Deluded dramas suffer identity crisis

The central metaphor in Al Smith's Diary Of A Madman is about the layers of paint on the Forth Rail Bridge. Pop Sheeran is one of a long line of South Queensferry painters who have worked steadily over the decades adding layer upon layer until the girder beneath seems like ancient history.

Its a thrill to see Jessica Almasy, Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson share a stage in Anything That Gives Off Light, even though the play has its flaws. Picture: Jon Savage
Its a thrill to see Jessica Almasy, Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson share a stage in Anything That Gives Off Light, even though the play has its flaws. Picture: Jon Savage

University of Edinburgh student Matthew White is dismissive of this approach. Fresh from a material science course, he’s arrived with a newfangled glass-composite paint that will stick only to metal. For it to work means sanding away all the previous layers.

As Sheeran is an ardent Scottish nationalist with a Braveheart fixation, and as White is an English arriviste symbolising common sense and modernity, there is only one conclusion we can reach from this.

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In the wake of the Scottish referendum, Smith appears to be arguing that the case for independence is based on layer upon distorting layer of myth. Like the paint accumulated over generations, the past weighs heavily on the present. “It’s not the weight of the trains rolling over [the bridge] that’s going to bring her down,” White tells Sheeran. “It’s your obsession with history.”

This is an astonishing line for a play to take – and it’s all the more dispiriting to see it being accepted at face value by many London-based critics. It’s not simply that it’s a cloth-eared analysis of the arguments for and against independence, it’s that in borrowing the idea of insanity from Gogol’s story of the same name, Smith is equating a political argument with a form of psychosis.

Like Poprishchin in the original story, Sheeran is highly sensitive to class and status. Also like Poprishchin, he discovers he can understand the language of a dog. This one, however, comes in the shape of an embittered Greyfriars Bobby who seethes with anti-English sentiment. Sheeran’s madness, in other words, is presented as a symptom of his chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism. It’s a line that is as misrepresentative of Scotland’s politics as its portrait of mental illness is questionable.

If it weren’t for Liam Brennan’s nuanced performance as Sheeran in Christopher Haydon’s Gate Theatre production, the dramatic crudeness of this position would be more exposed still. Imagine if Smith had written a play claiming people who voted to remain in the UK were clinically delusional. It would rightly be called reductive and dismissive, if not plain offensive.

A less reactionary analysis of the way stories from Scotland’s history have shaped the identity of the present comes in Anything That Gives Off Light, a collaboration between Brooklyn company the TEAM, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival. It’s a theatrical road movie in which Red, an American woman played by Jessica Almasy, winds up in a pub where she befriends Brian and Iain, a couple of Scots played by Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson. Together they drive to the country’s talismanic tourist destinations, trying to connect their own lives to the land of Culloden and the Highland clearances. “I’m calibrating my Scottishness,” says Brian.

All three are internally conflicted. Red has left a child behind in West Virginia and has arrived in Scotland on a second honeymoon but without her husband. Brian can’t reconcile the socialist activism of his recently dead grandmother with his life in London as a self-interested middle manager dealing in land acquisitions. In a late-developing plot line, it transpires Iain’s surliness is because of a recent cancer diagnosis, his body literally at war with itself.

These conflicts are mirrored in the contradictory stories they find on their road trip which, in Rachel Chavkin’s characteristically free-flowing production, takes side roads from the Scottish Highlands into the coal fields of West Virginia, home of many an expatriate Scot. They look at the way Lowlanders and Highlanders have been conflated in the popular imagination in spite of their history of conflict, and at the way Scotland and the US regard themselves as underdogs even though all evidence is to the contrary.

The nation-defining myths don’t square with the reality. If the contradictions don’t lead to insanity, à la Diary Of A Madman, the play suggests they do account for a degree of modern-day alienation.

