International dramas of patriots, prejudice and shared culture

THE ENTERTAINER

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow

15 SECONDS

Traverse Theatre,

Edinburgh

IN TIMES of crisis it is not unusual for us to ask, as the great dramatist Arthur Miller did in a recent article for the New York Times, "What is theatre for?" The Scottish stage appears to be attempting to answer that question with two very different plays which, nevertheless, come to us laden with deeper significance. John Osborne’s drama The Entertainer finds itself more reflective of Britain’s role in international events than at any time since it was written in the late 1950s. By contrast, where the English work relates to conflict, Franois Archambault’s six-year-old play 15 Seconds contributes to a growing cultural relationship between Scotland and Quebec.

Sitting in the Citizens’ main auditorium just hours before the outbreak of war in Iraq was a peculiarly eerie experience. Osborne’s The Entertainer, written as an angry excavation of Britain during and after another Middle Eastern conflict, the Suez Crisis, has found its moment. Some would say that the passion of our national debate over Iraq renders the seemingly narcissistic music hall artiste Archie Rice a poor symbol for our particular times. However, the Rice family is peopled with characters who could represent so many of us today.

Retired performer Billy Rice is a down-the-line patriot . His support for the British troops in Egypt is not so much political as instinctive. His beloved granddaughter, Jean, is of a more sceptical generation. Having never considered herself a political animal, she found herself a first-time demonstrator in the Trafalgar Square protest against the Suez deployment. These facts are laced throughout the play and, in Caroline Paterson’s powerfully atmospheric production, are assisted by a series of projected images that make explicit the contemporary parallels.

Archie performs his moth-eaten variety act before dwindling audiences in dog-eared music hall theatres. As he beds a procession of desperate chorus girls and barmaids, his long-suffering wife, Phoebe, drinks herself into oblivion in their ramshackle bedsit. For the Rices, as Archie’s son Frank proclaims sardonically, "every night is party night".

The war in Egypt finds its unforgiving way into their already shattered lives. As it does so, this brilliant cast, with Anne Myatt a gut-wrenching Phoebe and Sean Scanlan scintillating as Archie, leaves shivers running down the spine. Kenny Miller has designed a masterful set that is at once perfectly aesthetically attuned and absolutely utilitarian.

Whereas Osborne’s work succeeds consummately in imposing itself upon our times, 15 Seconds, by up-and-coming Quebecois playwright Archambault, looks more like a very good play trapped in a decent play’s body. Although occasionally deeply emotive, this drama of antediluvian prejudices about disability vacillates between serious social theatre and a restaging of television’s This Life.

Mathieu, played by the excellent Jamie Beddard, lives with his 30-something brother Claude (a typecast Joe McFadden), who in turn is starting something with Charlotte. She, meanwhile, is trying to extricate herself from her long-term relationship with Richard. The only departure from televisual dysfunctional normality is that Mathieu has been living with cerebral palsy since birth.

Although the play’s sensitive treatment of the ludicrously taboo subject of disability and sexuality is welcome, one can’t help but feel that the piece pulls its punches. The script has some peculiar shifts in tone and quality. These appear to have little to do with Isabel Wright’s subtle translation of it into modern Scots, but rather hinge on Archambault’s predilection for taking refuge in soapy writing.

Mathieu’s battling with the desexualising bigotry he has faced is captivating. Richard’s sense of emotional loss combines with his filthy bigotries in the play’s most startlingly uncomfortable moment. Yet such scenes are offset by the predictability of Charlotte’s yuppie philosophy and Claude’s self-consciously self-pitying monologues.

There is little wrong with Roxana Silbert’s zippy production that cannot be attributed to the uneven script. The acting is uniformly impressive, not least from Gabriel Quigley as the febrile Charlotte and Paul Blair’s fine performance as Richard. Ultimately 15 Seconds suggests that Archambault is a promising writer, but not yet assured a place among the greats of Quebecois theatre, such as Michel Tremblay and Robert Lepage. One only hopes that in Quebec they have the good sense we seem to lack, and don’t try to force him to run before he can walk.

Both productions run until April 5

In last week’s theatre review we stated that Muriel Romanes, artistic director of Stellar Quines theatre company, is director of their touring production of Wit. The director is Gaynor Macfarlane. We apologise for the error