The story is told of the little girl watching the State Opening of Parliament who pointed at the Lord Chamberlain in all his finery and loudly inquired, "Daddy, what's that man for?" It's a useful question to pose of plays every so often, and the Stray Dog company's production of David Ashton's The Mark founders upon it.
Ashton (author of Bush Theatre productions A Bright Light Shining and The Chinese Wolf) chooses to dignify his three-acter by allotting a separate title to each 30-minute act and calling the result a trilogy, but the puffery of such a move is implausible. The scenes tell in reverse chronology of a simple-minded lad, violently sensitive about his facial birthmark which gives the play its title, who murders his brother for not being the golden boy he envisaged: first we see the increasingly cracked Johnny by his brother's graveside on his release from prison, then the parents keeping funereal vigil by the body several years earlier, and finally the real relationship of the teenaged brothers.
Of the three scenes, only the last contains any inherent element of stage drama; the others, burdened as they are almost entirely with storytelling and recollections rather than any immediate interaction between characters, suggest that the play may have started its life as one of Ashton's numerous radio works. Rather than attempting to transcend these limitations by playing to the emotions and suggested complexities which the script does contain, Daniel Slater's lumpen direction tries to create drama where there is none: Neil McKinven's Johnny, with his brother's grave in front of him, addresses alternate sections of the audience as his dead sibling for no apparent reason, and Anny Tobin as grieving mother Theresa is pushed into realms of archetype which the character cannot sustain. Only Jake D'Arcy has the courage entirely to refuse such reductive direction and play Theresa's husband Willie in the more natural register in which he is written; D'Arcy's performance is at odds with those around him, but an admirable relief in itself.
Only in the last half-hour are McKinven and Seamus Gubbins as idolised brother Tommy allowed to attain what should be the general tone of the play – an awkward intimacy in which their empathy is undermined by moments of misunderstanding and outright cruelty. However, both in terms of writing and performance it is too little, too late. This brotherly relationship is the foundation for a story, but remains along way from explicating all that we have seen before; the actors' performances elicit only frustration at having sat through such simplistic over-direction for the last hour. Stray Dog must do more to earn its meaty chunks.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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