The Straw Chair
Reviewed – 21st April 2022
“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.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Carla Joy Evans
The Straw Chair
Finborough Theatre until 14th May
Previously reviewed at this venue: