How to Act – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Writer and director: Graham Eatough

Reviewer: Gareth Davies

In an age of ‘fake news’ and #MeToo, the National Theatre of Scotland’s exploration of the intersection between narratives of reality and power seems eerily prescient. Under the guise of a masterclass hosted by a world-renowned theatre practitioner Nicholl (Robert Goodale), what transpires is a provocative questioning of the very nature of theatre, and the challenges of reconciling competing versions of truth and fact.

Young performer Promise (Jade Ogugua) is initially hesitant as she introduces this rare appearance from a provocative and acclaimed theorist, who cuts a Corbynistic dash with his white beard, open shirt and bare feet. With the power very much in his hands, Nicholl announces that “the truth is that the theatre is dying and we all know it”. Seeking to shift the function of theatre away from being merely entertainment, Promise becomes Nicholl’s vessel through which he demonstrates his vision of the dramatic potential of truthful performance.

Drawing on Promise’s memories of a childhood spent in Nigeria, where Nicholl himself took a revelatory tour with a makeshift theatre company in the 1980s, the masterclass begin to take a more unsettling turn as we begin to see competing versions of the ‘facts’ of what happened for those who experienced Nigeria when its natural oil resources began to be exploited by western companies. What Nicholl experienced as a reconnection with tribal traditions of early theatre, Promise sees as desperate attempts to escape from the poverty of capitalism.

Alternating between the reality of the masterclass and a re-enactment of original experiences, writer and director Graham Eatough’s production continually challenges our willing suspension of disbelief – the very act of shifting the audience between levels of fact and fiction immerses us in the nature of the argument being played out, and it’s undoubtedly an engaging process.

Ogugua manages to bring conviction to the act of acting, playing the performer with awkwardness initially, cut through with moments of hesitation as the power play begins to shift in her favour. Goodale is every inch the faux-humble narcissist offering a messianic level of insight into the dark art of drama, although neither performer is able to make the unwieldy machinations of Eatough’s plot feel fully plausible, with one or two twists too far unravelling much of the dramatic intrigue that has come before.

Before the high melodrama erodes some of the substance of Eatough’s thoughtful and insightful production, there’s much for an audience to chew over and debate. The prevalence of colonial narratives may be still an under-recognised feature of western society, and the easy ways in which power is held and given over between men and women is very much a current concern. If the exploration lacks subtlety in the final minutes of Eatough’s debate, it’s far from the fault of the performers.

Runs until 17 March 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub - Scotland

The Scotland team is under the editorship of Lauren Humphreys. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. We aim to review all professional types of theatre, whether that be Commercial, Repertory or Fringe as well as Comedy, Music, Gigs etc.

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