Theatre reviews: Mischief | Krapp's Last Tape

It's notoriously difficult to make credible drama of a tale set in ancient times that carries a certain mythical force; so difficult that Chekhov famously based the whole first act of The Seagull on the failure of one such show. Yet in this latest Play, Pie And Pint lunchtime show '“ at the Traverse from Tuesday '“ director Gerda Stevenson offers something like a master class in how to combine mythical meaning and successful drama, by presenting the three characters in Ellie Stewart's new play Mischief as richly believable human beings '“ drawn in large, bold brush strokes, but instantly recognisable.

Gerry Mulgrew in Krapp's Last Tape at the Tron

Mischief ****

Oran Mor, Glasgow

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Krapp’s Last Tape ****

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

So, on an island off Scotland around the dawn of the Christian era, we meet beautiful, flame-haired Ronnat and her lovely young daughter Brigid, who keep a herd of cows for the monks at the abbey across the sound; we learn that they are there thanks to the “kindness” of the late Abbot, who was Brigid’s natural father. And we meet Fari, a young sailor from further north, who washes up on their shore, enjoys the sexual favours of both women, and fathers Brigid’s child.

It’s a simple plot-structure, and its purpose is clear; to show us an old matriarchal culture – or cultures, both Gaelic and Nordic – gradually breaking under the pressure of an increasingly authoritarian and elaborate Christianity, which frames sex as shameful, and women as a source of devilish “mischief” if not under strict patriarchal control.

Elspeth Turner and Alison McFarlane turn in a rich and beautiful pair of performances as Ronnat and Brigid, with David Rankine in strong support as Fari; and with Stevenson’s strong hand on the tiller, blending music, movement and two languages in a near-perfect balance, this theatrical ship comes home in fine style – grey hempen clothes, Celtic standing stones, and all.

As a response to the dwindling of traditional Christian faith, the theatre of Samuel Beckett could hardly taker a more different approach; his plays inhabit a pared-down universe where nothing is certain but the brief flicker of human consciousness, and the darkness around us. In Krapp’s Last Tape, first performed in 1958, he imagines a man of 69 recording the last of the birthday tapes he has created every year throughout his adult life; but first, listening to the one he made 30 years earlier, both appalled at his own youthful arrogance, and entranced by the sensual memory of what was perhaps the key turning-point of his life.

Just 50 minutes long, the play represents perhaps the finest balance between comedy and tragedy anywhere in Beckett’s work; and it was a privilege to see it briefly brought to life, last week, by great Scottish actor and director Gerry Mulgrew, who tackles the text with a whitened face and reddened nose, emphasising – although not over-stating – the character’s clown-like qualities. Mulgrew is always more satirical than overtly emotional, as an actor. Yet here – in Paul Brotherston’s fine production, and after much by-play with Krapp’s bananas – he achieves a final steely self-loathing that crushes the heart; the last, defining emotion of a man who detests emotional display, and of a life largely unlived, for no good reason at all.

*Mischief at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 11-15 October. Krapp’s Last Tape, run completed.