Friday, 27 May 2011

Terminal Madness

While I am unlikely to ever develop a systematic theory of drama - I try now and again, but the other critics laugh at me, kindly - my resistance to the script as the foundation of theatre is fairly consistent. I like words well enough. Teaching Hamlet to teenagers didn't kill my joy of the Bard, it took uninspired directors to do that. And in the crop of new Scottish playwrights, a few names stand out for me: Martin O'Connor, Rob Drummond, Oliver Emmanuel, and not just because they are nice to me when I meet them in The Arches.

But I have amassed evidence that the director, the actors, even the lighting designer - if it happens to be Paul Sorley from Traway, especially the lighting designer - can be of equal, even greater importance. Two plays this week - The Abbey's Terminus at the Citizens, and Crazy Gary's Mobile Disco at the Tron - have reminded me why the rather British ideal of the page as blue-print for the stage frustrates me.

Terminus is everything I don't want theatre to be: gritty, verbose, grandiose and in rhyme. Author Mark O'Rowe appears so busy showing off the clever word-play that he forgets that characterisation comes as much from the way characters speak as story that they tell. There are three monologues - something I am less than enthusiastic about, since they miss out on relationships between characters that a simple conversation can bring - cleverly weaved together towards a vicious finale.  A women who escapes death, only to be killed by an angel; a shy man potters about killing women; an ex-teacher rescuing a former pupil out of guilt: they all hide in the dark, pop into the spotlight, tell their stories and disappear. And although the expense is obvious - great lights, great enunciation - the lack of drama in the script's form is elegantly expressed through a static staging. 

It may have a very Irish love of language - At Swim Two Birds, an adaptation by Blue Raincoat of some Flan O'Brien antics, shares Terminus' love of word-play, only energised by great direction - but Terminus mistakes violence for realism, and seems proud of gross-out imagery. Demons are made of worms, a nasty serial killer prowls, a pregnant woman gets raped with a broom and crushed under a speeding truck. The three performers are wasted on such ugly material and the moments of savage realism are undermined by the metaphysical plot involving sold souls taking revenge on their bodies, even before it all turns Death Race 2000.

Over at the Tron, Leann O'Kasi is dealing with a similar problem: three monologues, this time told in sequence. O'Kasi has rescued a poor script before - exactly a year ago, at the last Mayfesto - but Crazy Gary suffers from an overlong central yabber that patronises both the mentally ill and Christians. Of course, the three monologues link, there's plenty of stuff about small town frustrations and the consequences of school bullying. An incident round the back of the sports hall involving ingested semen is at the heart of it all - thanks to Gary Owen for that conceit - dooms all of the characters. O'Kasi keeps it sprightly, and the cast almost manage the Welsh accents - not that they needed to bother. There is nothing specifically Welsh about the plot. People get frustrated in small towns everywhere, and probably shit their pants on Fife rugby pitches as well. 

Every so often, I get called a prude for complaining about bad language or brutal imagery: for the record, I find people shitting themselves funny in real life, and love nothing more than stage nudity and self-harm. And I put my hand up to a special pleading. I forgot to get my happy pill prescription this week, and have been on one hell of a citalapram come-down. That added to my irritation at the central monologue - the character, who has been on years of medication, is no more than unlucky and a bit sleepless, while I have been numb all over, unable to sleep and paranoid since Friday. Owen has good some good ideas - small towns do breed odd hierarchies, and Crazy Gary is a very recognisable thug. The scene where the deluded cabaret singer performs You've Lost That Loving Feeling while experiencing the actual emotions, without realising, is crafty and evocative.  And in the first and last monologues, the conflicts between desire and fear are profound. Even if Crazy Gary ends up glassed and bleeding, he is both a monster and vaguely sympathetic, as trapped by his past as the boy he made lick up his pal's jism. Plus it has a superb opening line. 

Both Terminus and Crazy Gary have great sets - a little melodramatic with the light design, but enticing, while the directors are battling against a form that is inherently undramatic once it goes beyond ten minutes. Crazy Gary is enjoyable and insightful at points - mostly when it is being humorous, or capturing the low level misery of co-dependent relationships - but lacks a good editor. It rambles when it could strike, and gets lost in the minutiae of plotting the links between the the characters.

The Tron cast are exceptionally good at catching Owen's Big Dramatic Moments, like the final ruck or the karaoke championship. And unlike Terminus, the connections are, at least, subtle and telling: the bully beats up the karaoke man who gives the cabaret singer his moment of glory, and the female romantic interest - never performed, but spoken about - is a ghostly, sinister presence in all three monologues. There is also a sense that all of the characters are delusional, untrustworthy, and the shifts in their versions of the day undermine each other's perceptions. This universe is far more interconnected than  Terminus' world, despite the latter's complex metaphysics of Satan, souls and avenging angels.

All six actors in both plays come across well, and Terminus' direction follows the self-consciously iconic nature of the script. O'Kasi keeps her actors on the move, and despite the running time, the pace rarely slackens. My grand project to systematise my understanding of good theatre falters in both works: a straight description of both plays would praise the performers, the sets, the directors, even the theatres for programming bold content. And Crazy Gary has a strong relevance, opening up debates on how it is not school learning that shapes us, but socialisation. And yet the scripts have such weaknesses that it might be true that they are the foundation. In this case, they are as sandy as any parable's ground.

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