“There is humanity and tragedy in the piece, but despite the magnificent performances, the emotional punch is too tender”
It is 1735, and life on St Kilda – in the far reaches of the Outer Hebrides – is pretty stark. And everything smells and tastes of fish. It is an abandoned isle, populated by abandoned people. A place where the crashing waves erode the shoreline and, if you let it, the spirit. But not so Lady Grange, the central figure of Sue Glover’s play based on the real-life wife of the eighteenth-century Lord Grange. A Shakespearean mix of King Lear and Miranda, she whips up her own storm that threatens to silence the unrelenting winds that sweep in from all sides of the island.
Lady Grange was exiled by her estranged husband to the Outer Hebrides, on the basis that she was hysterical, drunk, disorderly and uncivilised. In truth she knew too much about her husband; his Jacobite sympathies shrouded by hypocrisy and political pragmatism. Better she go and rage against the storm in isolation, rather than upset his veneered city life.
The turmoil is all internal and the interest promised by the historical facts doesn’t translate entirely successfully here. Anna Short’s sound design evokes the peace of the farmyard rather than the ravaged sentiments of the central character. The first act serves mainly to set the scene, into which Aneas, a bible-clutching minister and his new wife, Isabel come on a mission. Isabel, all innocence and compliance, is initially the antithesis of Lady Grange. What Glover’s writing cleverly reveals, however, is how the two women have more in common than we originally think. Along with Oona, Grange’s maid, the three women are all trapped in their own gender-defying roles of the time.
Siobhan Redmond is a force as the unhinged Grange – sexual and dangerous; one minute syrup and flirtation, the next acid and acrimony. Redmond portrays a Hamlet-like figure: mad at the world rather than mad within one’s head. Rori Hawthorn is equably believable as Isabel; an ember in the shadow of Finlay Bain’s surreptitiously domineering Aneas, yet Hawthorn reveals the flickers of a burning injustice. The flames fanned by Redmond’s powerful performance.
But it takes until the second act for the momentum to really take hold. Jenny Lee, wonderful as the no-nonsense Oona, is drawn into the fold and the play now belongs to the women. Polly Creed’s direction is finally allowed to flourish, particularly as the trio bond over shared whisky and dissatisfaction. Glover’s underlying comments on gender and power are unleashed as the tongues are loosened, while Bain takes a generous back step, yet without relinquishing his masterful portrayal of the steadfast missionary.
“The Straw Chair” is a play that demands attention, although it does take a while to grab it. Its hold on us is tenuous, but if it lapses, we are soon lured back in, with the added help of some plaintive music. As well as commanding the stage, Hawthorn (with co-violinist, Elisabeth Flett) provides a lyrical, pre-recorded underscore. There is humanity and tragedy in the piece, but despite the magnificent performances, the emotional punch is too tender. We want to hear the waves crash, rather than lap, on the rocky Hebridean shoreline.
“John Sackville and Paul Rider command the stage throughout and restore the sense of period with their finely nuanced performances”
It’s difficult to imagine now that when Charles Dyer’s “Staircase” was first produced for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966, the Lord Chamberlain savaged the script, demanding cuts. A few expletives had to go (beggar replaced bugger), as were some fairly innocent references that were deemed to have a ‘homosexual’ context. But the hugging was allowed. The irony is that Covid 19 has finally achieved what the Lord Chamberlain couldn’t. The two actors in Tricia Thorns’ revival at Southwark Playhouse don’t touch. Thorns always suspected that lifting the restrictions would be delayed and so she took that into account. Whether intentional or not, this distancing has the fortunate side effect of heightening the sense of secrecy, surreptitiousness and suppression that surrounded same-sex relationships in the sixties.
Dyer’s two-hander is very much a period piece. Set in a Brixton barber’s shop it explores the fear and insecurity felt by Charlie and Harry (John Sackville and Paul Rider respectively); two gay men who run the salon. It examines what Oscar Wilde described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. In 1966, if you were gay you could end up in jail. Of course, times have changed hugely since then, but the sense of isolation and loneliness that Sackville and Rider bring to their roles still resonate.
It is tempting to read into the script the autobiographical content – especially as the playwright has used his own name for one of the characters, and an anagram for the other. Charles Dyer and Harry C Leeds are an odd couple. We know they are a couple, but there are moments when that certainty falters, and we are reminded of the bygone television sketches in which Morecambe and Wise are sitting up in bed in their pyjamas. There is often too much innocence and ‘playing it safe’ in Dyer’s script which is undoubtedly a result of the time in which it was written, but it does soften the impact of the message.
In today’s climate this might be a struggle for the actors to get a solid grip on the characters and there is the constant danger of the writing appearing dated. But John Sackville and Paul Rider command the stage throughout and restore the sense of period with their finely nuanced performances. Sackville’s Charlie is a bit of an egoist, and very much in denial. An actor who hasn’t acted for over a decade and a father who hasn’t met his daughter yet. With a failed marriage behind him, he is clinging onto this fragile façade as a defence in an upcoming trial for dressing in drag and sitting on a man’s lap. Rider, as Harry – the slightly older lover, teases and torments while betraying an underlying hurt that Charlie is denying him his one stab at happiness.
After the interval the play gathers momentum as the disagreements give way to a vague harmony. It remains unresolved though, which reflects the brittle hope that the characters feel. A change is coming, but for the moment it’s not quite enough for them.
In retrospect, that change was a long time coming. Yes, we have come a long way since the sixties, but this show can serve as a reminder that there is still a way to go. Stigmas may disappear but internal repression often pervades. “Staircase” begins as a comedy but step by step you discover two lonely souls, unable to fully be themselves, or be with each other. It’s a fairly slow ascent, but the final touches to the piece are reward enough for making the climb.