Scintillating triumph in a house of demons
ANDREW Panton, newly appointed artistic director at Dundee Rep, has chosen a big, challenging drama with which to make his debut. American writer Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, which had its world premiere at the famous Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago a decade ago, has been richly awarded (with a Pulitzer and a Tony, among many others). In 2013, filmmaker John Wells collaborated with Letts on a successful screen version, starring President Trump’s bête noire Meryl Streep.
Panton’s production marks the Scottish premiere of the play. It is, glad to report, a scintillating triumph.
Alcoholic poet Beverly Weston takes on a live-in housekeeper (a young, native American woman) to care for his prescription drug-addicted wife Violet. He then promptly disappears. The ensuing drama is like 1970s American TV series The Waltons being gatecrashed by Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
A superb, 13-strong ensemble gives powerful expression to both Letts’s bleak comedy and the resounding humanism that underlies it. Ann Louise Ross, in particular, is memorably anguished, desperate and vindictive in the crucial role of Violet.
Designer Alex Lowde’s set, which is comprised of an entire, transparent, two-storey house, complete with loft room, on a massive stage revolve, is an extraordinary achievement. It allows the audience to see into every room, following the various characters as they confront each other and their demons, or seek refuge from the darkly humorous chaos engulfing the household.
The production (which boasts typically assured accent work by voice coach Ros Steen) delves deep into the guts of the play. As it does so, it achieves both a recognisable family drama (not least in the relations between the Westons’ three grown-up daughters) and a resonating, metaphorical portrait of the “hubris” of the United States as a national and imperial project.
If the Rep’s latest offering excels in staging a modern American classic, Rapture Theatre’s touring production of Tennessee Williams’s celebrated drama A Streetcar Named Desire, sadly, does not. Agonisingly miscast and misconceived it is a very poor follow-up to the company’s deservedly celebrated rendering of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
Director Michael Emans tends to play the modern canon with a pretty straight bat. Here, however, he has fashioned an uncomfortable combination of faithful naturalism and radical revision.
Although he keeps the play very firmly in late-1940s New Orleans, he opts for black actors to represent characters who are living in what is very much a white neighbourhood. This includes Joseph Black as the famous Polish-American protagonist Stanley Kowalski.
The problem is not the inclusion of black actors (the near invisibility of African-Americans from Williams’s Deep South is ripe for adaptation), but, rather, Emans’s lack of directorial confidence. If, as a German stage director might do, he had broken the play’s naturalism entirely, altering its time and place, he could have created an interesting new take on the play. As it is, Black and Kazeem Tosin Amore (as Stanley’s friend Mitch) struggle against the assiduous realism of the production, white men, played by black men, listening to the casual racism spoken, without irony, at the poker table.
If Emans lacks the courage of his conceptual convictions, he also lacks the actors who might salvage his limping production. Gina Isaac gets close to the tragic essence of the fallen southern belle Blanche DuBois, but she is fighting a losing battle.
For the most part the cast appears insecure and rudderless. Lines are garbled and accents slip. Julia Taudevin (who plays Blanche’s sister Stella) gives a performance that is painfully uncertain and, often, barely audible. To add insult to injury, designer Richard Evans’s cutaway set is ugly (like an apartment block which has been partly eaten by some huge monster), while the use of music is cumbersome and invasive.
One could be forgiven for thinking this production was the work, not of a professional touring company, but of an amateur dramatics society.
It would be damning with faint praise to say that The Sky Is Safe, the latest piece by Dingwall-based company Dogstar, is better than Rapture’s offering. Based upon the testimonies of women who have fled the devastation of the war in Syria, and supporting the NGO Small Projects Istanbul (which works with refugees in Turkey’s largest city), its heart is very firmly in the right place.
Whether it impresses as a work of theatre is another matter entirely. Written and, along with fine PalestinianLebanese actor Dana Hajaj, performed by Dogstar’s artistic director Matthew Zajac, it is an awkward mix of verbatim testimony with a fictional narrative about Gordon, a Scottish military aircraft engineer, who seeks the services of Amal, an intelligent and educated refugee from Syria who has turned to prostitution in Istanbul.
This latter drama is too short and obviously point-making to be truly engaging. Likewise the dramatisations built around the women’s testimonies. A representation of the xenophobia many Syrian refugees face in Turkey is brief and histrionic.
Although directed by Ben Harrison (of Grid Iron theatre company fame), the piece has little of the theatrical flare that characterised his splendid production of The Tailor Of Inverness, Zajac’s excellent account of the life of his Polish father. Despite good intentions and committed performances from Hajaj and Zajac, this play never quite succeeds in marrying drama with documentary.
The set of Osage County is as much a triumph as the performances of the excellent cast.