Conversation With A Cupboard Man/Miss Julia/The Country Wife
Citizens Theatre, Glasgow
Opened 5-7 February, 1997

The Glasgow Citizens' phase a decade or so ago of "marvellous designs, acting all over the place" was before my time as a professional critic, but after seeing the theatre's main house production for February I now feel I have some little idea of that phenomenon.

Its twin studio presentations, though, exhibit fewer disjunctions. Ian McEwan's Conversation With A Cupboard Man is skilfully directed and designed by Jon Pope, adding a visual dimension beyond the simple re-enactment of the solitary narrator's tale. As the Cupboard Man recounts the history of his warped personal development (at first arrested by a possessive mother, later forced upon him at a dizzying pace when she effectively grew bored with him), his infantilism and hunger for the safety of enclosure, actor Brendan Hooper negotiates a two-inch-deep pool of water which takes up most of the floor space in the Stalls Studio, alternately avoiding it and immersing himself in it. Michael Lancaster's fine lighting provides further augmentation, as does an astounding act of God at one point: as the protagonist tells of being locked into a commercial-sized oven, Hooper's wet hair begins gently to steam under the lights. He gives a strong, defiantly blunt performance, but the story itself and the 55-minute show add up to little more than a curious if sombre diversion.

Upstairs, Robert David MacDonald directs his own translation of what he has chosen to call Strindberg's Miss Julia with a strangely restricted tone. MacDonald's production is about class much more than sex: Jean the footman (Michael Albertson) is all uppity self-importance, parading a high opinion of himself which kitchen-maid Kristin has heard so often she can recite it with him. Andrea Hart's Miss Julia is every inch the condescending patrician, engaging in cool verbal fencing with Jean but showing scarcely any deep emotion. Since the reversals of the play depend upon the protagonist's sexually generated journey to distraction, this approach effectively leaves much of the action unexplained; after 80 quite passionless minutes, Miss Julia goes to her death seemingly out of an incomprehensible sense of social obligation rather than in the depths of a primarily sexual despair. MacDonald gives a clear and precise portrait, but it amounts to less than half the picture.

Antony McDonald moves away from his primary field of opera to direct and design William Wycherley's The Country Wife in the main house, but it is only a departure in as much as none of the lines are sung. The curtain rises on Henry Ian Cusick as Horner, languishing in bed amid a huge puce parallelogram, explaining his stratagem (of pretending to be a eunuch in order to gain privileged access to a stream of society ladies) with inappropriate and unappealing weariness. He and his fellow rakes gad about abstract geometrical representations of 17th-century London clad in leather and Lycra and with a kind of polymorphously perverse lassitude.

The word "romp" is plainly not in McDonald's vocabulary. Characters move, with sometimes ludicrous gratuitousness, to dangling microphones in order to deliver their asides, and the sexual shenanigans contain all the bawdy comedy of an extended edition of Come Dancing. Mark Aiken as Pinchwife is coldly rather than hotly jealous of his innocent young bride; Amy Robbins as his sister appears to have been told that the play is the tragedy of Alithea's compromised honour. Siobhan Stanley injects some sorely-needed vampish humour as Lady Fidget, but in general, when characters do find themselves in the same play, it is not one recognisable from the title. A few years ago the West End saw a musical adaptation of The Country Wife entitled Lust; McDonald seems to prefer Louche.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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