (Fiona Wood). Times are tough: they have no peat for their fire and very little food. But Janet knows what to do: a few incantations, some good luck charms and a venomous tongue are all she needs. If the neighbours think she’s a witch, then they will try to keep her sweet…

And, by and large, it seems to work. The people of Dornoch might fear Janet, but they like her too, for her healing hands and her lively spirit. Even the local clergyman (Graham Mackey-Bruce) seems content to turn a blind eye her way. But, when Douglas Begg (Alan Steele)’s cattle succumb to sickness, he blames Janet and, in his anger, reports her to the sheriff, David Ross (David Rankine). And the wheels are set in motion for what turns out to be Britain’s last ever legal execution for witchcraft.

This revival of Rona Munro’s 2009 play has been designed by Ken Harrison, with two huge discs dominating the acting space. The first forms a stage, raked at a steep angle, cracked like dry earth; the second is suspended above, a moon, sometimes reflecting the ground below, sometimes projecting other images. It’s stark and atmospheric, ingenious in its simplicity – and the brutal beauty of the final scene is really something to behold, especially the light on Elspeth Begg (Helen Logan)’s face as she shouts her cryptic message of support.

Deirdre Davis is superb in the lead role, a beguiling, unapologetic rebel, forging her own path. Janet Horne is a strong woman: sensual, clever, brave and charismatic – and Davis’s performance brings her forcibly to life. She might cling a little too closely to her daughter, afraid to let her go, but she loves her fiercely nonetheless; she only wants to keep her safe. Because the world – as Janet knows – is cruel, and Helen’s claw-like hands and feet will be seen by some as the devil’s mark. Their spiky relationship is delightfully depicted, Fiona Wood subtly teasing out Helen’s frustration and naivety. Little wonder she’s such easy prey for the enigmatic Nick (Alan Mirren).

Richard Baron’s direction is faultless: this is a fluid, unsettling piece, carefully choreographed and visually arresting. But the real magic lies in the writing, Munro’s lyrical script an absolute delight.

It’s a shame that this is such a short tour. There’s only one more chance to see this production; if you’re free, head to the Traverse tonight. Otherwise, you really have missed out.

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Rebus: Long Shadows

09/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s most famous detective is making his theatrical debut, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the iconic character fares in his home town. But we spend all day unsure if the play is going ahead after lead actor Charles Lawson was taken ill on-stage last night – the sort of dramatic twist nobody wants to experience. We wish him a speedy recovery. In the meantime, we’re relieved to hear that understudy Neil McKinven has stepped into the role, and that the show will go on.

Long Shadows is a new, original Rebus story, co-written specifically as a piece of theatre by Ian Rankin and Rona Munro. It’s a sensible decision: instead of shoe-horning a complex novel into a two-hour slot, this tale is suited to its form, and pared down, free of the literary clutter that scuppers so many adaptations. It fits into the novels’ time line though: this is retired Rebus, unable to let the job go, still haunted by the ghosts of all the crimes he didn’t solve.

In this incarnation, though, the ghosts are made flesh, with murdered teenagers Maggie (Eleanor House) and Angela (Dani Heron) given a formidably physical presence, a sort of chorus of the dead. I like this device: it gives the girls a voice, makes them real characters instead of mere victims, showing us their combined strength instead of focusing on their frailty. There’s also wit in using these ghosts as stage hands, making the scene transitions seamless, and emphasising the idea that the girls help shape the narrative.

We’re in cold case territory. DI Siobhan Clarke (Cathy Tyson), Rebus’s longterm sidekick, finally has the chance to see known killer, Mordaunt (played tonight by Andy Paterson), pay for his crimes. Technology has improved, and there’s DNA evidence tying him to Angela’s murder, twenty-five years ago. He’s got away with it so far, and Siobhan is determined not to let any loose ends threaten this opportunity to take him off the streets. She visits Rebus to see what he remembers, to see if he has any idea what the defence might have hidden up its sleeve.

