The Little Match Girl Passion - Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh *****
Blackbird - Tron Theatre, Glasgow ****
The Kiss - Oran Mor, Glasgow ****
WE’RE all familiar, from a thousand advertising billboards, with the idealised image of childhood, and of what it means to care for a young child: the cuddles, the kisses, the unconditional love. It’s one of the great paradoxes of human experience, though, that children always unleash conflicting streams of emotion in the adults around them. If they’re lucky, they get all the love and support they need; if not, their very need and vulnerability can generate resentment, coldness, cruelty and exploitation on a scale that has been the stuff of fairytale and story throughout human history.
The power of Hans Christian Andersen’s great 1845 story The Little Match Girl lies in the sharpness with which he places that cruelty in the context of a whole society that has become so indifferent to its own poor, and so bereft of any sense of common humanity, that it will let a little ragged girl die of cold in the street rather than pick her up and give her the food and warmth she needs. In the story, Andersen faces down the risks of extreme sentimentality and pathos to expose the plain, unbearable truth that blameless little children die in their thousands every day, across the planet, from sheer lack of care. Now that same spirit of protest – angry, passionate, lyrical and beautiful – is carried forward into our time, in composer David Lang’s exquisite 35-minute The Little Match Girl Passion, which sets words from Andersen’s story in the format of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
Performed by one dancer and four singers, who also play a simple, haunting percussion score on drum, xylophone and bells, Lang’s work, as directed by Josh Armstrong, emerges as a fiercely poignant and thoughtful short oratorio in theatrical form, which brings together dance, song, and powerful stage design to evoke an uneasy bourgeois society – Victorian in dress and decor, but contemporary in feel – shocked into mourning and self-examination by its own fatal lack of compassion.
Sung to perfection by Nicola Corbishley, Clare Wilkinson, Christopher Watson and Jimmy Holliday, the music is fragmented and yet flowing, full of stammered exclamations of shock or grief. If the dance elements sometimes seem a shade overemphatic, and less well integrated into the picture, the sheer precision and beauty of the music, matched by Paul Sorley’s lighting and Armstrong’s own rich design, drives like an emotional dagger towards the heart, challenging and thrilling as it goes. And the show, which is part of this year’s cross-artform Autumn Festival at the Traverse, is accompanied by a 25 minute duet for cello and moving images called World To Come, which – in flickering textures beautifully expressed by cellist Oliver Coates – seems like a close-up examination of the little match girl’s last moments, and of the possible glimmering worlds that lie beyond our last intake of breath.
The abuse of a child is also central to the drama of David Harrower’s great 2005 dialogue Blackbird, first seen in the Edinburgh Festival of that year in a controversial large-scale production by Peter Stein. York-based Pilot Theatre’s current touring version of the play is a much leaner and simpler affair, which focuses tightly on the play’s 75-minute conversation between middle-aged Ray, a mid-ranking manager in a factory somewhere in England, and Una, the young woman with whom he had an abusive sexual relationship 15 years earlier, when he was 40, and she was only 12. Ray has served his time in prison and apparently moved on, changing his name, forming a new relationship; but Una seems caught forever in the awful moment when Ray abandoned her in a port town on the east coast of England, from where they had been planning to flee the country together.
Katie Posner’s short, tight production ramps up the pace and tension of Harrower’s famously unresolved dialogue, losing in the process some of its dark, lyrical sense of beauty and tragedy: Charlie Covell’s damaged Una is brittle and brusque almost to the point of hardness, and the production does nothing to ease us through the play’s shockingly abrupt ending. There’s no denying the disturbing power of the dialogue, though, or the strength of the performances, from Covell and a memorable George Costigan as Ray; and we’re left shaken and troubled, as ever, by the power, the poetry, the rage and the damaged yearning of one of the true classics of modern Scottish playwriting, a play rich with questions, and bold enough to offer no answers at all.
There are no answers, either, in Murray Watts’s new play for the Play Pie and Pint season at Oran Mor; although in The Kiss, the questions belong not to childhood, but to the end of life. A man and a woman meet on a park bench, both bereft of all but the vaguest snatches of memory; it’s possible that they are already dead, beyond the reach of names and identities that no longer matter. For 50 minutes, they talk and argue, playing out every possible variation on male-female relationships; they are lovers, husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter, nurse and patient, murderer and victim, and sometimes just friendly strangers.
Sometimes, memories return to this couple so vividly that both are almost persuaded of a shared past life; often, they barely recognise one another at all. All of this is beautifully and subtly recreated in Watts’s text, which sometimes seems a shade aimless, but never without interest. And if, in the end, the play seems like little more than a variation on an increasingly familiar dramatic theme, it’s bold and powerful enough to draw two memorable performances from Anne Kidd and Andrew Harrison, as people who have somehow moved beyond the bounds of everyday human life, but are still divided by a sense of gender – as wound and possibility – that even death cannot quite destroy.
• The Little Match Girl Passion is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 22-23 November. Blackbird at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and The Kiss at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both run until 19 November.