Sunday, November 01, 2009

"Confessions of a Justified Sinner" - October 2009

As one of the few books on a school reading list that I ever actually enjoyed, I was looking forward to seeing this Lyceum production based on James Hogg's 'Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner'. So it's surprising that last night after seeing the show I could summon up so little enthusiasm to post a comment on it that we seriously considered simply posting "What she said" with a link to Shona Craven's review at Onstage Scotland. We really can't remember a production where just about every element fails as significantly as they do here. Performances, direction, set and sound all contribute to making the show almost painful to watch.

Being entirely fair, with its supernatural elements and the significance of perception this was never going to be a simple novel to stage. Mark Thomson, who adapts and directs, manages the trickier elements fairly successfully but it's with the fundamentals that the problems lie.

His focus is very much on Robert and his mental decline/manipulation by the devilish Gil-Martin rather than the real cause of the problem - his belief in predestination. Robert doesn't need to lose his mind or be deceived and manipulated to commit his crimes - they follow logically from his beliefs, but there isn't enough emphasis here on religion being the problem. It's easy to see the story/play as an attack on those who take extreme actions based on faith, but for me that misses the real target - those who hold irrational beliefs of all varieties (whether they have the courage/foolishness to act on them or not).

We've seen enough of Ryan Fletcher in recent years to know he is a very talented performer, and when I discovered he was in the show I was expecting to see him playing the mysterious Gil-Martin (largely due to the fact we'd just seen him do a great job with a similar role in 'The Last Witch'). But cast as Robert he rarely makes the impact we've come to expect from him, and both Waldorf and I entirely independently felt there was something far too close to "Frank Spencer" about Fletcher's portrayal of the character in tone and mannerisms.

Iain Robertson is equally disappointing as Gil-Martin, leaving the character short in terms of charm, cunning or any real sense of power. Many of the rest of the cast are seriously hampered by having to play multiple characters - some to such an extent that I've only encountered previously when played intentionally for laughs. Poor Wendy Seager and Kenny Blyth are lumbered with five roles each! Only John Kielty (primarily as Robert's brother George), Kern Falconer (as Rev Wringhim) and Rae Hendrie (in her scenes as Robert's mother and his accuser Bel) emerge with much credit.

The revolving set with its angular monoliths provides interest at first but quickly becomes tiresomely overused, often only to enable Robert to keep walking/talking. And in a production where atmosphere should play such a key role the soundscape didn't deliver and the occasional use of projection seemed like a misplaced afterthought. The pace is plodding throughout and after the interval becomes utterly interminable with a series of scenes as Robert is on the run that served almost no purpose.

In fact, the most entertaining moments of the afternoon came from listening to the audience members around us still ranting on about how much they hated "The Beggar's Opera". However, for the record, they actually seemed to really enjoy this show.

Confessions of a Justified Sinner runs at the Lyceum until 7th November
Image by Douglas McBride used with permission.

5 Heckles

Anonymous said...

Did you guys even see the same show I did? The production I saw is on at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh and was utterly terrific. I honestly cannot believe this is a review of the same production. You are so far off the mark on this one it is UNBELIEVABLE.

I am a huge fan of Ryan Fletcher's too and have also enjoyed watching his talent develop over the years; yet in this play I felt he had really come into his own. He was mature, painstakingly marked and emotive to the point of tears on my part. I felt that the intense relationship between himself and Iain Robertson was remarkable and without doubt one of the finest I have seen in years - a point of view backed up by the Herald, Scotsman, the List and the Evening News to name but a few.

As for the multi-casting, I felt the cast did a fantastic job turning on a sixpence and leaving the audience with no doubt as to who and what they were playing. Partictularly Lewis Howden (who is without doubt one of the unsung greats of Scottish theatre) and Kern Falconer.

This is a piece they said could not be done; well for my money (and for my husband and I it was £27 a piece thank you very much - and money well spent!) this is a piece of theatre that proves Hogg's work can be done and to the highest of expectations. I might add that my husband and I approached the theatre last Wednesday feeling this piece would never translate onto the stage. How surprised we were, how wonderfully and pleasantly surprised we were.

A great cast in a great work, directed fantastically. Whoever you are; you must not have seen the same play as myself. Frank Spencer indeed - what nonsense!

Go see this play!

Jane McDougall

Tam said...

Hey Jane, who said Confessions couldn't be done on stage? There was a production of it at the Lyceum about 25 years ago and I was in the original production of that adaptation by Stuart Paterson with TAG nearly 30 years ago...

Waldorf said...

Hi Jane, I'm glad you and your husband enjoyed the show - that's what it's about after all.

Unfortunately it just didn't work for us. I agree that a lot of the reviews are positive (some more so than others). We make a point of avoiding reading the reviews of a show we've already booked to see as we don't want spoilers or the thoughts of others influencing us before we see it and form our own opinion. It can be interesting in hindsight looking at what others have said. Especially when they've picked up on something that we've felt the complete opposite. For example, in this case, a lot were really impressed by the stage. Whilst for me the rotation started getting irritating quite quickly and I found it distracting and felt it slowed the pace and sapped energy.

Like anything subjective you're going to get different opinions, and that's why we enjoy going to the theatre so much. Even going to a show with friends and family can result in arguments on the way home! I also think that's why reviews should always be used as an aid, and never a definitive reason to see or not see a show.

Anonymous said...

ooooh Betty.

Martin Gateshead said...

You know, I studied this book at University and utterly adored it. I remember that one of the big discussions at the time was that the hardline Protestant views (depicted in this piece) of the time, caused lasting damage to Scotland's literary heritage - in large part due to the book burning and suppression of creativity under such staunch rule.

Isn't it ironic then that one of the largest pieces of work from our literary forefathers is 'The private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner' a piece which both attacks and exposes the religious mania of the time? It is a complex piece which I never imagined would translate onto the stage.

How do you convey one person morphing into another? Or even the account being in third person then switching to first person narrative before changing back to third? How would they answer the questions that Hogg himself did not answer? How do you make a golden Pistol appear from the etha? And of course, the questions continue.

Yet I was surprised by Mark Thompson's (more than) admirable attempt. By the precision from his tremendous cast and by the fact that he refrained from being a smart arse and offering answers to that which Hogg hadn't. As for this homosexual undertone debate that I've read from bloggers: It was a debate that infuriated me five years ago at uni as much as now. That is the reader's take and not something Hogg expressly wrote - or even decided to write. Men were much more expressive with phyisical contact back then; without it being sexual. I refute the argument that Thompson should have pushed this sentiment onto the text.

I thought the set expressed the confusion of the piece and was exploited wonderfully, with characters appearing from (seemingly) nowhere. The pitch of the performances was perfect (with of course the odd exception) and the errie lighting and music helped create an electric atmosphere.

I applaud Thompson for exploring this classic - and much under appreciated - piece of Scottish literature. I applaud his cast and I hope more and more people are introduced to Hogg's work through fantastic productions such as this.

Almost three months later this production lives on in my memory, there's not much theatre does that to me. Most of all I applaud Hogg for leaving us such a fantastic piece of work that Mark Thompson and his gang managed to bring to life so well