Scin­til­lat­ing tri­umph in a house of demons

Sunday Herald Life - - THEATRE REVIEWS - For tour dates for A Street­car Named De­sire, visit: rap­turethe­atre.co.uk For tour dates for The Sky Is Safe, visit: dogstarthe­atre.co.uk

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.

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