Writer: Timothy Jones
Director: Hannah Eidinow
Reviewer: Edie Ranvier
Edinburgh is labouring under a glut of plays, written by men, about how infertility turns women into psychopathic harridans.At the Lyceum, Tim Barrow’s Union is busy portraying Queen Anne, on the back of her miscarriages, as an unhinged despot who goes about breast-feeding a swaddled doll, leaving off occasionally to oppress a few Scots.
Meanwhile, less than a mile due east, Timothy Jones’ debut play Under the Mulberry Tree portrays the trials of a middle-aged housewife Connie (Joanna Bending) on holiday in France, whose barren womb turns her into a hysterical nit-picker then a raging cougar, and finally leads her toa dramatic end,somewhat to the relief of the audience. If Germaine Greer were in her grave, she’d be turning in it.
The play is set in a decaying French hotel, run by dilettante Monsieur Guillaume (Roger Ringrose) and his boyfriend Julien (Adam Slynn), and bankrolled by his long-suffering sister Gilberte (Annabel Capper). Think Fawlty Towers without the laughs.
Into this mix come the Braithwaites, played by Bending and Jeremy Todd: he a stereotypical, emotionally-repressed Yorkshireman who can’t remember his lines, and she a walking biological clock. Connie takes a shine to the lithe, wooden Julien, who turns out to be a predictably bad lot, with lethal results. Mind you, it’s not his fault, but the fault of another mad maternal figure: we’re almost casually told that his bad behaviour stems from his mother sexually abusing him as a child.
The plot is cranked forward, not so much by what the audience sees and infers, as by what we’re told. For a cast set in the fifties, the characters seem anachronistically willing to dissect their dreary love-lives in public. Connie’s “Why am I telling you all this?” could be the motto of the play, and this reviewer certainly doesn’t know the answer.
Connie and Jack have barely stepped onstage before they’re explaining to each other and everyone else within earshot how great their marriage used to be and how awful it is now. It’s hard to believe the first bit (they seem strikingly incompatible, and of chemistry there is none), or to care about the second. The rows that are supposed to exemplify their heartache are stagey and repetitive: it’s bad enough havingConnie declaim once, with self-conscious mystery: “You can’t forgive me. I can barely forgive myself”, but twice, and in identical words?
And it’s not just the Braithwaites who tell rather than show. “We have become good friends”, Gilberte helpfully tells Connie in the second act. Just as well she lets us know, because there isn’t much else in the script or its delivery to suggest a good friendship: it’s a perfunctory prelude to yet another heart-to-heart about who’s having whose baby and what a cad Julien is. Indeed, both Capper and Ringrose, who seemed all set in the opening scenes to be the play’s protagonists, fade rapidly into the background, and their dramatic function seems to be as catalysts for Connie’s diatribes on how awful it is to be babyless.
At least Capper gets to do her sympathetic nodding in some enviable twinsets, for both costumes and set design (Claire Lyth) are beautiful. The stage is dominated by the mulberry tree of the play’s title. As with Gilberte and Guillaume, the tree’s relevance to the plot is a bit doubtful; but its coppery gold branches and the leaf litter that strews the floor, amid simple wooden screens, make an atmospheric backdrop.
Unfortunately, the setting is the best thing about Under the Mulberry Tree: the overriding impression is of dreary unbelievable characters behaving in dreary unbelievable ways. But it’s Timothy Jones’ first play. Things can only get better.
Runs until 12 April