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Review: The Letter Of Last Resort and Good With People, Traverse Theatre

Belinda Lang and Simon Chandler in The Letter of Last Resort
Traverse Theatre
Edinburgh Festival 2012
Fringe

Belinda Lang and Simon Chandler in The Letter of Last Resort Traverse Theatre Edinburgh Festival 2012 Fringe

  • by Joyce McMillan
 

WE DON’T think about them so much in these post-Cold War times, Britain’s fleet of Trident nuclear submarines; for most of the UK population they are tucked away well out of sight and mind, in their bases on the Clyde.

****

It’s typical, though, of Scotland’s two leading playwrights, David Greig and David Harrower, that where others forget, they think and remember; Greig because he is a masterly explorer of the human dimension of global politics, Harrower because his searching and poetic studies of human pain often lead him, unerringly, to the deep political undertow of the society that shapes his characters.

So it is a more or less brilliant idea – at the heart of Orla O’Loughlin’s first Festival programme as Traverse director – to bring together these two short, conventional-looking, 55-minute dramas, one written for the Tricycle in London, the other for Paines Plough and the Glasgow Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season. In the first – Greig’s The Letter Of Last Resort – Belinda Lang plays a female prime minister on her first day in office, whose head of arrangements startles her with a request for the letter to be opened by Britain’s Trident commanders on patrol, in the event of the total nuclear obliteration of Britain.

As the prime minister says at one point, it’s like an episode of Yes, Minister, with a startlingly serious subtext; and in less than an hour of crisp West-End-style dialogue, it slides straight to the core of the dark theory of deterrence, leaving us full of questions about the awful permanence of violence as an aspect of human experience, and the disturbing possibility that the threat of absolute destruction offers our best chance of keeping it at bay.

There’s both violence and sex simmering beneath the surface of David Harrower’s memorable dialogue in Good With People, set in an ominously quiet hotel in Helensburgh, just a few miles from Britain’s main nuclear base at Faslane. Blythe Duff gives an unforgettable, haunting performance as Helen, the receptionist, a fortysomething married woman who finds herself excited and disturbed by the arrival at the hotel of Evan, a bit of a rough diamond from one of the nuclear base families, who bullied Helen’s son when they were at school together.

George Perrin’s production loses a little of its Oran Mor tightness and intensity on the big Traverse stage. Yet as the two characters circle each other, the image of the great dark submarines sliding in and out of the Clyde becomes indelibly linked in our minds with the latent violence in Evan’s character, with the deep, damaging class divisions in British society that feed his anger, and with Helen’s increasing attraction to him; so that by the end, we’re not sure whether we’re watching a process of healing or – as in The Letter of Last Resort – a kind of surrender to violence, as an inevitable part of what we are.

Joyce McMillan

Until 26 August. Today 10am.

 

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