NIGHTLANDS at Edinburgh Festival Fringe
“Nightlands is the kind of play you root for, even when it doesn’t quite succeed”
Jack MacGregor’s play Nightlands is an ambitious drama set in 1999, in Svalbard, the land of polar bears—and very few humans. Nightlands switches from the personal to the political and back again in ways that you don’t anticipate. It’s also performed by just two actors, the very talented veteran Matthew Zajac, and an equally talented newcomer, Rebecca Wilkie. But in sixty minutes, there just isn’t enough time to explore all the subjects MacGregor puts on stage for his characters to tackle. Especially when these characters — a tough, no-nonsense young woman named Slava and the morose, antisocial, much older Sasha — have brought more than enough of their own baggage up to the Arctic Circle. But Nightlands is proof enough that the Scottish Highlands company Dogstar, based in the Inverness area, doesn’t shy away from plays that deal with difficult material. MacGregor does provide a programme note about themes in this play. It’s helpful, however, if audiences have some knowledge of where the world has been drifting since 1999, when Vladimir Putin came to power in the former Soviet Union. There are scattered references here and there in Nightlands, but they are not really sufficient to get a firm footing on this complex subject matter.
Nightlands opens with two performers telling a story. They constantly interrupt each other, as they set the scene, and fill in the details. She is playing the character of Slava from Chelubinsk. Slava has been assigned to work, alone, in one of the most remote spots in the world. To ensure that Svalbard remains part of a demilitarized zone. The performer who plays Sasha, a character who speaks five languages, is writing a memoir, and is from somewhere south of Moscow — shouldn’t even be there. Yet somehow, he is. This switching back and forth is playwright MacGregor’s way of showing how we rely on memory to establish character and place. And Slava and Sasha also dance around the subject of memory—sometimes literally—as they try to establish physical territory in their isolated location. Both have reasons for wanting to live alone. Both are running from past lives in the former Soviet Union. Neither wants the other to be there, but outside is only the Arctic wasteland, populated by polar bears. The drama is slow moving, and the facts that emerge are ambiguous. It takes a while to see where Nightlands might be going. Other than the bears, the threat to the characters is underplayed, for all the remoteness of their situation.
Nevertheless, MacGregor has created something rather unusual. In Nightlands, he avoids the usual pitfalls of “relationship” dramas by establishing that Slava and Sasha are not going to be romantically involved. At least one character is an unreliable narrator, and there are hints that unreliable memories are at play here as well. Intriguing stuff. But ultimately, it doesn’t add up to a fully satisfying evening, despite the performance skills of Wilkie and Sajac. It may be that sixty minutes is simply not enough time to get to grips with the story. Or that two characters trapped in a room together, can only conjure a limited picture of a decaying Communist state, and the dangerous politics developing thousands of miles away. It’s a brave attempt by MacGregor to write a “big” play (he directs as well), but Nightlands is a bit short of resources. Rather like its two characters in Svalbard.
Nightlands is the kind of play you root for, even when it doesn’t quite succeed. And it’s good to see a theatre company like Dogstar, encouraging playwrights to take a chance on telling a different kind of story for the stage.
Reviewed 6th August 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Paul Campbell
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