Traverse Theatre

There is a Globe Stuck in my Throat

15/11/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

There is a Globe Stuck in My Throat is an unusual piece of work, devised by Germany’s Junges Ensemble Marabu, and presented by the Traverse as part of the Chrysalis festival. The festival is in its fourth year, and has an exciting remit: to offer a platform to young theatre makers, allowing them to experiment with form and content in a professional environment.

On the form side, There is a Globe… certainly shakes things up successfully: we ricochet from conference to competition, from space-hopper silliness to images of tragedy. The Junges Ensemble Marabu are an engaging crew, their costumes all colour and sparkle, their space-age make-up both startling and oddly distancing. The direction is deft and confident, and there are some strong images created: the drone ‘copters flying in coloured clouds of oxytocin; the lines of children-in-need photographs that stretch across the stage. This is something of a scattergun approach, but it’s bold and fresh; I like the look and feel of it.

The content, however, is less persuasive: there is a rambling and sometimes incoherent quality that offers little new insight. Of course, this seems to be the point: that we in the privileged western world sit around talking, prioritising our own feelings, doling out charity and shrugging our shoulders, unable to distinguish between real tragedy and the dog shit in the street. Meanwhile, elsewhere, millions are starving; thousands are displaced and seeking refuge. We switch off the TV and look away; we fiddle while Rome burns. But this is clear from the first twenty minutes; after that, it’s all just more of the same, dressed up in different clothes.

I’d have liked the ideas to have been pushed further: to dig deeper, say more.

3 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

 

 

Stuff

06/05/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Sylvia Dow’s Stuff, the story of Magda, a woman who struggles with a hoarding disorder, really resonates with me. Not that I have the same affliction – I don’t; I’m definitely on the ‘minimalist’ side of the spectrum – but I did have an uncle who lived a life a lot like hers. The play reminds me of him, and it makes me sad. Mainly because I miss him, but also because of how much he missed out.

Directed by Muriel Romanes, this is a subtle, nuanced piece, told with tenderness and care, and never judgemental: not about Magda and her teetering piles of junk; not about her daughter, Chrissie (Romana Abercromby), who’s never once phoned since she left home; not about Jackie (Pauline Lockhart), the social worker assigned to ensure Magda clears her home because the neighbours have complained.

Carol Ann Crawford’s Magda is at the centre of the piece, and it’s a lovely performance. Magda’s sadness and vulnerability are palpable throughout, but so are her humour and her humanity. And Rosemary Nairne’s opera-singing Mama-ghost adds an extra dimension, physicalising the memories Magda can’t let go, not least her childhood in war-torn Ukraine. The singing is haunting and beautiful.

The set is rather special too. It doesn’t seem so at first: just a pile of boxes and scattered sheet music. But the boxes begin to reveal a doll’s house of recollections, cleverly constructed miniatures, designed by John and Jeanine Byrne. There’s a graveyard, a grand piano, a teetering pile of chairs: eight boxes, eight spaces, eight specific memories. No wonder Magda struggles to give up her precious things.

Tonight is Stuff‘s last night at the Traverse, and it’s sold out – but, if you can get hold of a return ticket, it’s certainly worth your while. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking play, and I know that it will stay with me.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Arctic Oil

11/10/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ella (Neshla Kaplan) is a committed environmental activist, currently stranded on the remote Scottish island where she grew up. She and her infant son have been living near her widowed mother, Margret (Jennifer Black) and she has been going stir crazy. So, under the pretext of visiting London to attend a friend’s wedding, Ella has covertly planned to head off to an Arctic oil rig to join a team of activists in a potentially dangerous protest, leaving Margret to babysit her grandson. But Ella has underestimated Margaret, who is wise to her daughter’s plan and determined to keep her out of harm’s way. With this in mind, she lures Ella into the bathroom of the family home, then promptly locks the door and swallows the key.

What follows is a tightly constructed two-hander as mother and daughter argue, debate the future of the planet and uncover old grievances. Margret is quick to point out that the island on which they live is dependent on oil company investment. The industry provided work for her late husband, when he was in dire financial straits; and besides, instead of trying to change hearts and minds, shouldn’t Ella be more concerned with being a responsible mother to her son?

For Ella, it’s all about the future of that son and the doomed planet on which he’ll be expected to exist. It’s about the destruction of one of the world’s last true wildernesses, the inexorable rise of global warming  – and the fact that if nobody takes a stand on this issue now, then its all headed for hell in a hand basket.

There are two strong performances here and, apart from a  few nitpicks – would news of what’s happened to the oil rig protesters reach the mainstream media quite as promptly as it does, for example – Clare Duffy delivers a prescient tale that raises plenty of important questions. Gareth Nichols directs with a sure hand and I love the ingenious set, designed by Nichols and Kevin McCallum, which is built to withstand the onslaught of Ella’s rigorous attempts to kick her way through that locked door.

