REVIEW / Ballad to a bawd: Richard Loup-Nolan reviews ATC's Celestina and 7:84's Twilight Shift in Scotland

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The Independent Culture
Dramatists have always been preoccupied with human couples, how to get into and out of them, and the joys and dangers of being on the in- and outside.

Celestina, the 15th-century Spanish play by Fernando de Rojas, kicking off the Actors' Touring Company's 15th anniversary tour at the Traverse in Edinburgh, appears at first sight to be a very typical romantic comedy of its period. A love-struck young artist, Calisto, aches with unrequited love for his class peer, Melibea, a brattish blonde in a tower. At the suggestion of his (predictably) wordly servant, Sempronio, Calisto engages as go-between the aging Celestina, the Spanish Bawd of the play's sub-title, and she sets about dominating proceedings.

Celestina is very much more than a bawd and a retired whore, she's a performer, a cosmetic surgeon (lost maidenheads stiched up as new]), and most importantly, a self-made independent woman. Rojas's precociously modern concern is to expose society's dependence upon and intolerance of such women.

Max Hafter and Nick Philippou's crisp adaptation and Philippou's energetic direction crack the action on at just the right pace for the transition from bawdy romp to bitter farce to seem both inevitable and shocking. The performances are more than worthy of an anniversary production.

Ann Firbank's stooping Celestina is an irresistible rough diamond of great gusto. There's some complicated doubling in the sub- and sub-sub plots, but it's all handled with great clarity. Celestina enjoyed enormous popularity in the 16th century. The Actors' Touring Company should be loudly applauded in its attempts to restore its classic status more than 300 years later.

7:84's Twilight Shift, a new play by the poet Jackie Kay, also harks back to a lost era, in which working Scottish mining communities were not a rarity. In dramatic verse scarcely discernible as such to the ear, Kay charts a passionate and explosive homosexual relationship between Alec, a married miner, and Joe, the village hairdresser. Their affair is an echo of another secret liaison, buried more than 30 years ago.

Kay strings the story together in dreamy sequences of monologue, punctuated every now and then by scenes of direct contact between the characters. The small cast performs with winning sincerity, but the neatness of Kay's poetic devices deprives the play of the impact it aspires to. And, talking of lost eras, isn't it time 7:84 changed its name? Nearly 30 years on, it could be 5:93 by now.

'Celestina' tours the UK till December. Dates and info from ATC (071 735 8311). 'Twilight Shift' is touring Scotland. At the Tron from 2-7 November. Dates and info from 7:84 (041 331 2219).