Jethro Compton’s cinematic frontier-set trilogy seeks to ask its audience why we are who we are, and who should be the judge of that, writes The Scotsman’s Sally Stott.
Jethro Compton’s Frontier Trilogy: Blood Red Moon
Jethro Compton’s Frontier Trilogy: The Clock Strikes Noon
Jethro Compton’s Frontier Trilogy: The Rattlesnake’s Kiss
The Wild West: a place where life is cheap and those who travel across the inhospitable desert are constantly being tested to see “what kind of a man” they are. Only sometimes they’re women, and often they have a gun – as the multi-talented writer and director Jethro Compton’s thrillingly tense and unabashedly dramatic new trilogy, inspired by biblical legends, proves.
For people who like sitting in the front row, you’re unlikely to get any closer to the action than this without getting up on stage. Although here the “stage” is all around us, an intimate wooden cabin – initially a church, but soon to morph into other locations – with a mysterious blind priest, Manoah, standing in the shadows at one end and a heavy looking door with a solid lock at the other.
It’s through this door that, at the start of Blood Red Moon, two brothers enter: Enoch and Levi Hill – the elder cynical, controlling and unpredictable; the younger good-natured, downtrodden and dangerously passive. They’re on the search for gold but, through a chance encounter with a local woman, Annelise, Levi finds love instead – something that Enoch, a man who wants everything for himself, is determined to crush.
It’s a tense love triangle full of sexual chemistry, one that beautifully draws us into the amiable relationship of Levi and Annelise – thanks to touching performances from Jonathan Mathews and Bebe Sanders – and then threatens this with the increasingly drunk, raging and gold-less Enoch, a formidable force splendidly evoked by Sam Donnelly. With a single turn of his head he’s able to make you leap out of your skin and feel like there’s a very real prospect you might get shot.
Levi’s mild-mannered character highlights the difficulties we can all face in standing up for the things we believe in, particularly when opposed by a bully – but also that some fights are worth having, even if it means risking our lives. A final confrontation in front of the zen-like Manoah asks whether or not who we are is “in our blood” or in our hands.
It’s a classic Western theme and one that is pertinently explored through an ending that is both upbeat and tragic.
Under the red-white glow of an ever-present cross, all three plays tackle philosophical questions and ethical dilemmas, the elusive Manoah watching on, forgiving and tolerant.
“I can do what’s easy or what’s right,” says Benjamin, a farmer and a “good man”, whose livelihood is threatened by thugs working for the encroaching railway, at the start of The Clock Strikes Noon. He’s refusing to give in, while the local sheriff – a man of the law by job description only – will do anything he can to wheedle his way out of their situation, trapped together in the besieged church.
In what is probably her best role, Sanders gives an arresting performance as Lily, daughter of the merciless railway company baron, but also a shrewd businesswoman; ruthless, pragmatic and unemotional in the way female characters so rarely are. Sent by her father to negotiate with the men, she’s “done with talking polite” and if a contract isn’t signed by noon Benjamin and his family are going to get shot.
While Lily claims to have a sense of honour, but doesn’t, Benjamin – the little man fighting big business – is heroic and, played by Donnelly, inspiring to get behind and support. It’s a testament to his versatility and skill as an actor that we feel so differently about him here, compared to the previous piece. As the developing story movingly shows, we remember the men who built the railways but rarely those who died during the process.
While the three shows can be watched in any order, it’s through the final instalment The Rattlesnake’s Kiss that the history of Manoah, a figure who has been in the background until now, is told and the themes of vengeance and redemption emerge most prominently.
A larger story, it has a more sophisticated structure that uses flashback, a series of twists and an excellent – and rare – use of sustained darkness to tell the tragic and gruesome tale of how he lost his sight.
The conflict is less character-driven than plot-driven in this one (although Chris Huntly-Turner is compassionate as the troubled man of the church) and the narrative takes a while to solidify. However, once the young Manoah finds himself trapped in a mine by the thugs from his mis-spent past, the journey to an emotionally explosive conclusion begins.
Then known as Jack, we learn how the priest was formerly a merciless gunslinger, but found redemption through God. However, his former violent associates refuse to let him move on and would rather see him dead than find peace. Even the woman he loves tells him: “You are the man you were born to be.”
The difficulty in escaping one’s past runs through the piece, which asks us to consider whether it should be man or God who judges the repentant Manoah for his age-old sins. “I am the Lord” is a phrase that sums up Felix’s attitude towards this and, as he doles out Manoah’s punishment in the dark – us made blind like our hero is about to be – it’s heart-wrenching to listen to.
A day spent watching all three of these excellent shows is one of the best things you could do at this year’s Fringe – a rollercoaster ride through the kind of high-stakes drama great theatre is all about. Compton is an incredibly talented and prolific writer who has clearly spent many hours studying Westerns.
While his writing fulfils certain conventions, it never feels derivative due to the strength of his characters, some cracking dialogue and the highly involving set. With a lot of love, he makes a cinematic genre feel like a real place – its themes as relatable, compelling and provocative as they’ve always been.
C nova (Venue 145)
Blood Red Moon until 31 August / listings
The Clock Strikes Noon until 31 August / listings
The Rattlesnake’s Kiss until 31 August / listings
Published in The Scotsman on 22 August 2015
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