A Great Night In: Joyce McMillan on the best Scottish theatre performances online

Intriguing and inspiring new work is springing up in response to the coronavirus crisis

Michael Dylan in Rona Munro's Five

In that parallel world that has suddenly slipped beyond our reach, last Wednesday night, 15 April, would have been the Traverse press night for Rona Munro’s new play Donny’s Brain. Munro is one of Scotland’s leading playwrights, well known both for 1990s feminist classics like Bold Girls, and for her mighty James Plays trilogy for the National Theatre of Scotland; but rehearsals for Donny’s Brain – her study of a man literally losing his mind, and forgetting who he is and whom he loves – were halted by the coronavirus lockdown, leaving the five-strong cast, director Caitlin Skinner, and Munro herself, feeling stranded and at a loss.

It’s a measure of Munro’s huge versatility, skill and experience as a writer for all mediums, though, that instead of retreating to lick her wounds, she felt able to try something new. In record time, she invented five new characters inspired by the five actors with whom she had been working, and wrote five monologues for them, ranging in length between seven and 12 minutes; and now – until 2 May, which would have marked the end of the play’s run – all five are available online via YouTube, under the title Five From Inside.

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In a sense, this Traverse offering – rehearsed online, and recorded by the lone actors in lockdown – represents the very best of what has been many performing artists’ first response to the crisis: the impulse to record a solo piece of work, straight to phone camera. Beautifully packaged by designer and editor Daniel Draper, the monologues introduce us to characters ranging from Bhav Joshi’s Jakob – a young man in prison after a horrific act of violence against his own brother – through Michael Dylan’s Mr Bubbles, a children’s entertainer struggling to talk about his own experience of bullying, to Suzanne Magowan’s Clemmy, a woman driven by the agony of childlessness to the most drastic act of theft.

None of the monologues deals directly with the current lockdown, although it’s difficult, in these days, not to feel a special empathy with Siobhan, Roanna Davidson’s freelance designer alone at home while others take credit for her work, or with Lauren Grace’s Fern, a student driven to insanity by hatred of her flatmate. Yet given the limitations of the form, their emotional range is remarkable; all are intense, but they contain huge variations of light and shade, and – at their best – some of Munro’s most powerful writing, full of a piercing and perceptive compassion for humanity at its best and worst.

Also taking the route of solo performances filmed in lockdown is Rapture Theatre, the touring company led by director Michael Emans which scored a massive hit last year with its season of Rapture Bites, taking short-form lunchtime theatre around some of Scotland’s smaller arts venues, from Peebles to East Kilbride. Rapture has taken to the internet with a series of brief, simply-filmed contributions by actors with whom the company has worked in the past, ranging from Robin Kingsland delivering a superb version of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” to Wildcat legend David Anderson performing his own song from The Steamie, All The Best When It Comes, with a gentle passion for live performance captured in his direct gaze towards the phone camera; as he seeks out, from lockdown, the living, popular audience that both he and Rapture Theatre love, and from whom the crisis has temporarily separated them.

There are other ways, though, of making drama in lockdown. Kieran Hurley’s Bubble, presented online by theatre-of-protest group Theatre Uncut, more or less invents a new kind of drama in the form of a series of intercut social media conversations, dealing with a truly chilling crisis that develops on a university campus after a male lecturer “jokingly” refers to a group of female students as sluts. In 48 short minutes, an impressive young cast create a group of around ten fully credible characters, from the leader of the university Feminist Society to a young far-right cyber-warrior, as they chart the evolution of this dispute into a full-blown culture war, complete with Twitter-style interactive polls about the issues raised, and – by the end – openly fascist demonstrations on campus. It’s not theatre; but it is a brilliant and unsettling piece of screen drama, which takes the idea of social media as an arena for dramatic writing to impressive new heights.

For those of us desperately missing the live theatre experience, though, perhaps the most rewarding online theatre available at the moment comes in the form of well-filmed performances of intimate, small-scale shows; the kind where, with the audience up close to the action, it’s almost possible to feel that you, too – at home on your sofa – are there in the room. One of those shows is the mighty Cyprus Avenue, a surreal and definitive study of the madness of sectarian bigotry by Glasgow-based playwright David Ireland, best known to audiences in Scotland for his huge 2018 Traverse hit Ulster American.

Despite winning the James Tait Black Drama Prize during the Edinburgh Festival of 2016, and scoring huge success in London, Dublin, Belfast and New York, Cyprus Avenue has never yet been seen on stage in Scotland; but the Royal Court/ Abbey Theatre production, starring the magnificent Stephen Rea and directed by Vicky Featherstone, is now available online. Expect a riveting 95 minutes of theatre, with one of the most daring swerves from outrageous comedy to absolute tragedy ever seen on stage; and a brilliant, demanding and thrilling good night in – not quite like being there, but truly, tantalisingly close.

The Traverse Theatre’s Five From Inside are available to watch at www.youtube.com/user/traversetheatre until 2 May; Rapture Bites at twitter.com/RaptureTheatre; Bubble by Theatre Uncut at www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2637440603156409; Cyprus Avenue at royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/cyprus-avenue-film/ until 27 April