Writer: Alasdair Gray
Adaptor: David Greig
Director: Graham Eatough
Reviewer: R. G. Balgray
It’s a classic, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark; occupying a unique place in Scottish fiction, acknowledged for its breadth of vision, but seen also by many as a daunting read (the cast certainly have some fun with this in its Third Act). So the Citizens Theatre genuinely does an important job bringing it to the stage, and to new audiences.
Accepting that this is a worthy task then, how does the production shape up? It’s fair to say that some of its challenges remain: A Life in Four Books is cut down to A Life in Three Acts, but in practical terms, it still weighs in at a formidable 3 hours 40 minutes with two intervals. And the pragmatic difficulties posed in Book Three, (which in Gray’s characteristically idiosyncratic system comes first) when Lanark develops dragonhide and Rima “goes salamander”, are dealt with in minimalist fashion; though it would be difficult even to come close to Gray’s phantasmagorical world of devouring mouths and exploding dragons, harnessed to the energy needs of the Institute.
That said, there is so much to admire in this, a production that respects its source while seizing the chance for bold direction. Stage design is a real strength – a series of wireframe graphic type structures are used to suggest a range of settings (when Gray’s microscopic eye for realistic detail, in Book 1, for instance, might have proved burdensome), while there’s also space to include a degree of homage to the artist’s distinctive illustrative style. And lighting, music and video projection help create the black-and-white world of the 50s semi-autobiographical sections, the gloom of Unthank and the Elite Cafe, and the nightmare sterile world of the Institute, to name but a few. Stronger still, the importance of the cast: as the eponymous hero Lanark (and Thaw) Sandy Grierson is simply outstanding – capturing the character’s vulnerable yet obstinate, obsessive nature, his crippling shyness yet quixotic pride. Not far behind comes Jessica Hardwick, who contrives to show Rima’s Everywoman tenderness and cruelty while coming across as real flesh and blood, a credible focus for his affections. Also punching well above their weight: Paul Thomas Hickey as Sludden (and Coulter), the Svengali of the Elite Cafe; and Gerry Mulgrew, who lends an easy authority in the Institute scenes while suggesting a Hitchcock-like authorial presence in the latter stages. The highest praise of all, however, is given to the editing and direction of the text itself. Using the cast as a Chorus to drive through the Thaw/Oracle narrative is highly effective, and emphasises its emotional truth.
What the adaptation also manages very well is to highlight the humour of Gray’s story. There’s much that is both ridiculous and laughable, particularly in the Thaw narrative; and the sheer frivolity of it all is well served here. Which counterpoints nicely with the meta-narrative elements in the original text. Here, in the latter stages, which might easily have reverted to mere crash and bang, they help keep the audience’s goodwill. What more could be asked when an ambitious text receives its worthy treatment?
Reviewed on August 29, 2015