Theatre reviews: Blackbird / Arcadia / Swindle And Death
BLACKBIRD **** THEATRE ROYAL, GLASGOW
PITLOCHRY FESTIVAL THEATRE
SWINDLE AND DEATH
TRON THEATRE, GLASGOW
THERE is always the one who kisses, and the one who turns away. So say the French about love and its deep, frightening power-games, but there can rarely have been an exploration of the theme so compelling, so searching, and so explosively unsettling as Scottish writer David Harrower's fine 2005 play Blackbird, first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in that year, and since acclaimed in London, New York and worldwide.
In a shabby workplace locker-room full of discarded fast-food wrappers, a woman called Una at last finds and confronts Ray, the man who had an abusive relationship with her 15 years earlier, when he was 40 and she was only 12. He has served a long prison sentence, and gradually rebuilt his life – he has a new name, a new job, a new partner.
But she cannot move on, is still seeking explanation, truth, closure, so, for a tense 90 minutes, she insists on retelling the story of the relationship from her point of view, building towards a stunning monologue in which she reveals how he abandoned her, in the east coast ferry port from which they were supposed to make their escape to the continent. Meanwhile, he tries, often ineffectually, to defend himself, denying that he is a paedophile, and insisting that their relationship was a genuine one-off love affair.
The play offers no neat conclusions; its ending is disturbing, hinting at the possibility that Ray is indeed a manipulative liar. But in this superb, no-frills touring production by David Grindley, from Sir Peter Hall's new Rose Theatre at Kingston-upon-Thames, Dawn Steele gives the performance of her life as a young woman full of energy and passion, but carrying a wound so deep that it threatens to blight her whole future.
And she is well matched by Robert Daws's weak but stubbornly self-serving Ray, in a play that finally becomes something more than a uniquely powerful study of an illegal relationship, and offers a sad and frightening glimpse of how the joy of love and desire always contains within it this shadow of a future in which the more powerful partner walks away unscathed, while the weaker bleeds alone, and carries the scars for life.
There's nothing obviously weak about the gorgeous 16-year-old mathematical genius Thomasina Coverly, junior heroine of Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia, yet still, as a woman in patriarchal times, she ends up hidden from history, her story either untold, or subtly distorted. Now revived at Pitlochry in a tremendously elegant production by Richard Baron, Arcadia is set in the garden room of a beautiful English stately home, where the action alternates between the present day – when a pair of unpleasant modern academics are fighting tooth and nail over their respective misunderstandings of the past – and a period of three years in the early 19th century, when Lord Byron came to stay, and the Romantic movement was at it height.
In some ways, this play is a characteristic Stoppard love-letter to the British aristocracy at its best, and to the kind of stately home where the arts and sciences flourished, before inevitable, universal processes of decay – hinted at in Thomasina's finer calculations – began to corrode its strength. The play's problem lies in its excessive length, and in Stoppard's inability to resist writing reams of pert but tedious pseudo-intellectual dialogue for his modern-day characters, nor – despite the best efforts of a decent cast – does Baron's production ever look like finding a solution to this structural weakness. For those willing to sit out the odd half-hour of clever-sounding tosh, though, Stoppard's play famously works its way round to an astoundingly beautiful and haunting final scene, in which all its threads briefly knot together in an unforgettable moment of beauty and sadness, a dance to the music of time itself.
As for Mull Theatre's latest show Swindle And Death, it's difficult to know where to start with Peter Arnott's immensely messy and complex satire on images of Scottishness, arts funding policy, and the nature of the theatre itself. Swindle and Death are a pair of undead actor-managers, touring an unreconstructed form of historical theatre around some twilight zone of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Young Marjorie arrives from the Arts Council to see if they can be closed down, since their style is so inappropriate to a dynamic "new Scotland".
The play's difficulty is that it swivels uneasily, throughout, between a satire directed at modern arts funders – a subject of no interest to anyone but showbiz professionals – and a much wider meditation on the nature of art. The world of theatre, argues Arnott, has a timeless, amoral quality that rightly resists all attempts to make it socially useful or economically productive.
The difficulty is, though, that in sending up Marjorie's values, and making his guardians of true culture a bunch of violent chauvinist vampires who cheerfully murder every leading lady they take on – usually in the manner suggested by some great play or other – he effectively incites the audience to bay with complicit laughter at the sight of women being publicly abused and humiliated.
Alasdair McCrone and his doughty Mull Company make a fine job of staging Arnott's weird fantasy, on a vivid set like a Victorian theatre booth. Helen McAlpine does her level best as Marjorie, and Sarah Haworth is remarkable as her abused fellow-actress, Angela. But if audiences enjoy this overlong satire, I fear it's partly for the worst of reasons: that it confuses rejection of the bureaucratic jargon of equality with rejection of the idea itself, and helps to re-legitimise a kind of misogyny and racism that we were once supposed to have rejected for good.
• Blackbird is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until tomorrow. Arcadia is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 18 October. Swindle And Death is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until tomorrow, and on tour.
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