Edinburgh International Festival theatre review: Lanark, reviewed by The Scotsman’s Joyce McMillan
IN THE BEGINNING, there is water, or an image of water; light and darkness moving over the face of the deep. We see a man tumbling towards us, like some fallen angel moving through water rather than air; then we see that same man, apparently come to rest on the grubby first-floor balcony of an art-house cinema just a little like the Hillhead Salon. The balcony belongs to the cinema bar, the Elite; and our hero, or anti-hero, stands waiting for the faint glimmer of sun – just a couple of minutes a day – that occasionally lights the horizon of the city where he now dwells.
These are the opening moments of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, as reimagined by writer David Greig and director Graham Eatough, for this mighty new four-hour stage version of the novel, which was first published in 1981 – although, since we are dealing here with a great post-modernist dedicated to the disruption of form, we begin not at the chronological beginning of the tale, but at the start of what the novel calls Book 3, and Greig calls Act 2, when our hero’s life as a young, asthmatic and eczema-ridden would-be artist called Duncan Thaw, in the relatively familiar setting of postwar Glasgow, has reached a crisis that leads to the transition – drowning, rebirth or shift to a parallel universe – that we have just glimpsed.
It’s this huge imaginative leap – from an all-too recognisable mid-20th century Glasgow of war and rationing, limited horizons and endless petty agonies and sexual humiliations, to the dystopian fantasy-vision of a future Glasgow called Unthank – that gives Alasdair Gray’s great novel its huge, transformative significance in late 20th century Scottish literature, not least because it so clearly links the conventional 20th century narratives of working-class Scottish life to some of the great emerging global genres of the 21st century – to science fiction and fantasy, to dystopian narratives of environmental collapse driven by monstrous corporate greed, and to the idea, less well established in 1981 than today, of parallel universes which are both familiar, and profoundly, strangely different.
And it’s because it embraces and explores all those genres with such confidence and flair, while never losing sight of the essential narrative of Lanark/Thaw/Gray’s astonishing journey, that Greig and Eatough’s new stage version – co-produced by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Citizens’ Theatre – comes so close to the impossible goal of doing full justice to this magnificent novel. The linchpin of the production is Sandy Grierson’s astonishing performance as Lanark himself: thoughtful, self-absorbed, sometimes childlike, yet sexually and creatively driven, and – crucially – possessed of a physical precision and athleticism that enables him to switch in an instant between naturalism, and a much more stylised, metaphorical sense of Lanark’s journey.
Grierson is supported every step of the way, though, by so many other strands of Eatough’s astonishing production. There’s Jessica Hardwick’s terrific matching performance as Rima, the Eve to Lanark’s Adam, and the defining woman of his life, often given the freedom completely to contradict Lanark’s version of his own narrative. There’s the superb ensemble work of a company of ten actors who are also great Scottish theatre-makers, many of them deeply linked to the wave of unstoppable cultural change in Scotland that began in the early 1980s; the company includes Gerry Mulgrew, George Drennan, Louise Ludgate, Paul Thomas Hickey and Andy Clark, alongside a trio of younger actors.
And there is the constant, inventive stream of shifting imagery, both visual and aural, delivered by designer Laura Hopkins, lighting designer Nigel Edwards, video artist Simon Wainwright, and composer and sound designer Nick Powell, who created a “supergroup “ of musicians influenced by Gray’s work to conjure up on scenes like the unforgettable 50’s-style “Unthank Jazz” sequence, with superb choreography by EJ Boyle; there’s also an inspired use of video, and of the old song Ca’ The Yowes Tae The Knowes, to conjure up the vague remembered glimpses of Glasgow that haunt Lanark when he reaches the brave new world of The Institute, a hospital-like, pseudo-Utopian circle of hell that also features in Act 2 of the story.
Just here and there, there’s perhaps a slight sense of this huge scene-by-scene ingenuity acting as a substitute for a deep analysis of Gray’s themes: then again, an understandable tendency to rely a little too heavily on Grierson’s charismatic central performance, in a way that slightly diminishes Gray’s intense scepticism about Thaw/Lanark’s voice, and its reliability.
In the final, apocalyptic scenes, though – where Greig plays boldly and theatrically with Gray’s questions about the shifting layers of fiction within the story, and even takes us, in a superb moment of graphic imagination, to visit Gray himself, before returning us to Lanark’s poignant final scene at the Unthank Necropolis – this brave adaptation seems wholly at one with the bold, mysterious and infinitely searching spirit of Gray’s novel. On Sunday night, after the premier of Lanark, David Greig sent a Twitter message about Alasdair Gray, now 80 years old, and in intensive care in Glasgow. “Thinking of Mr G right now. Wishing him well and wishing he could be with us. He wrote an amazing transformative book. The rest is homage.” What’s certain, though, is that if Alasdair Gray could see this version of Lanark, centre stage at the Edinburgh International Festival, he would know that this story alone represents a great life’s work; and that its impact – not only in Scotland, but across the world of 21st century imagination – has barely begun to be measured.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, until 31 Aug, 7pm / listings
Main image: Eoin Carey / EIF
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