THEATRE / An auld Scots ballad of good intentions
Sunday 04 September 1994
The most elaborate of Arden's 'ballad' plays, Armstrong takes its title from a ballad hero - a freebooting Border outlaw, hanged on the order of James V of Scotland. The piece was originally designed as an oblique comment on the post-colonial Congo - with the relationship between Johnny Armstrong and the King's herald, Lindsay, reflecting that of the wild Congolese premier, Patrice Lumumba, and the Secretary- General of the UN. Public memory of that savage episode has long since faded, but if anything the play is now more timely than ever. