David Greig’s collaboration with Arab writers is creating exhilarating results at Oran Mor, while Abi Morgan’s 27 is back – shorter, leaner and magnificently performed
One Day in Spring
Oran Mor, Glasgow
CALL out the instigators, because there’s something in the air. For a long time, the very idea of revolution was out of fashion; at best, it came wrapped in soft words like “velvet” or “purple”, and had long ceased to be red.
Since January last year, though, all that has changed, because the wave of revolutions that have swept the Arab world in the past 16 months look far more like classic popular rebellions, alliances of peoples enraged by poverty and exploitation, and students and intellectuals outraged by authoritarian government. The red and the black are back on the political map, and over the past six weeks, at Oran Mor in Glasgow and the Traverse in Edinburgh, the National Theatre of Scotland and Play, Pie And Pint have been trying to explore the pressures behind those changes with the help of a group of young writers from across the Arab world, many of whom have been here in Scotland throughout.
I you want to glimpse the whole meaning of this season, in a single lunchtime, then make your way to Oran Mor this week, or the Traverse next week, to catch One Day In Spring, David Greig’s fine, exhilarating compilation show about this new age of revolutions, featuring tiny fragments of drama written by more than a dozen playwrights from across the region. On a bare stage with a white back wall – soon scribbled over with maps and slogans – brilliant young Egyptian actors Seif Abdelfatteh (in a wheelchair after breaking his leg in rehearsal) and the dazzlingly funny and moving Sara Shaarawi (in jeans and denim shirt) lead us, the people of Glasgow and Edinburgh, through 18 short lessons in how to run a revolution.
The lessons range from the hilarious (“Tunisians are smug”) to the heart-stopping and chilling: some of the young demonstrators, marching and chanting one minute, are suddenly knocking on heaven’s door. Yet at the end Sara draws a door in the wall, and she and Seif miraculously pass through it, into a new future. It’s a brilliant, exhilarating and moving image of a generation making its own destiny, and realising, too, that when it comes to the impossible, it just takes a little longer.
The Fashion Floor
Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow
Over at Cottiers, meanwhile, the theatre students of Motherwell College have unearthed a real buried treasure of 1970s radical theatre, in Coronation Street writer Tony Perrin’s The Fashion Floor, first seen at Peter Cheeseman’s legendary New Vic Theatre in Stoke in the late 1970s.
Set on the “fashion floor” of a large department store in a city like Stoke, the play is a kind of Are You Being Served? without John Inman, and with added Marxist politics. The six main characters include restless Roz, a recent graduate who finds herself strangely attracted to a management role behind the till, despite seeing herself as a left-wing firebrand; assorted managers, male chauvinists to a man, and the enigmatic Erica, a quiet German saleswoman who turns out, in the age of the Baader-Meinhof gang, to have some secrets of her own.
The play is far from perfect, and at two hours, perhaps a shade too long. Yet Motherwell’s student cast – directed by award-winning Pitlochry actor Richard Addison – are boldly determined to honour the Stoke-on-Trent voice and speech-rhythms of the play, rather than transfer it to Scotland. They give the piece a terrifically well-focused performance, full of energy and understanding, well supported by Addison’s inspired use of 1970s music and images, which conjure up a powerful sense of a forgotten decade that suddenly – in the intensity of its debate around a failing system – seems strangely close to us again.
In the late 1970s, when The Fashion Floor was written, the post-war baby boomer generation were still in their rebellious teens and twenties. Now, though, they – we – are growing old and facing in our parents, or in ourselves, an epidemic of a disease that few people would once have lived to experience.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow
Abi Morgan’s play 27 – co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum, and set in a convent somewhere in Scotland – is part of a wave of drama about dementia now sweeping British theatre, and to judge by the intensely appreciative audience response at the Citizens’, there is now hardly a person in our society who has not been touched at some point by the tragedy faced by the play’s central character, Sister Ursula Mary. She has to watch her wonderful, brilliant, much-loved Mother Superior, Sister Miriam, succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s, while four visiting scientists on a dementia research project also observe her decline.
First seen at the Royal Lyceum in October, Vicky Featherstone’s production is now more than 20 minutes shorter, and seems much more clearly focused on the central relationship between Ursula and Miriam, and the magnificent performances of Maureen Beattie and Colette O’Neil in these two roles. On the low and warmly-tilted Citizens’ stage, Merle Hensel’s huge concrete set – with echoes of St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross – looks beautiful, superbly lit by Natasha Chivers.
And despite a continuing irritating tendency to foreground the self-consciously overwritten monologues of leading male scientist Richard, this version of 27 emerges as a thoughtful and beautiful play about the quest for truth and meaning in a godless world, and about how faith is not the opposite of doubt, but its powerful companion, the force that enables us to keep searching and striving, even at those times when life truly seems like a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing at all.
• One Day in Spring is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 29 May until 2 June. The Fashion Floor is at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow, with further performances tonight and next Wednesday, 30 May. 27 is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at Cambridge Arts Theatre, 6-9 June.