It’s a thrill to see three such distinctive actors sharing a stage, all of them playing with a dry wit and an unpredictable use of space. But while it always holds the attention, the collectively written play has its flaws. The first is the familiarity of the debate about nationhood and identity. This was a perennial theme of Scottish drama in the 1990s and, were it not for the parallel focus on US identity, Anything That Gives Off Light would seem late to the table.

The second is the unprocessed nature of a lot of the dialogue. The character of Iain, in particular, has interesting things to say about economic exploitation and the dangers of free market capitalism as advocated by followers of Adam Smith. It’s an analysis that starts where The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil left off and brings us up to date with a vision of a world threatened with environmental destruction. So far so topical, but too much of it is baldly stated rather than dramatically articulated. Neither is it politically challenged.

It’s a more tightly focused production than many previous shows by the TEAM, despite the jumps in time and place and despite the presence of an all-female band playing a Scottish-Appalachian fusion. That’s a plus point for a company that often has more ideas than it can comfortably accommodate, even if a little more chaos wouldn’t go amiss in this one.

Last week, Summerhall announced attendances were up 30 per cent on 2015, with more tickets bought in the first two weeks than in the whole of last year’s festival. The figures don’t surprise me. The former Dick Vet has set this year’s theatrical agenda. Over the past three weeks, the venue has picked up ten Scotsman Fringe Firsts. You could pretty much stick a pin in the programme and come up with something worthwhile.

To get an idea of the variety, quality and internationalism, consider these three shows you can see back to back. The day begins at 10am with Us/Them by Bronks, a young people’s theatre company appearing as part of the Big in Belgium programme. With two high-definition performances by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, it tells the true story of the 2004 terrorist siege of a school in Beslan from the point of view of two children involved.

Written and directed by Carly Wijs, the play captures both the horror of the event and the students’ youthful priorities, the two of them forever squabbling and boasting as they map out the details of the tragedy. For such a grim subject, it is staged with wit and theatrical flair, yet does not belittle the tragedy.

From there we go to another show aimed at children and enjoyed equally by adults. Last time Mikey And Addiedid the rounds it was a two-hander. Now it has returned as a piece of storytelling theatre with writer Andy Manley taking on both parts (plus the role of a bookish narrator). The change is for the best. Rooted and engaging, Manley is one of Scotland’s most watchable performers, here guiding us through the story of a boy who realises his estranged father is not the spaceman he thought. It’s a touching tale about life losing its imaginative colour as maturity sets in – and about finding a way to put our problems in perspective.

Next in this Summerhall day comes Letters To Windsor House, Sh!t Theatre’s deliberately messy piece of home-made docu-drama in which Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit present the London housing crisis in terms of flat-sharing squalor and voracious gentrification. It’s scuzzy and funny and, although it could take its ideas further, it has a punkish recklessness that delights a Fringe audience.

Although gender isn’t Sh!t Theatre’s main focus, the company is part of a forceful feminist wave being felt across the festival. In a quick trip to the Traverse (and a tour to come), Julia Taudevin gave a tremendous performance in her own Blow Off. Half Pixies-style rock gig, half angry spoken word, it’s about sexual stereotyping, capitalist alienation and getting your voice heard. Back at Summerhall, Rash Dash also brings a rock’n’roll raucousness to Two-Man Show, a thrilling role-reversal study of man-made language and emotional repression.

Meanwhile the Underbelly has been hosting a whole generation of young women making bold, funny and impassioned claims on a public sphere so often dominated by men. They range from the Biblical barrage of Lucy McCormick: Triple Threat, the most extraordinary show I’ve seen this month, to the queer cabaret of LoUis CYfer’s Joan, a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. Tackling subjects such as revenge porn (Charlotte Josephine’s Blush), rape (Abi Zakarian’s Fabric) and body image (Nicole Henriksen Is Makin It Rain), these theatre-makers are proving to be some of the most distinctive and urgent voices on the Fringe.

• Diary Of A Madman, Traverse, ends today; Anything That Gives Off Light, EICC, run ended