Friday 28 August 2015

EIF 2015 - Lanark, or, Can We Please Have a Moratorium on Breaking the Fourth Wall?

I haven't read Alasdair Gray's novel on which this adaptation is based. I'm in two minds as to whether I now should read it as some investigation following this show suggests that things I really disliked are faithful to the original work. From this the reader will gather that I am once again in dissent from the generally highly positive majority opinion on this show.

First, the positives. The acting ensemble is very strong. Sandy Grierson as Lanark and Jessica Hardwick as Reemer (?) deserve particular credit. They failed my ultimate test of really making me give a damn about their characters, but the fault for that lay with the work. The supporting players, all of them taking on a variety of parts, also deserve high praise – I especially enjoyed George Drennan's Lift (did Gray borrow from Douglas Adams's doors or was it the other way round?) and Gerry Mulgrew's Scarlatti playing Professor. Director Graham Eatough generally marshalls them effectively – the movement in Act Two is notable but has less impact than it might do because of the nature of the work.

Laura Hopkins's design supported by Nigel Edwards's lighting and Simon Wainwright's video likewise has many positives. It's at its best in the portrayal of the Elite club and the Institute in Act One (the dragon effects are well done). When the set becomes considerably more elaborate in Act Two I wasn't convinced it was always necessary to support the text. Overall, I wasn't as wowed as many other critics seem to have been (the projections for example never achive an effect comparable to their use in the Aldeburgh Knussen Double Bill or the EIF Die Frau ohne Schatten).

But all of this good work is ultimately undermined by fatal weaknesses in the text. The play is constructed as follows – Act One takes place in the fantasy world of Unthank, Act Two takes place in Glasgow, and Act Three in a mixture of Unthank, the stage of the Royal Lyceum Theatre and, briefly and maddeningly, inside Alasdair Gray's head. (I gather this is pretty faithful to the book at least as far as the first two acts are concerned). I found Act One the most satisfying and interesting segment, unfortunately it isn't really followed through on. It was completely unclear to me after the first two acts whether either one was actually supposed to have taken place. I realise, as I've noted before this Festival, that those who like this kind of thing will now make the point that all theatre is fake. But, again as I've said before, the best theatre in my experience makes you suspend that disbelief. This adaptation, like Paul Bright's Confessions and possibly also like Gray's original book, can't seem to decide what it wants you to do – suspend your disbelief, or treat the whole thing as fake – the net result as with that earlier performance was that I ceased to care about any of the characters on stage.

This position was compounded by the last act. In a tiresomely familiar way the play is brought to a grinding halt and everyone starts explaining to Grierson that they are all performing in a play. This has been done so often at the International Festival (nearly always with a sad lack of success as far as I'm concerned) that one might think the time has come for a moratorium on the wretched device, but there is no sign of one. This is followed by the equally tiresome problem of much new work, that of trying and failing to find an ending. In this case Grierson as Lanark first insists on going to speak to Gray to demand a different ending, then reinstates an apparently previously deleted scene, before taking what is frankly (given the play runs at nearly four hours) an unconscionably long time to die. His speech to Gray incidentally is a tiresome political lecture with overtones of the infuriating ending to last year's third James Play. I'd like to think it wasn't meant to be taken seriously, but I doubt it.

Overall, there are many fine performances in this show, the staging is largely effective and it is possible to see why the original novel is considered a key Scottish novel (though I think there is a discussion to be had about whether some aspects have dated). But as a nearly four hour long play I ultimately found it emotionally unengaging, overlong, and towards the end very irritating. If you're a fan of the book I suspect that the things that annoyed me will not bother you in the slightest. If you ever struggled to read the book then you might want to pause before buying a ticket. Meanwhile given current political and financial conditions I'm sure this is not the end of the quest for the great Scottish theatrical epic at the International Festival.

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