Perhaps, ultimately, this is all questions and precious few answers, but it’s nonetheless a thoughtful piece, which arrives at a time when the world has been publicly warned of the dire consequences of global warming. But, at its heart, this is far more about the mother-daughter relationship, and the love that underpins all their differences.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

Scotties

27/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Michael (Ryan Hunter) is fifteen years old, and he’s got homework to do. He’s been told to write an essay on local history, but he’s not sure where to start. The library’s shut because it’s a bank holiday, and his dad (Stephen McCole) is annoyed with him for being so disorganised. There’s tension in the air. Michael’s mum (Mairi Morrison) speaks to him in Gaelic, but Michael responds pointedly in English. He’s feeling rebellious, rejecting his roots. Only his gran seems to understand him.

But then he remembers the plaque at Kirkintilloch, commemorating the young Irish migrant workers – or ‘Scotties’ – who died in a bothy fire in 1937. His interest piqued, he opens up his laptop, and begins to research the conditions in which these people lived…

…and then he’s there, amongst them, working the potato fields with Molly (Faoileann Cunningham) and her compatriots from the island of Achill. He learns about their back-breaking work, about their customs; how they’re treated as outsiders and how they long for home.

And he also learns some uncomfortable truths about his own family.

Scotties – written and conceived by Muireann Kelly and Frances Poet – is a satisfying play, fascinating in its illumination of a moment in history, and uncompromising as it draws parallels with the way migrants are still treated today. Not so much bi-lingual as trilingual (Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and English), this is a clear demonstration of how language shapes us and informs us, links us to our past and our future: it is integral to our sense of self. The scripting is clever – I don’t know any Gaelic, but I can always understand what’s happening; I don’t feel I’m missing out (although, no doubt, there is a deeper resonance for those whose mother tongue this is). Theatre Gu Leòr’s mission to bring Gaelic theatre to a diverse audience is perfectly served by Scotties: it’s accessible and engaging and makes me want to know more.

The play’s structure is effective, like high quality YA fiction brought to life on the stage. Seeing everything from the young protagonist’s point of view means that we can learn with him, and his innocence is beguiling. The music (by Laoise Kelly) is vivid and  atmospheric, taking us from the giddy delights of an impromptu ceilidh down to mournful funereal pipes.

I like the set too: the gossamer-thin gauze between past and present showing how our history never really leaves us, is always there, informing what we do.

Scotties is in Edinburgh until Saturday 29th September – and it’s well worth seeking out. After that, it’s moving on to Achill Island (5th-6th October), where – no doubt – it will have an even more profound impact.

4.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Nests

08/09/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Xana Marwick’s Nests is a compelling play, with an appealing dream-like quality. It’s unusual: the gritty subject matter ought perhaps to clash with the whimsical storytelling, but – somehow – it really works.

We’re in a clearing in a forest, home to ‘the father’ (David MacKay), an alcoholic eking an existence by selling everything he owns. There’s not much left: a run-down caravan, a broken drum kit, a guitar and a few pots and pans. But he can scrape together funds for his cheap cider habit, and he’s harming no one but himself.

But even this miserable dwelling is appealing to ‘the boy’ (Ashleigh More), a lost and forgotten child in need of sustenance and care. Outcasts, invisible, united by their vulnerability, the pair forge an unlikely partnership, each fulfilling for the other the role of missing parent/child.

It’s beautifully told, at once visceral and ethereal. It’s tragic, yes, but it’s funny too, and the characters are bold and true. Mackay imbues the father with a strange fragility, despite his coarse language and quick temper, and Ashleigh More is equally affecting: the boy’s swagger and bravado undercut with deep sorrow, his love of crows particularly resonant.

I especially like the cartoon crows (animated by Kate Charter and Claire Lamond). They add to the sense of unreality, flitting from screen to screen and interacting with the boy; there’s a real playfulness here, and it’s extremely engaging.

This production, by Frozen Charlotte and Stadium Rock, is a real gem, and I’m genuinely moved by it.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

On the Exhale

22/08/18

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

During the madness that is the Edinburgh Fringe, it would be all too easy to overlook the delights being offered at the city’s established theatres. On the face of it, On The Exhale,  written by Martin Zimmerman and directed by Christopher Haydon, seems perfectly engineered for festival audiences. This powerful monologue, brilliantly delivered by Polly Frame, was written in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012. It’s a searing examination of the subject of gun control and, unexpectedly, it’s also about the compelling seduction that deadly weapons can exert upon those who use them.

Frame plays an academic in an American University. In the play’s opening moments, she talks about her steadily building paranoia at the thought of one of her more headstrong students suddenly deciding to walk into her study with a firearm tucked into his waistband. She mentions the cool, clinical steps she is taking in order to prepare herself for such an awful eventuality, about what she will do in such dire circumstances. But, when tragedy does decide to rear its ugly head, the danger comes from an entirely different quarter…

The nature of the unfolding story is so important that it would be impossible to chronicle it in any more detail without giving too much away. Suffice to say that there are some genuine surprises here, the story heading from its initial premise into entirely unexpected areas. Frame is a compelling narrator, her vulnerability enhanced by the spare setting, which has her pacing barefoot through a tangle of fluorescent light fittings as she talks, the potential danger of a misplaced step all too evident.

As she draws us steadily deeper into her confidence, I find myself virtually holding my breath, not wanting to miss a single detail of her heartbreaking story. This is a masterful piece of theatre and my only regret is that I didn’t find time to see it earlier in the month. It’s on for just a few more days, so do take the opportunity to catch this while you still can.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney