Near-silent office ambience proves highlight of day one proper

This article is from 2008

Alan Bissett's Festival Blog

Tues 5th Aug

My first play proper is Stoning Mary at the Underbelly, from the pen of Debbie Tucker Green. This contains three separate stories, the links between which are gradually reveelad, but when the first words you see onstage are ‘AIDS Genocide’ you know the kind of play you’re in for. The dialogue is shot out from the troupe of actors rapid fire, which makes some of it difficult to take in; the feeling for it is in the rhythm; staccato and repetitious, like machine-gun fire between the warring characters.

Despite another effective theatrical conceit, whereby two separate actors deliver a single character’s ‘speech’ and ‘thought’, the play does not digest easily. It is issue-heavy in the extreme – we have a stoning, a murderous child soldier, and an AIDS-infected couple – and Green does little to sweeten the pill for the audience, strongly stylising her dialogue and turning narrative into an abstract concept.

That said, the actors do well with a difficult script, especially a young, blonde Cockney actress whose name I’ve been unable to track down (cast list anyone? anyone?), but who gives a firecracker of a performance. She lifted the piece each time she appeared onstage and even wrought some laughs from the grimness. If you’re reading this, leave a comment with your name in it, so the good List blog readers will know who you are. You deserve it.

In complete contrast tonally, was Paperweight. Crammed into a tiny ‘office’ at the Assembly Rooms, the play fills the small space with a slow-building whirlwind of creative energy, born from almost nothing. The first half of this has an ambient feel to it, with office drones Harold (Tom Frankland) and Anthony (Sebastian Lawson) simply passing the time before our eyes. In a play which dares to have the characters do literally nothing while they wait minutes for a kettle to boil, it is left to the tiny visual details to speak: that Anthony drinks from a Che Guevara mug and Harold wears a Snoopy tie tells all. Given such huge spaces in the script, lines of dialogue and actions echo forever, and just as it seems as though the play will collapse beneath its own weightlessness, the pace shifts abruptly. Harold constructs a manic and elaborate practical joke, and the frost between Anthony and Harold melts with the heat from the play’s sudden kinesis. We experience with them a moment of surreal bonding so unexpected it feels almost transcendental.

The play eventually start to lose even its own strange inner logic, and having built to what seems like a crescendo it then lets the pace subside. But moments of laughter, frustration and sadness appear like potholes among the stretches of silence, and potentially-tricky changes of tone are smoothly handled. This play knows what it’s doing. It is clever without being clever-clever. And all hail to a script in which office drones says, ‘I’m feeling really well, so I’m going to go home early today.’ I think we can all learn something from that philosophy.

Finally it was onto This Must Be The Place at the Roxburgh Hotel near Charlotte Square, a play by a new Irish writer Donnchadh O’Conaill which won awards at the Durham Drama Festival. This play explores the theme of writerly obsession – making it of particular interesting to me – and it certainly captures that dissolute feeling of being lost in the vast, hopeless, imaginative project which is novel-writing. There are a great many sharp, pithy lines, mainly from the protagonist’s cynical friend Ian (Michael Umney): ‘You can’t escape reality, only move to a better postcode,’ Ian warns the writer, before ‘wishing him ‘every success except, of course, Success.’ I’d have been delighted myself to come up lines like that. Structural uncertainties made the play a little hard to follow at times – this is sometimes a problem with metafiction genereally – but good use of lighting and various gems studded throughout the script made me intrigued about what this young writer could achieve in the future.

Day One proper of my Festival experience was exhausting and exhilarating; just no more fliers please. And a Scottish accent, just occasionally, would be nice. Train time. It’s rare when you can say you’re going back to Glasgow for the peace and quiet.

Alan Bissett is the author of the novels Boyracers and The Incredible Adam Spark. He lives in Glasgow.