Utah Blue- reviews

David Adams and Michael Kelligan
Give it Name, with Sherman Young Artists development scheme.
Sherman Theatre Cardiff
May 1, 2008

utah blueAT last, and it’s taken 13 years, Dic Edwards’ arresting play based on the life and death of Gary Gilmore gets a production that does this dense, provocative drama justice.

In fact Phil Mackenzie’s stripped-down, taut version of a work that can get bogged down by its wordiness is surprisingly just right, the sheer physicality of the piece liberating the text.
It starts and ends with an eerie kind of line-dance to Neil Young, the four characters staring blankly at the audience; in between there are multiple explosions of passion as each of them tries to express their individual cries for freedom from the claustrophobic world of mormon repression.

Gary Gilmore, he of the famous eyes, was the guy who in 1976 fought against being pardoned for murder and embraced the death penalty for his apparently motiveless murders.

A remarkable man, he could refer to philosophers and artists with all the naivete of the amateur intellectual but at the same time with unaffected enthusiasm and understanding. He was obsessive, foul-mouthed, self-justifying, amoral and compassionless – the perfect antihero for a writer like Edwards.

To an extent it’s also the cry of the creative soul confined by society – both Gilmore brothers were artists of different kinds (Mikal still writes for Rolling Stone magazine) as they struggled with their frankly bizarre religious background. Gary (played with a blazing intensity by Dean Rehman) is an outsider, societally speaking, from childhood, and even falling in love with trailer-trash Nicole doesn’t help him conform: he is the quintessential “evicted” personality.

Edwards, one of Wales’ few distinctive playwrights, also writes opera and there is certainly something of the melodramatic tragic inevitability about Utah Blue with its heightened emotions, extreme characterisation, relentless thin narrative and obsessive behaviour – ironically far more so than its original 1995 production for Made in Wales by Michael McCarthy of Music Theatre Wales.

This is all brought out, interestingly, by Mackenzie’s very physical production, with its emphasis on the body and the dispensing of virtually all scenery and props.

So when, for example, Nicole removes her panties and slips them to Gary while he is on death row it is a startling moment which is extended as he continues to play with them after she’s gone, twisting them round as he talks and inadvertently knotting them round his wrists.

In the original, and in Edwards’ script, the physicality is overtly sexual and symbolic and we saw a lot of Nicole, while Gary was represented alive and dead and is clad in a blood-stained body stocking.

With Rhys Meyrick’s simple set of sliding screens, a sharp lighting design by Rachel Mortimer and good performances (Zoe Davies, John Norton and Beth House are the other tormented souls) this is one of those rare Welsh shows that in concept and execution could hold its own on any stage anywhere.

We owe this production, it has to be said, to Rehman and Norton’s involvement in the play’s revival by Michael Kelligan in his On The Edge series of rehearsed readings – Norton went on to form the Give It A Name company and it’s as part of Sherman Cymru Young Artists Development Scheme that Mackenzie has transformed this underrated masterpiece to one striking piece of contemporary theatre.

David Adams
may 2008

utah blue imageDic Edwards is one of Wales’ leading playwrights, like a number of contemporary Welsh dramatists he is often able to combine a poetic style with a very hard hitting narrative. This account of the life and cruel self-inflicted death of Gary Gilmore also shows us his gripping sense of theatricality. It is one of the many conundrums of Welsh theatre that his work and that of a number of his peers is not more often presented by some of our leading producers.

On the face of it Gilmore, who was thirty seven years old at the time of his execution by firing squad on January 17th 1977 at 8.07 am, was a waster with little thought or care for his fellow men. It would be too easy to say that it was his father’s bullying that sent this promising academic and artistic teenager off the rails in 1954 at the age of fourteen. Now thirty years on and no doubt before, meaningless murders by young people abound. The sadness of this unfathomable fact of human life permeates the magical production by Phillip Mackenzie.

Gilmore spent most of his life in prison, mainly on charges of robbery and assault, yet he was not totally without sensitivity and here in Dean Rehman’s remarkably compelling performance, with his flashing eyes and knowing grin we get pretty near developing an affection and sympathy for this complex character.

His mother, played with a good sense of despairing frustration by Beth House never gave up caring and loving him. We see, for a while, a good sense of brotherly rapport develop with his younger brother Mikal, again a strong and assured performance from John Norton but this eventually collapses into more despair and frustration. There is a strong bond with his girl friend Nicole performed with an alluring sensuous ease by Zoe Davis. She immediately turns her attention to Mikal after Gary’s death but this relationship soon echoes the frustrations of her time with Gary.

To this day capital punishment is still carried out in some states in the USA. A moratorium was introduced from 1967-1977. Gilmore’s execution in Utah was the first to take place once the moratorium was lifted. At the time, Utah had two methods of execution, firing squad or death by hanging, although his sentence had been commuted Gilmore insisted it was carried out and demanded to be shot. It is to the credit of both actor Dean Rehman, all the other members of the cast and director Mackenie that the credibility of all the action in the play is never in doubt.

There is a degree of stylisation to the production that mostly matches the tone of the play. This also included some dance movement at the opening and closing of the play. Whilst the irony of this is clear I still can’t decide whether this embellishment was entirely to my liking.

Michael Kelligan
May 2008

 
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