Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Be Near Me" - January 2009

We've been fortunate enough to see the Donmar's productions of "Othello" and "Twelfth Night" in the last year on our trips to London, so the potential of their collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland was enough to see us driving down to Kilmarnock for the evening - despite forecasts for gale force winds. Yes, we could have waited for it to return to Scotland after its run in London, but the draw of seeing Ian McDiarmid's adaptation of Andrew O'Hagan's novel about a troubled priest staged in its native Ayrshire setting was too strong to ignore.

In a production so strongly focused on a central character it can often be to the detriment of the whole, and having the writer (or in this case adaptor) also playing said character is unlikely to minimise this. No doubt the novel gives the peripheral characters more depth, but here they appear to have little life beyond their interactions with Anderton.

In truth I suspect many of the issues I have with the play stem directly from the source material in Andrew O'Hagan's novel. Even before the events that drive the plot towards its conclusion, the relationship between a priest approaching sixty and a teenage couple going off the rails is pretty far fetched. In this adaptation there simply isn't enough indication of him either earning their respect and trust, or of his friendship being sufficiently advantageous to them to make their interest in him believable. While of course such things can happen, it lessens the impact on the audience when it can be dismissed as an aberration without any wider significance.

McDiarmid's performance is thoroughly engaging but is also problematic. While the character is clearly intended to be flamboyant, he is portrayed in a style that is considerably more 'performed' than the naturalistic approach taken by the rest of the cast. In fairness this may be intended to be indicative of the character's life being an act but it remains a jarring contrast for the audience.

Blythe Duff impresses as housekeeper Mrs Poole but can't overcome the feeling that a lot of character development has been lost along the way, leaving the characterisation somewhat condensed, while Benny Young and Jimmy Chisholm give eye-catching performances but are given little to work with. It's left to Richard Madden and Helen Mallon as Mark and Lisa to give the stand-out performances of the evening with Mallon in particular delivering a potentially career enhancing 'on-screen' appearance and showcasing a beautiful singing voice.

But despite an able cast, some sublime moments of direction from John Tiffany as scenes transition and Davey Anderson's musical contribution, the show feels overly long (as evidenced by the gentleman in the audience who had to be woken after three loud snores). At a run time of two and a half hours (including a 15 minute interval) it feels like closer to three, and could really be cut to two. A good start could be made by jettisoning a prolonged dinner party scene laden with heavy handed political comment and the many sectarian references that seem overblown considering that we see little direct evidence of it being an issue which affects the characters.

Much will be made of the potentially controversial nature of the tale and its moral complexity but in fact the play is fairly clear in how it expects us to respond to its characters and the lines are nowhere near as blurred as they could/should be. It does however offer a provocative view of the characteristics we demand, and those we exclude, from our idea of a Scottish identity.

This is an entertaining evening but lacks dramatic power due to an overwhelming sense of inevitability and I'm also somewhat fearful that many of the show's best moments rely on cultural references that may not be as well received outside Scotland.

Be Near Me has completed its run at Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock and will now play at London's Donmar Warehouse before touring to Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, Perth, Salford Quays, Leicester & Truro.
Image by David Eustace used with permission.

1 Heckle

Anonymous said...

Actually, you make it sound quite good. Why so kind?