Theatre in Wales

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Spoiling/ The Pitiless Storm: Two Scots Writers Do the Referendum

Theatre of Scotland

Traverse/ Fairpley , Traverse Theatre/ Assembly Ballroom, Edinburgh , August 5, 2014
Theatre of Scotland by Traverse/ Fairpley “Spoiling” is fun for its fifty minutes. It has a touch of the Hares to it as a dialectic between a feisty woman of power and a man of lesser power. Fiona is Foreign Minister-designate in a not-yet-formally separated but post-Yes-vote Scotland. She is a Hare-ean standard, representing integrity while Mark, her junior, is representative of expediency. The author touches on some raw points. “There ain't no no crack in the Union Jack” says Fiona in response to the bullet that has come her way in an envelope with an Ulster postmark.

Mark's politics have been forged in employment at Stormont. He is a graduate with an unusual double honours, that of politics and geology. “Geology goes back further” he explains. “In Belfast?” says an eyebrow-arching Fiona. Mark outlines the Minister-designate's programme for her Holyrood meeting with the government up from the rest of the no longer United Kingdom. The photo sessions will feature “warm”, then “dignified” and lastly both “warm and dignified.”

The play diverges from David Hare in that the dramatist lacks knowledge or curiosity in politics. The basis of the relationship is pure authorial fantasy. A civil servant does not behave as does Mark. He does not, full stop. The author might have made him a Campbell-esque figure. But even then the relationship between a cabinet member and her offstage peers lacks all credibility. The author's interest is twofold. One is the assertion- and this is so familiar- of Scotland's superiority in virtue and innocence. Scotland did not do empire, slavetrade, or settlement in Ireland. Poor good little Scotland was led astray by its big bad bully of a neighbour.

The only ambition the author has for his Fiona is that she be authentic and be “raw, unpolished.” She has no interest in power beyond rhetorical flourish. She is in fact a young playwright, not a woman of power at all. She is also heavily pregnant and like the politics the play has no interest in the pregnancy. Scotland may flourish post-oil but it will need immigrants and lots of them. The audience member next to me says that Scotland too sent its anti-immigration representative to Strasbourg. Why a playwright has such small interest in his own country's texture is a bit of puzzle.

“The Pitiless Storm” is the real thing. It has a writer in Chris Dolan who has had a life before drama, in radio, network Scotland and a stint for Unesco. It is a one-man piece that ends with passion and surprise. The writer has earned his polemical clout of a close because he has arrived there in the right way. He has created a human being of vulnerability and complexity. Dolan also gets what the campaigners and the commentaotrs have left out. “We cannot predict the future” says sixty-something Bob Cunningham, widower, Labour tribalist, sufferer of a less-than-good heart and haunted by a father of power. The past is indeed no predictor for the future. The starting-point for the independence of the Baltic trio was a thousand times worse than that for Scotland.

The occasion is a speech before old comrades to celebrate the receipt of an OBE. Bob is at the podium a little beforehand with time to spare. He is more than a little bemused at the award. “I've got to say the right things in the right order.” He muses over memories. “Don't agonise, organise” was a parental watchword. Family connections have served in Spain. An out-of-work millworker joining the army in desperation found himself among the Black and Tans in Ulster.

He worries that the very greeting “comrades” might now be suspect. Lifelong friendships were formed at age twenty when a march against cruise missiles brought him into scuffles with opponents with names like Reggie and Hugo. A generation on and another peace march is for the joining. He and his wife divide. For Bob he cannot march against a Labour government “You break ranks and you're a scab.” Dolan creates a portrait of a human for whom certainty and the consolation of life's meaning have evaporated. “Everything I feared and despised is on the rise.”

Q&A sessions after a performance rarely ignite. This is the exception. David Hayman is unaided, and there is none of the slowness of getting microphones to those unused to their use. The event soars. The campaign has had a galvanising effect on civic life, irrespective of the result. Did a party leader really state that her fellow citizens were genetically incapable of making a political decision? The Londoners in the audience deplore the thinness of media coverage to a cheer. Hint: switch to Newsnight Scotland at eleven and it is raw meat night on night. “Who wants these aircraft carriers?” asks Hayman “They're not for protecting our fishing boats.” That gets a big applause. As for the tone in the Ballroom under two impossiby grandiose chandeliers a voter declares himself one of the yet-to-deciders. “Is your arse not getting sore?” asks Hayman “Ye canna sit on the fence forever.”

This is theatre. “The Pitiless Storm” continues at the Assembly Rooms until 24th August and tours fourteen venues until mid-September.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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