Theatre reviews: As It Is | Marco Pantani: The Pirate

A scene from Marco Pantani: The Pirate. Picture: TSPL
A scene from Marco Pantani: The Pirate. Picture: TSPL
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THIS week the Tron offers two memorable personal journeys set against the background of war. In Edinburgh, meanwhile, don’t miss Lee Hall’s powerful tale of working class artists.

As It Is

* * * *

#sleeptightbobbycairns

* * *

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Marco Pantani: The Pirate

Oran Mor, Glasgow

* * *

The Pitmen Painters

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

* * * *

THEY SAY the truth will set us free, and yet often it seems to be the comforting lie we need, the one we tell about ourselves, our motives, our history. Damir Todorovic is an actor from Serbia, now 40 and based in Italy, an associate artist of the Glasgow-based international company Vanishing Point. Twenty years ago, though, he was a young Serbian soldier on the battlefield in Bosnia, during the bloody civil war in former Yugoslavia, and in his quiet, chilling and compelling show As It Is – first created for a festival in Switzerland, and now on tour to Glasgow – he subjects himself to an intense one-hour lie detector test, in which he answers questions based on his wartime diary.

The questions are devised and asked by a second actor, Pauline Goldsmith, who plays the inquisitor; they are different at each performance, and the lie-detector is real, its shifting needles projected on a screen above the stage. Yet if the audience imagines that the machine will help them find out “the truth” about Todorovic’s war experience, that illusion is soon swept away; lie detector technology is not infallible, and the same question – “Do you love your wife?” – can provoke completely different responses at different times.

So the show leads us on a complex and sometimes exhausting journey through the shifting ground of memory, tracing – at best – areas of unease in Damir’s mind, around his strong Serbian identity, a scene of atrocity he witnessed, and a sexual encounter with a nurse in a field hospital. And although it is sometimes painful to watch Todorovic struggling through veils of memory which he says have often “turned to stone” in his mind, As It Is emerges as an unforgettable piece of theatre, illuminated by a searing central performance from an actor with the courage to play himself when young, to strive for honesty, and to take the consequences.

Upstairs in the Tron Meeting Room, meanwhile, there’s another personal journey with heavy political overtones going on, in #sleeptightbobbycairns, a 50-minute monologue with interruptions by young Glasgow company Enormous Yes. The central character is Layla, played with poignant force by Millie Turner; she is a fervent member of a cult called #neednothing, run by a leader called Sam who has left for Peru, and she seems intent on encouraging her audience of ten people, ranged round a table, to get involved with the cult’s latest campaign, against a suave local councillor and former cult member, Bobby Cairns.

Things do not go as Layla hoped; the cult turns out to be a scam, and she launches into a long lament for her generation, the people now in their mid-twenties who were 14 when the planes slammed into the Twin Towers, and 16 when Britain went to war in Iraq, despite some of the biggest anti-war protests in history.

The sense of privilege combined with desperation, a kind of terminal crisis of credible motivation and action, is haunting; and although Michael O’Neill’s script takes a while to find its focus, and sometimes drifts into Radio 4 style middle-class whimsy, it has moments of such blazing despair and need that it fairly chills the blood, and challenges the conscience.

As Layla senses, driving individual ambition is not enough for most human beings; and there’s plenty of evidence of that in the latest Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime show, a new 45-minute play by Stuart Hepburn about the Italian cycling champion Marco Pantani, who died in 2004 at the age of 34.

Marco Pantani The Pirate is a complex three-handed narrative, delivered by an excellent Jordan Young as Marco himself, with Blythe Duff as his mother, and James Smillie as his bearded grandfather; it’s backed by images of Pantani’s career, and by a set featuring fragments of bikes. As a play, it is still a long way from perfection: there’s too much relentless exposition of the detail of Pantani’s career, and the long sequences of names and incidents almost defeat both Duff and Smillie at times. Yet there’s an intensity about this drama of obsession and self-destruction – its shape, its energy, its fierce tragic momentum – that burns it into the memory; it’s a story that deserves a longer life, and may well get one.

For a powerful image of what the collective life looks like, though – of its rich rewards, its inherent strength, and the way it can nonetheless limit the ambition of those who are loyal to it – there is no better show in current British theatre than Lee Hall’s great 2007 play The Pitmen Painters, about the group of four miners from Ashington in County Durham who, back in the 1930s, briefly won fame as artists.

Already reviewed when it visited Glasgow in 2011, Max Roberts’ fierce, fast-flowing production for Live Theatre, Newcastle and the National Theatre, London, remains a magnificent ensemble show, both richly comic and profoundly moving in its insight into the history of power, class and art in Britain. It’s an intensely political play, with little room for right-wing dissent. But for those who can enter into its rich and poignant evocation of a class pulling itself up by its bootstraps, towards the defining moment in 1947 when Britain’s coalmines were taken into public ownership, it makes an unforgettable evening’s theatre; entertaining and enriching, yet full of a deep sense of history, and of its dark ironies.

Performance of the week

In a week full of fine performances, one stands out as unforgettable. Damir Todorovic’s performance as himself, in the lie-detector drama As It Is, not only leads us into a disturbing exploration of the grey areas between truth and lies, it also reminds us of one of the most profound traumas in recent European history, as it opens up the mind of a fastidious and private man caught up in the savage civil war in former Yugoslavia, forced to carry in his mind a series of memories that make truth difficult, and silence often the least painful option.

• As It Is ends tonight and #sleeptightbobbycairns runs until Saturday, both at the Glasgow Tron. Marco Pantani The Pirate is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, on Sunday. The Pitmen Painters is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday.