Lockdown monologues – or dialogues – can be overwhelmingly powerful. Filmed in a kitchen or bedroom, often using a mobile phone, they can still take us on extraordinary journeys; and the first two groups of National Theatre of Scotland Scenes For Survival reviewed here, over the last six weeks, offered some astonishing lockdown journeys, including Brian Cox’s Rebus musings from upstate New York, Kate Dickie enduring her own Covid journey in the words of Jenni Fagan, Peter Mullan bringing a whole new meaning to the words “domestic drama” in his lockdown conference of the birds, aka Douglas Maxwell’s Fatbaws, and Shetland star Mark Bonnar’s extraordinary work in Rob Drummond’s Larchview, as a leading public health scientist caught out breaking lockdown rules.
Sixteen weeks into the experience, though, I guess we are all a little stir crazy; and that’s perhaps why, in the latest batch of nine NTS shows – bringing us to the midpoint of this remarkable 50-show series – it’s the plays staged in an outdoor setting that catch the attention, and that seem to come closest to evoking the energy of a real theatre performance; not because there is an audience, but because the presence around the actors of city life, however subdued, at least suggests the possibility of one, and of theatre’s historic public role.
So there’s show number 20, Strolling Across The Meadows (****), based on Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, and featuring an extraordinary British Sign Language performance by actor Brian Duffy of the section of the novel in which young Spud takes exception to Renton and Sick Boy tormenting an Edinburgh squirrel. Recorded in a park in Seoul, South Korea, Strolling Through The Meadows – like Trainspotting itself, in its various stage versions – emerges as a ferociously vivid dramatic experience, even when performed without subtitles for those without BSL; not least because of the sheer force of the young characters Welsh conceived, back in the 1990s, and Duffy’s skill in evoking their special energy, without uttering a word.
Also recorded outside – on a dizzying bicycle dash across Glasgow – is Kevin P Gilday’s Courier Culture (*****), a brilliant five-minute movie about an hour in the life of a fast-food delivery rider, superbly performed by Jatinder Singh Randhawa, and directed by Graham Eatough. The rider is a “key worker” in a world dependent on doorstep food deliveries, or so is he is told. Yet his life and earnings are governed by an app that detects every minor error or delay; and his plight perfectly reflects the odd and dangerous politics of a lockdown country that was happy to sentimentalise key workers for ten minutes every Thursday night, but persists in electing governments that will not protect them from grotesque neo-Victorian labour conditions.
Director Niloo-Far Khan’s Black Scots (****) – a monologue from the National Theatre of Scotland’s 2018 Quebecois co-production of First Snow/Premiere Neige, by Linda McLean, Philippe Ducros and Davey Anderson – films actor Thierry Mabongo on a daily run around Glasgow city centre towards Kelvingrove, as he reflects on the journey that brought him as a child refugee from the Congo to make a new life in a city where he soon discovered that he was not, after all, the first black person ever to live there. And Andy McGregor’s The Park (****) is a beautiful lockdown reflection on what this strange time has meant to his two little sons, aged two and five, baffled to find themselves locked out of the playground in their local park. In a sense, this is the least “artful” of the Scenes For Survival so far, a straightforward lockdown story, delivered to perfection by actor and writer Martin McCormack. Yet there’s something heart-wrenching about the beauty of the film director Ben Harrison has created, from this apparently simple material; and about the children themselves, finding new joys in the trees and flowers and puddles they never really noticed before, in their daily rush across the park, towards the swings.
Of the more domestic films released as Scenes For Survival in the last three weeks, there’s a rare power to Apphia Campbell’s Birdie’s Dilemma (****), in which another victim of Britain’s “flexible” labour market reaches breaking-point, a gorgeous run-up to a first gay kiss in Meghan Tyler’s The One With The Lockdown (****), and some brilliant spooky music by Pippa Murphy, setting the scene for Denise Mina’s Aleister Crowley Summons The Devil (***); but as ever, after so many lockdown sessions, there’s a sense of wild nostalgic relief in returning to what was once the standard format for theatre companies appearing online, the filmed live performance. Matthew Zajac’s Dogstar Theatre is one of Scotland’s most enterprising touring theatre companies, expert in surviving on the shoestring of project funding; and in lockdown, it has taken some of its most successful work online, with each film for hire for the princely sum of £3.19.
This means that for under a tenner you can spend an evening watching two impressive Dogstar shows, plus a moving documentary about the making of one of them, the solo show The Tailor Of Inverness, about the complex life-story of Zajac’s Polish father, who settled in Inverness after the Second World War. The Tailor Of Inverness (****) itself is available, powerfully filmed in front of a live audience in Ben Harrison’s memorable 2008 production, magnificently performed by Zajac, and featuring the gorgeous music of fiddler Jonny Hardie; you can also watch Circling A Fox, Brian Ross’s documentary film about Zajac’s quest for the truth about his father’s life.
And also newly online is Factor 9 (****), Dogstar’s explosive 2014 exposé, written by Hamish MacDonald from real-life testimony, of the shocking 1980s Scottish contaminated blood scandal, which left a whole cohort of haemophilia sufferers infected with AIDS and other illnesses. This show has always been better at expressing the rage and incredulity of the victims of this scandal than at lucidly explaining the shocking chain of events that led to it. Yet it’s a powerful, strongly visual piece of theatre, performed with brutal force by Zajac and Stewart Porter, that delivers one of the key functions of theatre, in telling a story too often sidelined by other media; and the sound of the audience’s collective response is both thrilling and moving, in these times when we must watch alone or with our families, and can no longer – for a while – gasp and breathe and learn in unison with strangers, in the special space we call theatre.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s Scenes For Survival are available free at www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/events/scenes-for-survival. Dogstar Theatre shows & documentary available at £3.19 each at www.dogstartheatre.co.uk.
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