Inevitably, all roads lead to Cafferty, Rebus’s Moriarty, played here with great aplomb by John Stahl. He’s exactly as I imagine him from the books, all machismo and panache, charm and thuggery. And Maggie’s death, seventeen years ago, is woven expertly into the mix, brought to mind by the arrival on Rebus’s stair of her teenage daughter, Heather. It’s a clever plot, with twists and turns that keep me guessing. I can’t deny it’s all quite expositional, a lot of telling-not-showing of the past; we’re watching people sit and talk about events rather than seeing them unfold before our eyes. But it’s enlivened by the presence of those ghosts, the gobby teenagers who won’t be shut up, and by strong performances all round.

McKinven does a sterling job. In the first act, he’s faultless: the role belongs to him. He does have a script in the second act, but he doesn’t refer to it often. It makes sense: the first act is much more of an ensemble piece, and McKinven, in his usual multiple roles, clearly knows this section well. But the latter half is essentially a three-hander between Rebus, Cafferty and Clarke; presumably McKinven has habitually spent this time in his dressing room, relaxing, before appearing briefly in the concluding scene. No matter, the script stuffed into his pocket doesn’t look out of place – Rebus is always carrying case files around. And he only seems to need it to place what’s coming next: he’s acting the dialogue, not reading it. And maybe, by tomorrow, he won’t need it at all. Either Lawson will be back, or McKinven will have learned the lines.

The set, designed by Ti Green, is perhaps my favourite thing about this whole production. I love the simplicity of it, the economy. There are no unnecessary props or pieces of scenery; it’s as uncluttered as the script. But it’s wonderfully evocative: Edinburgh’s tall grey walls and winding paths, tunnels and closes, stairs and bridges, all there at once, their purpose and atmosphere changing with the light. It’s almost breathtaking when the streets of the Old Town are turned instantaneously into a glass penthouse on the Quartermile by the stupidly simple method of lighting the side panels from behind. It’s a revelation as remarkable as those related to the crime.

So, a welcome addition to the Rebus pantheon, and certainly a must-see for fans of the irascible ex-detective.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Scuttlers

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10/02/15

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

A brand new play that explores the origins of Manchester’s original street gangs, Scuttlers by Rona Munro, is set in the year 1885, but incorporates echoes of the city’s more recent riots. It’s a big, urgent production, stunningly choreographed by Eddie Kay of Frantic Assembly and featuring a cast of over 40 young actors, who race restlessly back and forth across the Exchange’s circular set, propelled along by Denis Jones’ pulsing, electronic score, which incorporates the clanks and rattles of  machinery.

In the heat of summer, two street gangs are edging closer and closer to violent confrontation. The Bengal Street Tigers, led by Sean (Bryan Parry) are preparing to take on their sworn enemies, the Prussia Street gang. Former Tiger, Joe (Tachia Newall) is now a respectable soldier and the father of a baby with local nurse Susan (Anna Krippa), but he has changed his allegiance and now supports Prussia Street. Meanwhile, ‘Tiger cubs’ Margaret, Polly and new girl Theresa, are every bit as committed to their gang as any of their male counterparts. Then along comes Thomas (David Judge) a seemingly mild-mannered lad, but one who is determined to emulate his dead father and be the ‘King’ of Bengal Street. When the cotton mill that employs virtually everyone in Ancoats closes for a three day break, it’s clear that a final showdown is long overdue…

Scuttlers has much to recommend it, though the story itself has an overly familiar feel and the tragic conclusion isn’t really the shocking surprise it ought to have been. It also doesn’t help that some of the dialogue is occasionally swamped by the score, but that’s doubtless something that will improve as the production settles into its stride. Production wise, there are some real delights here. I loved the central ‘loom’ design that could be adapted to provide suggestions of other locations and the unexpected appearance of a rain storm with real water, definitely had the ‘wow’ factor. I also loved the play’s conclusion as a stream of restless walking characters segued into the present, period clothing giving way to hoodies, trainers and mobile phones.

This is strident exciting theatre, well-suited to a younger audience, which I hope it manages to connect with. I only wish the storyline was as innovative as the wonderful choreography and theatrical effects.

3.7 stars

Philip Caveney