Theatre: From war abroad to a war at home


BACK in the 1940s, when social scientists first invented the term “nuclear family” to describe the small family unit making its way in the world without the help of an extended group of relatives, they may have been worried about the future of an increasingly fragmented society.

I doubt, though, whether they ever imagined the dark, claustrophobic world of imploding family neuroses increasingly portrayed in the short plays that make up the two annual Arches festivals of new theatre, or the way violence would begin to stalk the imagination of a society in which fear and loathing of the world beyond the front door has become a kind of folk religion.

In Rob Drummond’s Sixteen – the opening show of this year’s Arches Theatre Festival, and a joint winner of the Arches Award for Stage Directors – this neurotic form of family life reaches a crisis on the eve of daughter Sarah’s 16th birthday, when her 30-something foreign boyfriend Tony arrives at the family home to celebrate the stroke of midnight by having sex with her. Her father, Mr Marshall, is appalled to the point of desperate violence: egged on by the xenophobic telephone voice of his brother, he contemplates knifings, poisonings, decapitations. The still-comely Mrs Marshall, by contrast, has lost the plot through a progressive form of dementia, and – after a 30-year sexless marriage – seems quite pleased to think that someone might be about to have some fun.

Out of this archetypal situation, Drummond conjures a chilling hour of theatre, full of an almost Pinter-esque sense of the concealed fear and loathing beneath the surface of ordinary British life. There’s also an added streak of pure, beautifully-written absurdism in the long, confused, slightly suggestive monologues of the wrecked Mrs Marshall, superbly played by Lorraine McIntosh; and in the chronic failure of communication between the Marshalls, who speak only English, and Tony, who speaks only his own language. We hear his tragic story, but they do not, and in that single theatrical stroke, this clever, haunting play drives to the heart of an increasingly neurotic domestic world, in which fear of “the other” – at least as it relates to our own children – has taken on a strange double meaning.

The other 2008 Arches Award Winner is Daljinder Singh, who – unlike Drummond, who writes his own material – chooses to work with writer Oliver Emanuel. The Severed Head Of Comrade Bukhari is an eerie, fragmented piece of 21st century urban noir in which a gang of four thugs hang around in an underpass, tormented and amused by the female voice of an ancient, cast-off juke-box, which churns out enigmatic homespun wisdom along with a series of half-strangled rock classics.

Singh’s production certainly shows an almost frightening amount of theatrical invention and assurance. In its quest for bleak images of psychotic violence, the script mentions the great British film Brighton Rock. But the look and lighting of the show – as it moves through five short, clearly-defined acts – also conjures up a whole range of cultural references, from 1940s Edward Hopper images of American urban loneliness, to the cultish surreal machismo of recent gangster movies, and even Jacobean tragedy, with its gothic horror and chilling dumb-shows.

Whether Emanuel’s play really has anything original to say about violence, displacement, the lives of men in foreign cities, or any of the other intensely topical subjects on which it touches, is debatable, and the plot-twist that brings the theme of incest into the frame, along with a touch of post-mortem cross-dressing, seems wearily over-familiar. As an exercise in style, though, Singh’s production of The Severed Head is an impressive piece of work, and the Arches Award is, in the end, intended to promote not new writing, but the neglected art of good direction, in which Singh is clearly an emerging star.

For sheer up-front engagement with the burning political issue of our time, though, it’s difficult to imagine a more lively new play than Kieran Lynn’s An Advert For The Army, playing this week at Oran Mor. It’s not that Lynn’s short lunchtime play – which features a down-on-his-luck film director sent to the current war-zone to make an army recruitment advert, and two soldiers ordered to take part in it – is in any way polished or subtle. An actor as well as a playwright, Lynn is the youngest professional writer ever to feature in an Oran Mor season. The texture of his play is uneven, and Daniel Jackson’s production thumps awkwardly from scene to scene, with too many extended blackouts.

What Lynn does, though, is to tackle the subject of war through a form of grotesque farce – part Dario Fo, part M*A*S*H – that brings a whole new dimension of angry laughter to Scottish theatre’s response to the current wars, dominated until now by the narrative complexity and mind-blowing spectacle of Black Watch. Ryan Fletcher, himself a Black Watch actor, turns in a fine comic performance as reluctant film-actor Barrett, with Carmen Pieraccini in superb form as his fierce female colleague Sarah; Tam Dean Burn rants effectively as the director. And if Lynn’s first Oran Mor play gives audiences a bumpy ride, it still shows a fine sense of how to take hold of a huge political theme, and thump it round the stage with exactly the kind of nerve and irreverence any successful artist needs.

&149 Sixteen and Severed Head are at the Arches, Glasgow, until tomorrow, and at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 16-19 April; An Advert For The Army is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow. The Arches Theatre Festival continues until 19 April.