The Straw Chair – Finborough Theatre, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Sue Glover

Director: Polly Creed

The Straw Chair is an engrossing drama. Set in the mid-eighteenth century on Hirta, a tiny island of the St Kilda archipelago, it is based on a startling true story: the abduction of Rachel, Lady Grange, by her husband’s cronies, and her abandonment on the Outer Hebrides. Playwright Sue Glover sympathetically reimagines this maligned figure and through her, the whole question of society’s treatment of unconventional women.

Glover adds the fictional characters of an earnest minister, Aneas, arriving with his new young wife, Isabel. The couple are awkward with one another: it becomes clear the marriage has yet to be consummated. Isabel is horrified by the primitive conditions – a bed made of stones, a single cooking pot, the only piece of furniture a straw chair. She knows she must endure this until late summer and the last boat before winter closes.

Into this bursts Rachel, clad in the tattered finery of her previous Edinburgh life, claiming the chair is hers. She is a wonderfully drawn character. She is clearly mad: plucking feathers from her matted hair and being aggressively uncooperative towards the motherly Oona, her island attendant. The disintegrating straw chair seems to symbolise for her the remains of her former social standing. But Glover boldly challenges Rachel’s perceived madness. In fits and starts, we start to learn the shocking story of her cruel treatment.

Siobhan Redmond is mesmerising as this wild woman, capturing her mercurial moods changes, from loftily regal to vengeful and vicious. She can be mischievously playful too. Sensing Isabel’s sexual innocence, she gleefully encourages her to lift her skirts to her staid husband. It is, in fact, the best advice the baffled young woman can receive. When Aneas insists Isabel have nothing to do with Rachel, Isabel is conflicted. Further encounters, however, with this strange, disinhibited woman, give way to sympathy, as scraps of Rachel’s horrifying past begin to emerge and Isabel becomes aware of her own meek acceptance of male authority.

There’s a wonderfully funny scene when Rachel, who has come by two bottles of spirits, persuades Isabel to drink and then convinces Oona too, telling her the whisky is mixed with water from the holy well. Delightfully, Oona starts to express herself as she’s never done before. So transported is she by the experience she believes she can see paradise. For Isabel, the spirits gives her the courage to insist on joining the other women on a summer trip to a nearby island – her first real rebellion against her husband.

Rori Hawthorn is perfectly cast as Isabel, slowly transforming into lively young woman and coming to love the island community. The growing erotic charge beween her and Aneas is palpable and this is where we see  Finlay Bain at his best. Aneas is a challenging role, requiring the actor for the most part to mouth conventional attitudes. His new awareness, when it comes, needs rather too much late-stage exposition of Jacobite and anti-Jacobite politics to be wholly convincing. Coming in at close to two and a half hours, the play begins to feel a bit long, as the fates of Aneas and Isabel require some overly dense plotting

But for the most part, this is gripping theatre. In the intimacy of the Finborough, Alex Marker’s inventive set design convincingly recreates this remote island, and Glover’s imaginative writing makes us visualise the heady views from the cliffs. Anna Short’s sound design is excellent too – we hear waves crashing on the shore below, and the island rings with human voices, Hawthorn herself directing and performing the play’s haunting gaelic psalms and songs.

It’s an evocative, thought-provoking and above all, entertaining drama.

Runs until 14 May 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Enthralling, haunting drama

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