Theatre reviews: Betrayal | ANA | Plume

Sylvester McCoy and Gemma McElhinney in Plume. Picture: John Johnston

Sylvester McCoy and Gemma McElhinney in Plume. Picture: John Johnston

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TENSE, thought-provoking and beautiful, Dominic Hill’s production of this Pinter classic offers a profound sense of a world in which all the old bedrocks of social custom and certainty are shifting

IS THERE much more to be said on the subject of betrayal? It’s a question asked, in the course of Harold Pinter’s fine 1978 play, by the publisher Robert, who has just begun to realise – on holiday in Venice with his wife Emma – that she is having an affair with his best friend Jerry, a literary agent.

And what Pinter sets out to demonstrate - in this famous study of a classic love triangle, now revived by Dominic Hill for his first production as Artistic Director of the Citizens’ – is that betrayal is a subject that can never be exhausted, since it is so profoundly entangled with both the best and the worst of the qualities that make us human. In betraying someone, we lie, we cheat, we pretend to be what we are not. Yet as the brilliant structure of Pinter’s play makes clear – moving backwards from the bitter end of Robert and Emma’s marriage in 1977, to the beginning of the affair in 1968 – we also invent, fabricate, plan, sustain powerful fictions, and make huge creative efforts to protect those we love from knowledge which will hurt them.

Dominic Hill’s production is more elegant than showy, and makes no claim to offer huge insights into the story’s 1970s setting, or its exquisitely-crafted structure. Its focus is on the language, on the economy of the everyday conversations through which this classic story emerges, and the brief, lethal pauses that punctuate them.

Yet Colin Richmond’s set of shifting, translucent screens, with the simple furniture for each scene revolving uneasily into place, creates the most profound sense of a world in which all the old bedrocks of social custom and certainty are shifting, and dissolving into a Venetian quicksand of treacherous possibilities. This is the sad and meditative flipside of the world of 1970s sexual liberation conjured up in Mike Stott’s Funny Peculiar, seen in Edinburgh last week; and the core of it lies in three perfect, beautifully-pitched performances from Neve McIntosh as Emma, Cal MacAninch as Robert, and Hywel Simons as Jerry. Their focus on the story is riveting, their handling of the play’s complex middle section – where Robert learns the truth – almost unbearably tense and powerful. And if there’s something slightly disappointing about the choreography of the final scene – which should soar and seduce in its lyrical, passionate portrayal of the start of an affair – everything else about this production is as immaculate as it is thought-provoking, and often downright beautiful.

To lead a double life is one thing; but it’s part of the myth-making brilliance of the new Stellar Quines show ANA – co-produced with Quebec’s Imago Theatre, and co-written by Clare Duffy and Pierre Yves Lemieux – that it imagines an eternal female figure who, faced with the unbearable choices that often confront women in our world, simply divides herself in two, then in four, and so on to infinity.

So in Serge Denoncourt’s cabaret-like bilingual production, we see Ana as an abandoned baby in the Isle of Skye seven centuries ago, surviving a Viking raid; then – among many other incarnations – as a whore in revolutionary Paris, as Anna Freud in Vienna in 1900, or as a bag lady on the streets of Montreal today. Many of the choices revolve around motherhood, the choice between the vulnerability of nurturing a child, or the murderous clarity of infanticide; and there are moments when the play’s fragmented structure becomes jokey and unsatisfactory, although Alain Goulem, as ringmaster and compere, often succeeds in linking the humorous and the tragic.

Yet at this best, this show has a wild and fabulous female poetry about it, that makes it a fine production for the week of International Women’s Day; not least in the visual power of a design – by Megan Baker, Louise Campeau and Martin Labrecque – that dresses each of the actors in fierce swathes of scarlet, and isolates them in great splashes of light; and in six terrific and terrifying performances from the women playing Ana, led by the mighty Catherine Begin, from Quebec.

JC Marshall’s Plume, by contrast – directed by Andy Arnold at the Tron – is a 60-minute play that assembles all the ingredients for a powerful and poetic short theatre piece, but then fails to find a structure that holds them together. The play is set in a cheap hotel room in central Glasgow, and in the memory of the leading character, a retired schoolteacher called Mr Peters, who has lost his beloved son in a Lockerbie-style terrorist attack. Mr Peters intends to jump from his hotel room window as the minister who released the terrorist meets the press outside the building opposite; but the hotel chambermaid who interrupts him is an ex-pupil, a vulnerable girl called Maller who once attempted suicide in the playground.

JC Marshall’s text has some searingly vivid moments, notably in the monologues spoken by Mr Peters’s dead son, William; and the final meditation on the pain of seeing a lost loved one turned into a political symbol is intensely moving.

The conceit that links the three key incidents of the play, though –- the two attempted suicides, and the bombing – feels emotionally all wrong, contrived rather than real. And despite a lovable performance from Sylvester McCoy as Mr Peters, and fine ones from Gemma McElhinney and Finn den Hertog as Maller and William, this is, in its worst moments, an embarrassingly shapeless and half-cooked drama, full of over-complex images and under-dramatised concepts; barely ready, it seems, for a lunchtime slot at Oran Mor, far less a mainstage production at the Tron.

Betrayal, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

RatingL ****

ANA, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Rating: ****

Plume, Tron Theatre, Glasgow

Rating: **

• Betrayal is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 24 March. ANA is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 10 March and on tour to Musselburgh, Dundee, Inverness, and Glasgow. Plume is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 17 March.

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