Joyce McMillan considers how two very different plays approach Scotland’s independence referendum.
The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant ★★★
The Pitiless Storm ★★
Both at Assembly Rooms (Venue 20)
If you want a sharp insight into just how difficult it is for serious artists to write plays about an event as imminent and all-consuming as Scotland’s independence referendum, then you could do a lot worse than take a look at these two pieces playing in the Assembly Rooms Ballroom, both of which end with emotional speeches in favour of a “Yes” vote. Cabaret, satire and flashes of inspiration seem to work, as a way of tackling the subject – note the success of David Greig’s daily All Back To Bowie’s talk-ins at St Andrew’s Square; more substantial narrative drama often sounds as if it’s been written too early, or very much too late.
So Alan Bissett’s The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant emerges as a jolly and enjoyable extended sketch about the probable fate of Scotland’s ancient supernatural forces – the Bogle, the Banshee, the Selkie and the Devil – in the event of the country becoming independent. The Devil, a smooth-talking homme fatale played with immense presence and charisma by Martin McCormick, convinces the other three that if Scotland shakes off its old fears and moves forward into an independent future, they will disappear from the national psyche; afraid of extinction, they all start campaigning for a “No” vote.
Halfway through, though, they spot a flaw in the Devil’s argument; and as the show reaches its merry climax, they force the audience to a vote, with unpredictable results. There’s nothing profound about the arguments Bissett advances. Yet with an excellent comic cast firing on all cylinders – Elaine C Smith plays the Banshee, and the lovely Michelle Gallagher the glamorous Selkie – every sharp one-liner and cheeky insight is given its full value; and the play has a witty, perfectly-poised ending which is unfortunately marred by a “yes” campaign epilogue, delivered in the kind of stereotyped aggressive Scots that cannot begin to capture the amusing, shape-changing modern Scotland evoked elsewhere in Bissett’s work.
Chris Dolan’s The Pitiless Storm – about an elderly Glasgow trade union leader making a journey towards a “yes” vote – is a one-man play which starts with some formidable assets, including a timely subject, and the presence on stage of David Hayman, who plays the central character, Bob Cunningham, with a kind of hail-fellow tribal energy all too recognisable to those who have spent any time in Scottish politics.
What the play fails to do, though, is to chart a persuasive intellectual and emotional journey from traditional Labour unionism to a Yes vote; it mentions most of the key reasons for Bob’s decision, but it also fiddles around with an awkward dramatic device in which Bob speaks to invisible characters beside him on stage – his son, his younger self, his estranged wife – instead of to the audience.
The final effect is scrappy and confused; and as the play’s title hints, it’s also full of a sentimental post-industrial self-pity that was already out of time 20 years ago, and that takes us absolutely nowhere, in deciding how to vote in September.
The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant until 24 August, today 2:30pm, more info. The Pitiless Storm until 24 August, today 12:30pm.
Originally published in The Scotsman
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