Wor­thy stag­ing of a Scot­tish the­atri­cal great

Sunday Herald Life - - Theatre Reviews - Re­viewed by Mark Brown

Knives In Hens Perth Theatre Un­til Fe­bru­ary 17

The Match Box Seen at Byre Theatre, St An­drews Tour­ing un­til Fe­bru­ary 24

THE 1990s was, ar­guably, the most fer­tile decade in the en­tire his­tory of Scot­tish play­writ­ing. It’s a bold claim, of course, but one sup­ported by the emer­gence of such play­wrights as David Greig, Zin­nie Har­ris, An­thony Neil­son and, as this pro­duc­tion of the 1995 drama Knives In Hens re­minds us, David Har­rower.

Set in a pre-in­dus­trial so­ci­ety, the play traces the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a (sig­nif­i­cantly) un­named young, fe­male field-hand and Gil­bert Horn, the lo­cal miller. Horn is de­spised and feared by the vil­lagers in equal mea­sure, on ac­count of both his lit­er­acy and his le­gal right to a por­tion of their grain.

In a break with con­ven­tion, the young woman’s plough­man hus­band (nick­named Pony Wil­liam, due to his strong af­fec­tion for his horses) sends her to mill the grain. Al­though she ac­costs Horn with cus­tom­ary hos­til­ity, the field labourer soon finds that the miller can help her un­lock doors of ex­pe­ri­ence that were pre­vi­ously firmly sealed.

The play that emerges is ab­so­lutely unique, sparsely po­etic and deeply af­fect­ing. Its care with lan­guage (which is a cen­tral con­cern for the young woman) is rem­i­nis­cent of the as­sid­u­ous se­lect­ing (and re­mov­ing) of words in the work of Harold Pin­ter.

It’s lit­tle won­der that the piece has been per­formed in at least 25 coun­tries, be­ing staged most re­cently at the Don­mar Ware­house in Lon­don, in the sum­mer and au­tumn of last year. It’s sur­pris­ing, how­ever, that Lu Kemp’s pro­duc­tion for the re­cently re­de­vel­oped Perth Theatre should be just the fourth pro­fes­sional stag­ing of the play in Scot­land.

It’s al­most seven years since postmodern Flem­ish di­rec­tor Lies Pauwels, in the words of one critic, “ex­ploded [Har­rower’s drama] to the four corners of the stage” for the Na­tional Theatre of Scot­land. Pauwels’s pro­duc­tion was a kind of stress test for the play, and, if it proved any­thing, it proved that the del­i­cate bal­ance of Knives In Hens de­serves to be treated with con­sid­er­ably more care.

Kemp’s stag­ing stands in stark con­trast with Pauwels’s noisy, up­start ver­sion. Her pro­duc­tion is, like the play it­self, care­ful and con­fi­dent as it re­veals, with de­cep­tive sub­tlety, an awak­en­ing in the young woman which is, by nor­mal hu­man stan­dards, startlingly rapid.

Rhys Rus­batch plays Pony Wil­liam with an in­trigu­ing sen­su­ous­ness. Obliv­i­ous to the fa­tal flaw within his di­vided de­sires, he has an earthy phys­i­cal­ity no less tan­gi­ble than that of his “field-like” wife.

Michael More­land gives an equally in­ter­est­ing per­for­mance as Horn. Whereas an Amer­i­can movie di­rec­tor might (God for­bid) cast an ac­tor like Ge­orge Clooney in the role, More­land gives us a more un­der­stated charisma, which is barbed and bruised by his life ex­pe­ri­ence.

Fine though th­ese per­for­mances are, how­ever, there’s no doubt­ing that the pin­na­cle of the play’s tri­an­gu­lar re­la­tions is the young woman her­self. Ex­cep­tional, young ac­tor Jes­sica Hard­wick could have been born for the role. By turns un­cer­tain, de­fi­ant, in­no­cent and im­pul­sive, she is rav­en­ous for knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously mul­ti­far­i­ous and con­sis­tent, Hard­wick’s per­for­mance is like a hu­man em­bod­i­ment of the para­doxes in the po­etry of Wil­liam Blake (“You never know what is enough un­less you know what is more than enough”).

The per­fect poise of Kemp’s pro­duc­tion is re­flected gor­geously in Jamie Var­tan’s im­pres­sive set. Semi-ab­stract and dom­i­nated by a huge aper­ture in the shape of a mill­stone, it is il­lu­mi­nated with dra­matic nu­ance by light­ing de­signer Si­mon Wilkin­son.

Also boast­ing an in­tel­li­gently at­tuned, at­mo­spheric sound­scape by Luke Suther­land, this is a stag­ing wor­thy of one of the great­est plays in the Scot­tish the­atri­cal canon.

From one of Scot­land’s most ac­claimed drama­tists to a lead­ing con­tem­po­rary Ir­ish play­wright. Frank McGuin­ness is, per­haps, best known for his ex­cep­tional play Ob­serve The Sons Of Ul­ster March­ing Towards The Somme. How­ever, as his one-woman drama The Match Box at­tests, he has a breadth of in­ter­est, both in sub­ject mat­ter and the­atri­cal form, which is akin to that of his com­pa­triot, the late Brian Friel.

Set in con­tem­po­rary Liver­pool, the piece is a first­per­son nar­ra­tive de­liv­ered by Sal, the work­ing-class, Scouse daugh­ter of Ir­ish mi­grant par­ents. Per­form­ing on a set which col­lides sim­ple do­mes­tic­ity with the front pages of tabloid news­pa­pers, ac­tor Janet Coul­son un­folds the story of the bru­tal ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing Sal’s 12-year-old daugh­ter, Mary, and of the sub­se­quent an­guish of Sal and her fam­ily.

As she does so, one starts to won­der (as one some­times does with mon­odra­mas) if McGuin­ness’s piece is ac­tu­ally a play. En­gag­ing and pow­er­ful though the story is, not least in its con­tem­pla­tion of the moral­ity of vengeance, it never re­ally breaks from the sense that it is a prose fic­tion that has been dropped on to the stage. Great mon­odra­mas grow or­gan­i­cally from a the­atri­cal im­pulse. We see this in the per­for­ma­tive dy­namism and artis­tic in­ven­tion of the­atremak­ers such as Tim Crouch (An Oak Tree, Eng­land) and Guy Masterson (An­i­mal Farm, Shy­lock). How­ever, too many sin­gle-ac­tor shows are merely sto­ry­telling (a very valid art form in its own right) mas­querad­ing as theatre.

Fluid and ab­sorb­ing though McGuin­ness’s tale is, there is not enough go­ing on, vis­ually or in Coul­son’s oc­ca­sion­ally un­steady per­for­mance, to over­come the feel­ing that one would have been as well read­ing the text at home.

Richard Baron di­rects the pro­duc­tion with a steady hand for Haw­ick-based tour­ing com­pany Fire­brand. How­ever, one can’t help but wish he and the com­pany had a se­lected a piece which was writ­ten for the stage, rather than the page.

For tour dates for The Match Box, visit: fire­brandthe­atre.co.uk

Pho­to­graph: Pam Dochard

Ac­tors Rhys Rus­batch and Jes­sica Hard­wick re­hears­ing Knives In Hens with di­rec­tor Lu Kemp.

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