Jack The Knife – Assembly Rooms – 4 stars
Jacobite Country – Underbelly – 3 stars
The Track of the Cat – C – 3 stars
Hot Mess – Hawke and Hunter – 3 stars
“Have you been to Stratford recently?” Jack Klaff asks his audience before his latest solo show has even begun. “The Empire still exists.” On the face of it, Klaff’s urgent sixty-five minute engagement in Jack The Knife is an exercise in biting the hand that feeds him, as he relates forty years of working within and without the status quo of the acting industry, with all the ego, insecurity and creative indulgence such a long-term commitment that might be involved.
Pay full attention, however, to what’s beyond the wickedly funny impressions of assorted un-named colleagues, directors sand dictators, to where Klaff’s fiercely intelligent mind whizzes off to next, and you begin to recognise a discursive and at times seemingly free-associative treatise on power, choice and how systems can abuse and sideline the naysayers, however consciously they stand out in the cold.
With theatre a testy microcosm of the big bad world beyond it, Klaff leads us from apartheid era South Africa to a Britain run by (bad) actors by way of the hierarchies of the RSC. Elsewhere, he relates how pipsqueak producers were unable to recognise the tragi-comic genius of Klaff’s late fellow traveler Ken Campbell because he never fit easily into the boxes corporate culture requires.
In a different way, Klaff’s veteran voice has similarly become the conscience of a generation who believed they could change the world through songs and stories. This isn’t all peace, love and understanding, however, as Klaff cracks open the complexties of life and art in a manner a new generation rediscovering those ideas can learn from in a passionate extended routine that’s as much about outrage as anecdote. Klaff’s time has come again. If he ever works again after this, he may change the world yet.
Another artist who once thought he’d change the world is Haggis McSporran, the See-You-Jimmy haired anti-hero of Henry Adam’s new play, Jacobite Country, presented by the Inverness-based Dogstar Theatre Company. Haggis is holed up in the local mental hospital honing his self-loathing stand-up routine that might just make him big in London. Music loving Craitur Face is along for the ride, while Haggis’ Uncle Angus is wheeled about like a bagpipe-wielding refugee from Beckett’s Endgame.
From the psychotically deadpan jig resembling a psycho-active Irn Bru ad that opens Matthew Zajac’s production, there’s something decidedly lysergic about Adam’s writing that doesn’t so much suggest Haggis’ fevered imagination as lurch into dream states a la The Singing Detective. The result is a wild roving comedy that takes the clichés of the male Scots psyche that attempts to bridge the cultural tug of war between hand-me-down myth and more modern times. Adam’s preoccupations resemble those of American writer Sam Shepard’s own relationship with the wild west, which the Highlands can arguably be said to be the equivalent of.
Zajac takes the play into even stranger waters by having an all female cast play Haggis, Craitur Face and co. Top work by Sarah Hawarth as Haggis cuts through any temptation there might otherwise be for macho showboating, investing things with a surreal cartoon air instead. It may be something to do with the expanse of the Reid Hall deadening proceedings a tad, but there are moments you yearn for Adam’s parade of small-town angst tempered only by Granny’s mysterious elixir to run riot even more.
If women are pretending to be men in Jacobite Country, the eight actresses in The Track of the Cat remain resolutely female even as they play the men-folk of the increasingly embittered clan in director Graeme Maley and writer Chris Fittock’s stark and stylised interpretation of Walter van Tilburg Clark’s black-hearted western novel.
Originally published in 1949 (by Random House, who, incidentally, in Jacobite Country reject the hapless McSporran’s own magnum opus) and subsequently filmed for a John Wayne produced movie, the economic and emotional collapse of a farming family in the bleakest of winters is exacerbated by the hunt for a predatory black panther whose foreboding presence lends extra tension to their shacked up world.
It opens with seven of the eight actresses huddled together on a bench, barefoot and sporting little black dresses as if posing for a team photo while Romana Abercromby’s similarly clad Curt sits apart from them. The visual effect of each character slipping into the action then huddling in to watch what happens next is part Greek chorus, part Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. The psychological and dramatic effect of such a displacement is occasionally startling, as when Sarah McComish’s drink-sodden Father brutalizes his son’s fiancé Gwen, played by Kelly Cleland.
Things are given an even more brooding air by the live harmonium soundtrack played by Icelandic musical émigré Benni Hemm Hemm, whose evocative shafts of slow-core mood music at times possesses the prodding air of Bernard Herrmann at his most insistently intense. Fittock and Maley have crafted a fascinating if at times opaque reading of what becomes closer to noir than anything in a quietly seductive death-knell for an entire community.
Hot Mess is playwright Ella Hickson’s third full length Edinburgh work she’s also directed, and this year she moves the young Tantrums company out of her spiritual home of the Bedlam Theatre and into the neon gloss of a recently refurbished nightclub. Here she lays bare the tale of unlikely named twenty-something twins Polo and Twitch, who were born with only one heart between them. Returning to the island where they grew up for their birthday, it soon becomes clear that their responses to such a messy birth are dramatically different. Where uptight Polo jealously guards his heart as his own, Twitch can’t wait to give hers away.
Where Michael Whitham’s Polo has a touch of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper about him, Gwendolen Chatfield is bright-eyed enough to make Twitch’s penchant for falling head over heels believable.
What follows as the pair large it with old friends is something that initially resembles Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles if reimagined by French auteur of beauteously unfulfilled romantic rites of passage Eric Rohmer. By the end, however, it seems Hickson can’t decide whether to focus on love, sex and affairs of the heart or else make a vogueishly grisly thriller. The result is a mixed marriage which, as neatly accomplished as some of the writing is, doesn’t always convince.
The Herald, August 12th 2010