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Andrew Panton - August: Osage County

Dundee Rep's new artistic director Andrew Panton wasn't overly keen on seeing the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company's original production of Tracy Letts' new play a decade ago. Panton was just off a long haul flight, and the prospect of committing to the three hour dissection of a dysfunctional family in America's Oklahoma set heartland that was August: Osage County wasn't top of the list for a man with jet lag. This was despite the fact that Letts had an impeccable back catalogue of work ever since he first made his mark in 1993 with Killer Joe.

“I didn't know what I was going to see,” says Panton. “A friend had bought me a ticket, and said it was a good meaty three-act play, which being just off a flight was the last thing I wanted to see, but ended up having a great time. The story is fantastic, and you couldn't envisage where it was going to go next. One of the most important things about it was the ensemble acting. Playing a family is one of the trickiest things to pull off onstage, because every single member of the audience will have some idea of how a family functions, whether that's dysfunctional, loving or whatever, it's not easy to bring that sense of intimacy and familiarity to the stage.”

All of which makes it a perfect sounding calling card for Panton's new tenure in Dundee, where the Rep's ensemble acting company initiated by then artistic director Hamish Glen almost twenty years ago has made it unique in Scotland's theatrical landscape.

“Even when I first saw the play in 2007 I thought it would be good to do at the Rep,” Panton remembers of his first brush with August: Osage County. “I spoke to Jemima Levick about five years ago when she was artistic director here, but we couldn't get the rights to it, probably because of the movie.”

Letts' own adaptation for John Wells' 2013 big screen version of the play saw Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Juliette Lewis lead a cast that also included Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch and the late Sam Shepard. While Letts had whittled his script down to two hours, the film was nominated for two Oscars. By this time, the play itself had won Letts a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This vindicated Panton in his fondness for the play, making him even more determined to stage his own production.

“When I got the job at the Rep, I tried to get the rights again,” he says, “and remarkably, after Steppenwolf had taken their production to Broadway and then brought it to London, there had never been another UK production since then. With the tenth anniversary of the play coming up, it seemed like the right time to have another look at it.”

The play itself focuses on the wayward lives of the Weston clan, whose women-folk are reunited after a family crisis forces everyone to reluctantly come home. The result, as Panton puts it, “is like your ten worst Christmases all at once. “It's set in the middle of nowhere, where everyone in the family grew up, and within the first five minutes of the play, something happens that means they have to go back to deal with it. Out of that, you start finding out some of the things that happened, and these are things which not everyone onstage knows about. It's what happens when you bring a family together who never really wanted to be together.”

With booze and narcotics to the fore in the play, what sounds like an emotional familial battlefield clearly stems from what has become a highly charged bedrock of twentieth century American drama, from Eugene O'Neill through to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. This is something Panton acknowledges, albeit with caveats drawn from Letts' own recognition of his quite particular dramatic sensibilities.

“It's dark and quite tragic, but it's also laugh out loud funny,” Panton says of the play. “It does continue that line of great American playwrights, and when I first saw it, it felt like a classic. Letts was asked about that, and he said something along the lines of that, while he didn't consider himself fit to tie O'Neill's show-laces, if he was given a choice between A Long Day's Journey into Night and August: Osage County, he would choose his own play, because he likes a few laughs with his tragedy.

Panton says that rehearsals for his production have been “revelatory. It's a big show. There are thirteen characters all in this three storey house, so there's a lot to discover.”

Plays on the scale of August: Osage County, however, are exactly what he feels Dundee Rep should be doing.

“It's important that, not just the Rep, but big theatres like the Citizens in Glasgow and the Lyceum in Edinburgh are able to do big shows with large casts,” Panton says. “I hope to do one large play a season, and I want to have that many actors onstage. The Rep ensemble is ideal for a play like this, and in a way it casts itself, with Ann Louise Ross, Irene Macdougall and Emily Winter perfect for these strong, powerful and mature women. There's a healthy shorthand that's already between them, so when you go into rehearsals it already feels that a lot of the barriers have already been broken down.

As with any American play that appears just now, August: Osage County can't help being judged in the context of the country's current volatile political situation.

“I don't think there's a better time to look at what America's become, and how it's messing things up, not just for America, but for the rest of the world,” Panton observes. “The play was written just before Obama was elected, when it felt like there was no hope. Then when Obama came into power, it felt like there was hope again. Now things have come full circle, and it feels like we're in a similar cycle in American politics, where there's no hope once more.”

Letts' play also has far more personal resonances.

“I think it's a play that makes you reflect on yourself and your life,” says Panton. “Not in a worthy way, but you're being bombarded with ideas about family that take you on an emotional journey, so at the end you're really made to think about what you've just been through.

“I think it's about examining attitudes to belief systems in a way that challenges those attitudes. None of the characters are necessarily people you'd want to hang out with, but with what happens in the play, you can see how they ended up how they did, and how we become influenced by certain belief systems depending on how we grow up and where we grow up. These characters are all people with deep and fundamental flaws, but you can recognise every one of them.”

August: Osage County, Dundee Rep, August 29-September 16.

The Herald, August 29th 2017



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