DREAMS, nightmares, fantasy, illusion; for more than a decade, now, playwrights in the west have been growing ever more fascinated by the power of theatre to explore the altered realities experienced by people with what are called mental health problems.
Right Now | Rating: **** | Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Leaf By Niggle | Rating: **** | Macrobert, Stirling
Let it Be | Rating: **** | Playhouse, Edinburgh
This 2008 play by the Quebecois writer and actress Catherine-Anne Toupin is the first I’ve seen, though, that looks squarely at the mental turmoil sometimes experienced by new mothers.
And in Michael Boyd’s fierce, no-holds barred production for the Traverse, the Bush Theatre and Bath Theatre Royal, the play receives the kind of UK premiere of which everyone involved can be proud. It’s a riot of sex and strangeness, grief and nightmarish confusion that strangely recalls everything from Joe Orton to Rosemary’s Baby, and then adds some powerful twists of its own. So in the play’s opening scene we meet Alice and Ben, a young couple apparently struggling with some kind of grievous loss; their city flat is haunted by the sound of a crying baby.
Alice’s solitude is soon disrupted, though, by increasingly insistent visits from their intrusive middle-aged neighbours Juliette and Gilles, and their grown-up son Francois. Before long, the play evolves into a cross between chiller movie and Freudian nightmare, as the sexually frank and demanding Juliette and Gilles seduce their new friends like the abusive parents from hell, and the action speeds up, over 80 minutes, into intense, hormonally charged farce.
All of this is conveyed with knife-edge accuracy by Boyd’s superb cast of five, with Lindsay Campbell as Alice, and a wickedly magnificent Maureen Beattie as Juliette. The play ends with a breathtakingly beautiful and unexpected coup de theatre; one that reminds us of the vital story, so often ignored in western culture, of what it costs to bring new life into the world, and of the truth that like any transformation, this one involves grief and loss, as well as joy.
Puppet State’s new show Leaf By Niggle – an exquisite 75-minute monologue written and performed Richard Medrington, based on a story by JRR Tolkien – also deals in altered states but this is a show that seems to confront the last and most mysterious alteration of all. Billed as being for audiences over ten – but in fact emerging as a show more for adults than for the young, it tells the story of an unremarkable man, Niggle, who derives great joy from his hobby of making beautiful, detailed paintings of leaves. His labours are interrupted by his irritating neighbour, and a strange driver in black, who arrives to take him away into a different world in which his work as a painter acquires a huge, unimagined new value. Leaf By Niggle is a sentimental story, an extended piece of adult wishful thinking.
Yet it’s so beautifully told here, with a superb use of small objects supposedly culled from Medrington’s own family history, that it becomes completely seductive; and it has a rare quality of transporting us, for a while, into a completely different reality, where a benign universe fully recognises what is most valuable about each of us, and our unexpected capacity to invent whole new worlds for ourselves, at the most unlikely moments.
As for the Beatles musical Let It Be, at the Playhouse this week - well, if ever a band succeeded in altering the mental state of a generation, it was the four cheeky lads from Liverpool who shot to global fame in the heady summer of 1963.
Let It Be is the most purely musical of tribute shows, an avalanche of around 40 classic songs from Please Please Me at the beginning to Hey Jude at the end, with a touch of historical background on voice-over and video screens. It not only reminds us of the group’s huge, prolific creativity, and its rapid evolution through the decade, it also recreates certain key moments and concerts with a pinpoint accuracy that is almost uncanny. When the curtain first rose on a recreation of an early Sixties Cavern gig, with every detail of the sound, hair, clothes and body language pitch perfect, I felt as if I had fallen through a gap in time, to become my enthralled, lovestruck 11-year-old self again.
This is a superb insight into a band that changed the world, and the show does it simply by focussing on the music, and letting it tell the tale.
• Right Now until 7 May; Leaf By Niggle until tonight, and on tour across Scotland until July; Let It Be ends today.