Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****
In Kieran Hurley’s new play Mouthpiece, though, that’s not only what’s happening in real life, as Orla O’Loughlin delivers her final production as artistic director of the Traverse; it’s also what’s happening on stage, as this astonishing 90-minute two-handed drama powers to its riveting and challenging climax.
In a sense, the story of Hurley’s play is a simple one: forty-something writer Libby has returned home to live with her uncaring mother in Edinburgh, after her playwriting career in London dwindles and fails.
On Salisbury Crags, contemplating suicide, she encounters Declan, a 17-year-old refugee from a deprived city housing estate, who pulls her back from the brink, and is soon showing her his remarkable drawings. A strange friendship blossoms, and Libby begins to write again; but since Declan is her subject, and her new play composed largely of his words, an increasingly tense and desperate struggle ensues over this middle-class appropriation of working-class experience, culminating in a devastating showdown at the Traverse.
The main problem here is that Libby fails to emerge –in Neve Mackintosh’s meticulous performance – as much more than a self-absorbed middle-class woman of limited talent, grievously disappointed by life; her presence and language, as she treats us to her workshop wisdom about the rules of dramatic structure, sometimes make the play feel more like a sharp therapy session for those engaged in the arts, than a real play for today, for Scotland or the world.
The character of Declan, though, is a different matter, a powerhouse of linguistic and emotional energy whose words light up the theatre, in Lorn McDonald’s inspired performance; and whose plight exposes not only the danger of exploitation by bourgeois art-forms in search of “authenticity,” but a whole raft of vital questions to do with class, poverty and deepening social division in Edinburgh and Britain today.
There is a lingering sense that his story might have worked better as a monologue, tightly focused on the anger and potential of Declan’s journey from naivety to disillusion and beyond.
Yet Mouthpiece remains a play that wrestles fiercely and brilliantly with the dilemmas faced by serious artists in a bitterly divided society; and a magnificent farewell to the Traverse from an artistic director whose superb stagecraft, and quiet determination to foreground some of the key issues of our time, has left Scotland’s new writing theatre in a strong position to face the questions so powerfully raised, in this tense and unforgettable winter drama.
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 22 December.