Monday 25 August 2008

365, or the Curse of the International Festival Drama Programme Strikes Again

On paper, David Harrower’s 365 ought to be a hit. Its author wrote the only genuine hit new play of which the International Festival can in recent years boast. The choreographer played a major role in the National Theatre of Scotland’s smash hit Black Watch, and the company itself is alleged to be on a roll. Unfortunately, for those of us stuck in the audience on Saturday night, the best laid plans…

The show lasts for an increasingly interminable two hours, without an interval. Its central problem is that nobody at any stage exerted quality control on a script in which nothing happens, and goes on happening. Put simply, we see a tiny fragment of life of some dozen or so characters (none of them given names or much in the way of background). These fragments repeat themselves, in some cases three or four times, without there being any emotional or narrative development. Thus, one girl starts a conversation with her estranged mother at the beginning and is still carrying on that same conversation two hours later.

To try to pad out this inadequate script, the production resorts to effects. The characters are transported at one stage into a kind of fairy tale forest, for no readily apparent reason. Fragments of choreography reminiscent of Black Watch, but almost wholly without its emotional impact, are deployed. Characters are flown about the stage on wires, adding nothing to the poignancy of their stories. Finally, about half way through a fire breaks out. For a few brief moments I cherished the hope that the fire brigade might appear and liven things up, but no. The whole thing just went on, and on and on, while, typically for the Festival, audience members began to walk out.

My own personal irritation reached a climax at the top of the second hour, when one character delivers a monologue all about how it is impossible to make a coherent narrative out of her story – for which read all the stories going to make up this improvisatory mess. If I have to sit through another new play which insists on being self-referential about the ways in which it is playing with the form I think I’m going to scream.

The National Theatre of Scotland seriously needs to try a few solid performances of the classics. Indeed, it might do a lot worse than try them with this company who did their best to sell a lousy product. The acting was certainly an improvement on several of the ropier performances in last year’s Bacchae. If the NTS wants to make political points, it could do much worse than study recent revivals of Shaw in London. He was searing about a great many social conditions, but he recognised that this is far more effective when viewed through a specific case. Harrower ultimately tells no story, provides few reasons, and suggests no solutions.

Brian McMaster’s drama programmes used to attract annual condemnation. But McMaster at least gave us, in addition to his many turkeys, marvellous productions of great plays from directors like Peter Stein, and companies like the Abbey Theatre, Dublin and the Vienna Burgtheatre. Mills has thrown them all out with the old regime, he has yet to show that he can provide quality work in their place.

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