Writer: Muriel Spark
Director: Laurie Sansom
Reviewer: R G Balgray
Mention Muriel Spark, and what do you think of? That’s right, Miss Jean Brodie. And it’s a curious business sitting in an Edinburgh audience, who are all tuned in to that very specific cultural reference. However, Spark wrote many other pieces, and this – atypically – is set in Italy. But a couple of Brodie-esque barbs in the play’s early stages did cause a certain frisson (maybe it was the accent that did it, but it was certainly there). Any expectations raised, however, were not so much dashed as sidelined…
For this is a thriller, and (curiouser and curiouser) we are told that Lise, its dramatic centre, is to be murdered – and exactly how, and where. Here the tension springs from how and why this is to happen: as pronounced in the play’s later stages, it is a “whydunnit”.
In its 95 minutes, straight through, with no interval, the audience is led through a series of suspects, and points of view. With our national theatre company, and this director, you would expect this process to involve a degree of sophistication and complexity. And this is very much the case. A complex multipurpose set is used in a variety of ways: as office, hotel, pavilion, all with minimalist shifting of tables and chairs; and, in the course of the play, a wireframe screen turns into a incident/victim board, as members of the cast add the details of Lise’s movements and locations. Channeling CSI patterns in this way is only part of it, though. In extensive use of projected videocam images, layer upon layer of behaviours build up (sometimes this feels rather odd, as witness the map being filled in by the just-a-tad-too-slow felt tip wielded by one of the cast; but often it all feels intrusive, and sweatily claustrophobic). As an exercise in thought-provoking stagecraft, this all certainly cuts the mustard.
The play is not without its idiosyncrasies, though. There’s something unhappily 50s about its earlier stages (perhaps we all expect that setting to turn up with attached musical soundtrack to help make us believe that the 60s could indeed be just around the corner). And, as it makes its way into its riff on misogyny, the pervy males it presents all… well, in these days of our post-Saville awareness, they all feel a bit queasily unacceptable – as if we can’t really laugh at them at all in any way. And Lise herself, while more than adequately turning the question on the audience about just who is in the driver’s seat, can seem intellectually satisfying without true emotional credibility – her early febrility doesn’t help. Given that this is a novel turned into a play, but which really wants to be a film, Morven Christie makes a decent fist of Lise’s rôle; but it’s interesting that it is Sheila Reid – or more accurately, her larger than life projected image – as Mrs Fiedke, who achieves something like pathos. But it does feel by the end that the audience has been led to somewhere deeper: applause was respectful and polite – if somewhat unmoved.
Reviewed on 18th June, running at the Royal Lyceum until 27th June. Thereafter at the Tramway, Glasgow, 2nd – 4th July