IN THIS week of surprisingly intense debate about whether Armando Ianucci – as creator of fierce political satire The Thick Of It – was right to accept his Queen’s Birthday honour, it’s worth remembering that the relationship between drama and power has always been a complex one, particularly in English culture.
THE 39 STEPS
PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE
ORAN MOR, GLASGOW
SCOTTISH REFUGEE WEEK: SOME OTHER MOTHER
THE TRON, GLASGOW
Often celebrated as a crucible of dissent, and an ideal forum for giving a voice to the voiceless, theatrical entertainment has also often been the plaything of kings and courtiers, paid to flatter, to celebrate, and to poke the kind of gentle fun that only strengthens the status quo, by suggesting that those in power have a sense of humour.
And if Ianucci now finds himself caught between the roles of serious satirist and licensed court jester, then he has long been preceded into that awkward position by many other British comic writers, including Patrick Barlow of the National Theatre Of Brent, once a key player in British Fringe theatre, but now best known to the world as the author of a hugely successful stage version of The 39 Steps, drawn primarily not from John Buchan’s original novel of 1915, but from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film version of 1935, complete with additional love-interest in the shape of the comely blonde to whom hero Richard Hannay is handcuffed throughout much of the story.
Barlow’s 39 Steps has now been revived as part of the 2012 Pitlochry season by Richard Baron, who also directed a successful touring version of the show; and it makes for a jolly, lightweight evening of theatre, remarkable mainly for the sheer ingenuity of its staging, which manages to tell the whole, familiar swashbuckling story using just four actors, two or three ladders, a portable lampost, a couple of window-frames, a large length of blue cloth, and – so we’re told in a programme note – 36 hats.
Dougal Lee makes a pleasingly world-weary and attractive Hannay, although he does look a shade older than the 37 years he claims; Kathryn Ritchie is gorgeous, pouting and brainy as the blonde, removing her stockings to impressive erotic effect; and David Delve and George Docherty pull off the required tour de force as all the other characters, from the doomed Mr Memory to assorted goons, policemen and locals.
If the show has a meaning, beyond a celebration of its own inventiveness, then it’s almost entirely a reactionary one; it invites helpless nostalgia for an age when Brits were good, foreigners were bad, heroes had stiff upper lips, and everything in the imperial garden was hunky-dory. Remembering and reaffirming a lost past, though, is one of the things theatre does best; and when it does it as amusingly as this, it’s easy to forget that for most British citizens and subjects, this particular past never really existed at all.
There’s no question of deference to power, though, in Alfred Jarry’s explosive 1896 satire Ubu Roi (King Ubu), this week’s subject of the Classic Cuts treatment in the Play, Pie and Pint summer season at Oran Mor. In the case of Ubu – not a long play at the best of times – the task of cutting the action to around 50 minutes should be an easy one. Jarry’s extended spoof on Shakespearean tragedies like Richard III and Macbeth – in which a buffoon of a guards officer and his pushy wife murder good King Wenceslas and take control of the Polish state – often proceeds by repetition, and by long riffs of vaguely obscene-sounding nonsense-language that responds well to some sharp editing.
Despite some fine casting, though – with Barrie Hunter and Helen McAlpine in massive baby romper-suits, slapping the text around in fine style as the obscene Ubu and his detested lady – Marcus Roche’s Oran Mor version lacks inspiration. Kenny Miller’s chess-board design is vivid and effective, and Paul James Corrigan of River City offers excellent support as a range of ambitious backers and usurped princes. Yet somehow, this fairly faithful staging of the play fails to bring out the fierce contemporary relevance of a satire about a vulgar, greedy boss-class looting and impoverishing the nation; and then finally seeking to restore its political fortunes by the age-old device of starting a war.
There’s also a mood of dissent – gentler in tone, but even more heartfelt – in the Glasgow Refugee Week events that occupy both stages at the Tron Theatre over the next few days, offering music, drama, cabaret and readings inspired by the experience of asylum-seekers and refugees in Scotland.
As politics, Refugee Week is all about breaking down barriers of understanding around a community often demonised in the popular media; as art, it draws on incredibly rich sources of inspiration, beautifully demonstrated on Tuesday evening not only in a brief preview of the musical Glasgow Girls – set to be part of the autumn season at the Citizens’ Theatre – but in a reading of Allison-Julia Taudevin’s beautiful work-in-progress Some Other Mother, about an asylum-seeker mother struggling to bring up her daughter in a Glasgow tower block, and eventually losing the child altogether.
Many plays on this subject take a documentary approach, often to great effect; but Taudevin prefers poetry, and a deep, interwoven insight into two minds – the mother’s, and the little daughter’s – gradually fragmenting and splitting under the pressure of their situation. The emotional impact is shattering; and beautifully conveyed, on Tuesday evening, by an outstanding cast, featuring Barbara Rafferty, Anita Vettesse, Callum Cuthbertson and an unforgettable Mara Menzies, as both Mama the asylum-seeker, and her little daughter, Star.
• The 39 Steps is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 8 October. Ubu Roi is at Oran Mor until 23 June. Some Other Mother, run ended.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
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Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
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