Summer at The Traverse: Looking Back

The Letter of Last Resort, David Greig; Good With People, David Harrower; Morning (Simon Stephens)

New playwriting at its very best is what I have come to expect from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and I was not disappointed by this summer’s Fringe Festival double bill of short plays by leading Scottish playwrights David Greig (The Letter of Last Resort)  and David Harrower (Good With People). Both pieces have nuclear threat as their backdrop, brought sharply and wittily to the fore in Greig’s two-hander that opened the bill. Originally performed as part of the Tricycle Theatre’s ‘The Bomb’ season and finely directed by the Tricycle’s Nicolas Kent, a newly elected woman Prime Minister (shades of Thatcher’s Trident years in the early eighties) is prompted by a senior civil servant to write ‘the letter of last resort’ – the letter that instructs naval command what to do in the event of the nation being annihilated by a nuclear attack. Resonant with the comic strains of the British television sitcom Yes Minister, Greig’s writing nonetheless plumbs darker, more insightful depths, while both performances by Belinda Lang as the Prime Minister and Simon Chandler as the Sir Humphrey Appleby styled civil servant were wonderfully executed.

            Shifting the scene in Good With People to Helensburgh in Scotland that houses the nation’s nuclear defence system, the tone and style is markedly different. Harrower’s two-hander is an evocative, stylised encounter between a middle-aged, female, hotel receptionist (Helen/Blythe Duff) and her one and only guest, a younger man (Evan/Richard Rankin) returning from overseas to visit his parental home. A choreography of repulsion and attraction unfolds: Evan, revealed as the erstwhile bullying tormentor of Helen’s son, is still struggling to come to terms with his violent past; Helen holds on to and, by turns, lets go of her maternal rage and indignation, thawing from heart-felt animosity to sexual desire.  At once a deeply personal encounter, the political ripples through this unlikely pairing, their lives and opportunities affected and damaged by living in the nuclear shadow of the Faslane Naval Base (Evan himself bullied as a Faslane schoolboy; Helen working in a tourist industry laid waste by the presence of the Base). While this play is arguably not as explosive as Harrower’s earlier two-hander Blackbird, a play I very much admire for its painfully exquisite exploration of an illicit relationship between a young (underage) girl and an older man, it did impress as a lyrically composed ‘fall out’ of personal and social circumstance.

            In both of these two short pieces, the emotional politicising impulse of the performance emanated from the plays’ respective female roles. In either (albeit very different) case, the male role serves to prompt rather than dominate the personal and or political dramatic energies that unfold. From my point of view, seeing the plays back-to-back made for a heartening redress of theatre’s all too persistent gender imbalance, particularly since the female leads are roles for older actresses (decent roles for whom remain in constant short supply).

            On the other hand, Simon Stephens’ Morning, that I stayed on to see after the Harrower and Greig plays, promised a drama dictated by the dark and dangerous energies of two young, female characters, but left me feeling distinctly let down by a poorly conceived (hastily put together?) play, and rather wishing I had caught an earlier train home. This was such a disappointment after my experience of Stephens’ Pornography at the Traverse back in 2008 (an innovative and engaging take on the London bombings, July 2005). A play seeded by workshops involving company members of the Junges Theater in Basel and the Lyric Young Company, Hammersmith, Morning came across as a work still in progress. A coming-of-university-age play, the drama was performed by members of the LYC (and has since had an autumn transfer to the Lyric) whose characters cast a nihilistic eye over their futures. Spearheaded by the pathological Stephanie, the play turns teenage angst into teen horror. Just when boyfriend Stephen thought his luck was in – sex with Stephanie and her best mate Cat – he gets bludgeoned to death by his girlfriend, with Cat as a sexually aggressive accomplice.  There’s an unseen dying mother tucked away in a forensic plastic tent (possibly a part explanation for Stephanie’s behaviour, although may be she’s always been drawn to the dark side, it’s never clear), a put-upon younger brother and another teen couple to swell the numbers. Minimalist in design (the plastic tent, a water tank, a fridge and a complementary on-stage technician), this all had the feel of an experimental, student drama.

Exiting the Traverse with a group of similarly disappointed and disgruntled patrons (I think the final straw was Stephanie spouting everything including theatre is ‘shit’), I have since consoled myself by reading Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin (also a compelling, chilling film starring Tilda Swinton), altogether a far more intelligent foray into unfathomable acts of teenage violence than anything Morning was able to offer.


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