Theatre reviews: Secrets | Poke | Wuthering Heights

NOT many people know this, least of all in Scotland itself; but nonetheless, there are probably now few countries on earth where the quest for the new, in the next generation of theatre, is pursued more intensely or in a wider range of ways than in Edinburgh, Glasgow and beyond.
Poke. Picture: ContributedPoke. Picture: Contributed
Poke. Picture: Contributed


Oran Mor, Glasgow

Rating: ****


Rating: **

Wuthering Heights

Rating: ****

The Arches, Glasgow

The Traverse, the Tron, the Play, Pie and Pint seasons at Oran Mor and the Arches all have a remit to explore new territories; and we also have a National Theatre that regards new work as key part of its remit.

So it’s not surprising, at Oran Mor on a Monday lunchtime, to find the National Theatre of Scotland going into partnership with David MacLennan’s Play, Pie and Pint season – and with the Bedlam in Edinburgh and the Regal, Bathgate, which will host performances over the coming weeks – to present three new plays from China, each recast in English by a leading Scottish writer, and designed to offer an insight into the tensions surrounding life in China today.

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The first play – written by Beijing-based writer Lin Weiran, with an English version by Rona Munro – is Secrets, a brief two-handed drama in which a young married woman in a modern Chinese city, comfortably established with a wealthy doctor husband and a baby son, receives a devastatingly disruptive visit from her previous lover, who abandoned her 18 months before.

Over 50 painful and compelling minutes – full of stricken defensiveness on her part, and a kind of desperate emotional opportunism on his – the two explore what happened to their love, reaffirm their continuing passion for each other, and then face the reality of his shocking inability to commit to her. The play sometimes seems a shade rambling and repetitive, as if the most subtle nuances of the evolving conversation were not quite making it into English; there’s a strange, distracting decision to set the action around two obtrusive piles of dusty bricks.

Yet in Graeme Maley’s production, Secrets offers a brilliant central performance from Helen Mallon as the woman, well supported by Mark Wood as her former boyfriend. The play emerges as a timeless story about love destroyed by the gulf between rich and poor, given an extra edge both by a modern feminist perspective on male cowardice and game-playing, and by an acute sense of China’s booming consumer culture; with all the pressure it creates – for both men and women – to find a partner who can keep them, in the manner China’s new urban culture increasingly demands.

Over at the Arches, meanwhile, this year’s winners of the Platform 18 Award for the development of new performance – co-sponsored by the Arches and the Traverse Theatre – are in playful mood, throwing around ideas about gender with impressive force, and variable results. Amanda Monfrooe’s Poke, which opens the evening, is a strange, obsessive epic poem – part mythological, part satirical –in which the last two women on earth, following a final holocaust of misogynistic violence, meditate upon the penis, and its role in making men behave not only badly, but with catastrophic destructive madness.

The writing ranges from the intensely erotic and the feebly jocular to the atrociously pretentious, sometimes – disturbingly – achieving all three at once; the women, often transformed into goddesses in panto-style head-dresses, argue violently over how to bring up their imaginary daughter, and are eventually condemned as no better than the men against whom they rail. The whole piece seems uneasily poised between undergraduate sarcasm, raging feminist fury, and a mature, howling grief at the likely fate of the species; often, it’s more like an embarrassing illustrated narrative with weak jokes, than any kind of drama. But its intensity is not to be denied, and it’s performed in truly gallant style by Claire Willoughby and Lesley Asare, who deserve a round of applause for dealing gracefully with the difficult, and – here and there – ploughing on through the downright impossible.

Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, by contrast, is a strikingly graceful and well-shaped show, despite elements that demand an audience with a certain tolerance for the daft. Performed by a group of five fine young male theatre-makers in their twenties, Wuthering Heights is a powerful 50- minute reflection on themes suggested by Emily Brontë’s great novel, and notably on the character of Heathcliff, the damaged, violent romantic hero at the centre of the story.

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It’s possible to quibble with some elements of McMaster’s work. The group dance-in to the sound and movement of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is too jokey to sit easily with the rest of the material, which shows a real respect for the brooding darkness of Brontë’s vision; the imagined presence of the horses, neighing and galloping around the place in some scenes, is a high-risk strategy.

Yet time and again, in McMaster’s piece, the sheer quality and focus of the ensemble performance sweeps away any reservations about the show’s content, and vindicates McMaster’s decisions. The acting, the writing and the choreography of the piece are all beautifully prepared and crafted, and the show’s quiet conclusion – a series of meditations on modern male lives, followed by a tiny, vivid final glimpse of Heathcliff and Cathy playing as children – is truly moving, as one of Scotland’s most interesting young theatre-makers moves forward, into new ground.

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• Secrets is at Oran Mor until 27 April, at the Regal, Bathgate on 28 April and at the Bedlam Theatre, Edinburgh, from 30 April until 4 May. Poke and Wuthering Heights are at the Arches, Glasgow until 27 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, from 1-3 May.