THE coincidence is striking. On Monday lunchtime, the Play, Pie And Pint season at Oran Mor presented the first-ever performance of Rob Drummond’s new play The Mack, an entwined triple monologue about the two massive fires that destroyed Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic Glasgow School of Art building, and broke the hearts of tens of thousands of people, in Scotland and beyond, who had come to love the building and its spaces with an intensity that sometimes seems inappropriate for an inanimate object, however famous and beautiful.
Oran Mor, Glasgow **** | King’s Theatre, Edinburgh **** | Tron Theatre, Glasgow ***
Then, later on Monday, the news broke about the terrible fire at Notre-Dame, raising once again, all across the news bulletins, the same questions that Drummond tries to address in this play. In a beautifully-paced production by Jack Nurse, with gorgeous, lyrical music and sound by Vanlves, we hear from John Michie as a senior fire officer involved in tackling the first Mack blaze in 2014, from Janet Coulson as an American woman academic utterly devastated by the catastrophic fire of 2018, and from James McAnerney as Mackintosh himself, living out his final years in France, and consoled only by the enduring strength of his marriage to fellow-artist Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, to whom he writes while she is away.
Drummond’s decision to use only these late and modest letters as the material for Mackintosh’s monologue – rather than giving him the rich fictional life of the other two characters – perhaps sells the great architect slightly short; it’s left to the passionate expert, beautifully played by Coulson, to evoke the excitement and deeper meaning of his work.
The deepest questions, though, are perhaps raised by John Michie, in a memorable performance as the senior fire officer who suffers severe post-traumatic stress after the first art school fire. In asking himself why he and other fire-fighters risked their lives to defend a building, Michie’s character gradually moves towards a recognition of his own mortality, and of the final importance of love, that brings him very close to the Mackintosh of those last letters; but finds no easy answers to the question of how much we owe to the buildings we love, and how much we lose, if we finally decide to let them go.
It’s clear that rebuilding Notre-Dame – or any similar ancient monument – would not count as a spending priority for Beverly, the notoriously appalling heroine of Mike Leigh’s 1979 devised masterpiece Abigail’s Party. Set in the 1970s living room from hell, all lava lamps and leather sofas, the play chronicles the truly terrible evening that ensues when Beverly and her long-suffering estate-agent husband Laurence invite a few neighbours round for drinks.
It soon becomes clear that from the olives on the table to the music on the record player, Beverly and Laurence’s home is a site of cultural struggle between the traditional, revered and classy on one hand, and the brash, trashy and modern on the other; and when their guests – new young neighbours Angela and Tony, and shy middle-class divorcee Sue – are drawn into the battle, nothing but mayhem, misery and vomiting can possibly ensue.
Sarah Esdaile’s touring production gives full and hilarious value to every aspect of what has now become a classic absurdist comedy about suburban marital misery, and the spiritual wasteland of affluence without meaning; and with Jodie Prenger in comely but overwhelming form as Beverly, the show’s darkly hilarious ending leaves the audience shocked, exhilarated and hungry for more.
Francesca Bartellini’s monologue Father, which had its European premiere at the Tron this week, offers another deeply troubling picture of family life in the west. Here, though, the story is told mainly by a middle-aged mother who has just learned what she fears she always partly knew; that her ex-partner, a well-known climate scientist, systematically abused their now grown-up daughter throughout her childhood.
Bartellini’s hesitant and under-rehearsed performance does her complex text few favours, and often makes it extremely difficult to follow. Somewhere in the dense poetic texture of the script, though, there is a haunting vision of a world destroyed by patriarchal attitudes taking some kind of watery revenge on the whole of humanity; including women like this mother, who collude with abusive men by somehow seeing and saying nothing, even when the truth is right in front of their eyes.