Theatre reviews: Scenes for Survival | Denouement | Shades of Tay

The final tranche of Scenes For Survival from the NTS are both apocalyptic and uplifting, writes Joyce McMillan

Sanjeev Kohli in The Quiz, part of the National Theatre of Scotland's Scenes for Survival series

Apocalypse now? Well, not quite yet, perhaps; but there’s certainly something about the sudden shock of lockdown that makes it easier to explore, in imagination, that possible moment when our whole world shudders to a halt, in a maelstrom of social and environmental disaster. The National Theatre of Scotland’s remarkable Scenes For Survival series – which stormed to a conclusion last week, with 55 short films made over five months by more than 200 theatre artists, now available free via the NTS and BBC websites – has not been short of apocalyptic visions, notably in Greg McHugh’s Naeb’dy and Andy Edwards’s Happy Ark Day; and the final batch of scenes released last week included a fierce vision of the end in writer and director Alan McKendrick’s The Mass Launching Of Jawline Sabbatical (****), which imagines a virus-free suburb – one of the few left in the world – in which the whole population of 12,000 is somehow persuaded to launch itself into space in individual flat-pack spaceships, assembled at home.

As scenarios go, it is beyond strange; but McKendrick’s gift, as a surrealist and hyper-realist, is to avoid detail, and create a unique atmosphere around dystopian visions so vivid we can almost taste them. In this case, he uses a combination of poetic monologue voiced by actor Ross Mann, and a series of potent and strangely heightened images of ordinary suburban locations around Glasgow – edited with powerful graphics by Carrie Skinner – to tell a story that reflects on lockdown exhaustion, on the retreat to the suburbs that has been part of the experience for so many, and on the credulity that might have us hanging on to the idea that the authorities know best, even when they are clearly inviting us to collective suicide.

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McKendrick’s female hero, Fabienne, can’t resist the call to look to the future, even when she knows there probably is none; and in that determination to “give a good account of herself” to the end, she has something in common with Liam and Edel, the elderly couple at the heart of John Morton’s new apocalypse play Denouement (*****), given a tremendous rehearsed reading in an audio recording available at the Traverse Festival website. Co-produced with the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, this 90-minute version of Morton’s play is directed by Gareth Nicholls of the Traverse, and features an unforgettable double act from real-life couple Ian McElhinney and Marie Jones, two of the most powerful theatre artists Northern Ireland has ever produced. McElhinney is probably now best known for roles in Game Of Thrones and Derry Girls, Marie Jones for her colossal success as a playwright, with hits ranging from Stones In His Pockets to Women On The Verge Of HRT.

Here, though – in Morton’s brave and clever tragic-comic vision of a couple facing the end of everything in a ravaged rural Ireland – they give a remarkable pair of performances, both intensely believable and full of stylish Beckettian surrealism and comedy, as an ageing couple who have been living through the end of the world for quite a few years now, and have pretty much had enough of it, but for Liam’s determination to finish his memoirs, and Edel’s wish to say a final farewell to her errant son.There are a few last revelations to learn to live with, before the sky finally goes dark; and one moment of true tragedy, when they say goodbye on a fading Skype link to their daughter and grand-daughter. Morton’s observation, though, is that humanity’s impulse to make the best of things, and to extract whatever pleasure we can from the moment, will probably remain with us to the very end; and it’s impossible to imagine two actors better placed to embody the moment Morton imagines here, when Beckett’s strange vision of life on the edge of oblivion crashes into what’s left of everyday reality, and the two finally become one.

Apocalypse, though, is not the only theme running through the final group of NTS Scenes, which also includes a deft and beautifully-performed piece of lockdown comedy in Sanjeev Kohli’s The Quiz (****), and three powerful pieces about lockdown angst in Bea Webster’s Squeezy Yogurt (****) – passionately performed in British Sign Language by Brooklyn Melvin – Catherine Grosvenor’s Listen To Me (***), and Aine King’s poignant Running Out (***). There’s one outright romantic musical comedy, in Finn Anderson’s delightful Call To Adventure (****), about a gay office romance finally taking flight during lockdown. And in Liz Lochhead’s Credo – filmed with great flair by Morag Fullarton at the Kelvingrove bandstand, and also featuring actor Andy Clark – Scenes For Survival returns to the theme of theatre itself, and to Lochhead’s passion for theatre that just “tells the story, in the present tense.”

There’s also Danni The Champion (*****), a brilliantly-made short-film collaboration involving writer Iain Finlay Macleod, director Laura Cameron-Lewis and actor Francesca Taylor Coleman, about a young Lewis girl racing towards a moment of self-discovery that has the potential to become a moment of self-destruction, unless she finds her own inner strength. Filmed across the island in both English and Gaelic, visually thrilling and pulsing with humanity, Danni The Champion is a gorgeous piece of work; and it touches on themes of gender, identity, hope and despair that are also strongly present in the continuing Shades of Tay season from Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Among the latest Shades Of Tay films-with-words are The Birch Tree Speaks (****) by mighty feminist playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, and Jo Clifford’s Shadow Of Tay (****); and both reflect a sense of female history that is both ancient and ever-changing, as fluid in these times as the river itself, and yet as enduring, and as beautiful.

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