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Theatre reviews: Confessions Of A Justified Sinner | The Curse Of The Demeter | Memory Cells

CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER **** ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH THE CURSE OF THE DEMETER **** FALKIRK TOWN HALL MEMORY CELLS **** THE ARCHES, GLASGOW

'WE HAVE heard much of the rage of fanaticism in former days; but nothing to this." These are the final words of the narrator of James Hogg's mighty 1824 novel The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, before he introduces the long central section of the book, the journal of the sinner himself; and they speak volumes about what is possibly the greatest of all European novels about the dangerous crossroads every society faces, on the way from tradition to modernity – between humane scientific rationalism on one hand, and fierce ideological fanaticism on the other.

So the unnamed narrator of Hogg's complex three-part novel – now playing at the Royal Lyceum, in artistic director Mark Thomson's own impressive stage version, as Confessions Of A Justified Sinner – is a humane, decent Enlightenment Scotsman of the early 19th century, who happens to have come into possession of the journal in which the tormented young anti-hero, Robert Wringhim, has written his terrible story. Wringhim himself, though – living almost a century earlier – is the victim of an extreme Calvinist ideology, the idea of "justification by faith alone"; and once he has been told that his faith has made him one of the Elect, he is approached by a shape-changing devil called Gil-Martin, whose aim is to convince him that now he knows he is saved, he can do what he likes to any of the damned.

The recent resonances of this story – from Nazism to Maoism and contemporary religious fundamentalism – are so obvious that they need no demonstration; and Thomson's version retains an understated but profound sense of Scottish voice and location, as his impressive cast of eight lead the audience through a lucid and gripping account of Hogg's tremendous story. The version is not flawless. Thomson's decision to replace Hogg's sorrowful narrator with a pair of jokey, foul-mouthed modern police officers unbalances one of the key elements in the novel, and robs the ending of its dramatic and moral power; and his text is often too wordy, spinning out sequences of theological dialogue long after the key dramatic point has been made.

But with a pinch-faced, vulnerable yet implacable Ryan Fletcher in superb form as Wringhim, and Ian Robertson both sinister and hateful as Gil-Martin, the story unfolds with a dark, chilling power. Neil Murray's rotating set of looming grey standing-stones or tenements captures the fierce onward movement and picaresque quality of the tale, particularly in its latter stages. And with actors like John Kielty, Lewis Howden, Kern Falconer and Wendy Seagar providing impressive support, this compelling version emerges as the strongest ensemble production the Lyceum has seen for years.

Given Bram Stoker's connection with Slains Castle, on the bleak Buchan coast, the Dracula story can also be said to have its Scottish roots; it certainly resembles …Justified Sinner in its nightmare vision of evil made flesh, in a strangely seductive form. Robert Forrest's new two-handed play for the young people's touring company Visible Fictions, The Curse Of The Demeter, is a brief, intense one-hour meditation on the fate of the ship in which Count Dracula and his vampires made their famous journey from Transylvania to Whitby in Yorkshire. When the story begins, the ship has nine crew members; when it ends, driven by a storm on to Whitby sands, all of the crew are dead, and the captain's lifeless body, roped to the mast with a letter in his pocket, is the only remaining witness to the horror they endured.

The main weakness of the show – directed by Douglas Irvine with a fine sense of pace, some effective use of blurry live video, and terrific atmosphere of foreboding – is the fact it is genuinely confusing to have nine characters played by only two actors, particularly when they depend on small shifts of voice, rather than of clothing or appearance, to signal changes. But there's a good-looking, understated shipboard set by Lisa Sangster, and a fine soundscape by Daniel Padden. And within the short span of this drama, Forrest manages to raise some powerful questions about how we respond to evil; with fear or fascination, fatal cynicism, or the kind of passionate resistance the captain of the Demeter never ceases to offer, even when he knows that he and his ship are doomed.

Louise Welsh's new play Memory Cells, commissioned by Glasgay!, also offers a portrait of evil, in a particularly painful, harrowing, and human form. Cora is a young woman being held prisoner in a basement room by Barry, who seems to be her much older husband. As the play evolves, though – backwards towards the moment of her capture – we begin to grasp the extent of the brutal tragedy through which first her body, then her mind, have been colonised by this desperate and brutal man, who cannot allow even the smallest freedom to the thing he loves, or fears to lose.

The echoes of the recent cases of Josef Fritzl and Natascha Kampusch are obvious; so are those of earlier fictional stories, including John Fowles's The Collector. But there's a tremendous, tragic vividness in Welsh's 70-minute imagining of this horrific process; and unforgettable performances from Tam Dean Burn and Kirstin McLean, in a show so bleakly pessimistic about the true nature of male desire that it is only for the strong of stomach, and the stout of heart.

• Confessions Of A Justified Sinner runs until 7 November; The Curse Of The Demeter until 24 October, then touring until 10 November; Memory Cells until 24 October.

 
 
 

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