Sunday 23 August 2015

EIF 2015 – Paul Bright's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, or, Unsuccessful Variations on a Wearily Familiar Theme

This show is the third of the Festival's drama programme concerned a) to attempt to challenge more traditional approaches to theatre making and b) to make out the construction of stories to be much more complicated than it needs to be. Earlier attempts The Encounter and 887 both possessed plenty of positive elements to compensate for the problems such approaches create (as I hope my earlier reviews made clear). This show is a dismal also ran.

Before I go any further I should make clear that this piece includes what the company would probably regard as spoilers. Its run has now ended at the Festival, but obviously it may be revived elsewhere, so if you think you are likely to see it and don't want to have what passes for its suprise element spoiled (though I don't myself think that element is very surprising) then I advise you not to continue reading.

To begin with, it is something of a stretch to describe this show as a play. Lecture performance would be more apt. The lecture purports to be recovering the work of a now forgotten Scottish director, Paul Bright, and in particular six productions of episodes from James Hogg's novel supposedly staged in various places in Scotland (including in the “Scottish” slot at the International Festival) in the late 80s. I completely missed the earlier life of this production, so my suspicions about all this were first aroused when the EIF programme was originally published and a Google search failed to produce any evidence of Paul Bright's existence apart from this show. This seemed very unlikely. Presumably the show's devisers assume audience members and critics will make no such investigation, but Pamela Carter (the author) makes little attempt to sustain the illusion once you're actually listening to this lecture. The piece falls over itself to make snide remarks about acting as lying and similar which are not only wearisomely familiar in terms of the many past shows (often in the EIF drama programme) which have tried, usually unsuccessfully, to dismiss traditional theatre, but also speedily undermine the remaining credibility of the idea that Paul Bright ever actually existed.

This might not matter so much if the piece could decide on its tone. At times it seems to want to send up the whole business - there was scattered laughter among the audience at the performance I attended – but the script is not sufficiently funny to sustain this (there is also a familiarity to a good many of the jokes, for example those concerning the EIF drama programme and its relationship to Scottish theatre). At other times the narrative seems to want us to care for the fate of the lecturer – George Anton (an alleged participant in some of those earlier performances) – the trouble is that having undermined credibility in the set up by the various remarks already mentioned it is rather difficult then to engage audience concern with a character in whom one has ceased to believe. No doubt this company would argue that all theatre is fake, but of course the best theatre convinces you, for those moments when you are watching it, that it isn't - an act of suspension of disbelief that this show can't decide whether it is prepared to countenance or not, and consequently fails to achieve.

George Anton's performance as the lecturer is solid, but he never really gripped me as both Lepage and McBurney did to various degrees in their one man shows. That said, he is much hampered by the weaknesses of the piece.

Credit is deserved for the elaborate exhibition (allegedly again of Bright's happenings) which accompanies the staging. It was clever to involve such figures as Katie Mitchell and Giles Havergal. There is some inventive use of film and other technical devices – though they are not in the same league as Complicite and Ex Machina and the final film especially outstays its welcome. This is another of many new theatre pieces I've seen over the years which doesn't know how to stop.

Disciplined down to say an hour (as opposed to an actual running time of 1hr 50) and with a wittier script this could have been an enjoyable piece of satire of experimental theatre. As it is, it is much too long, and the writing is simply neither funny enough nor of sufficient depth to sustain either of the two modes it variously pursues. A dull, self-indulgent, often annoying, afternoon. To be avoided if it is revived again.

Housekeeping Note: I was puzzled as to why seating was unreserved for this show and tickets were all at the same price. The Queen's Hall seats were all numbered anyway and there is an appreciable difference in comfort between red seats in the centre and pews which should require a difference in price even if only a small one. It would also have encouraged more audience members to explore the exhibition before the start rather than worrying about securing their preferred seats.

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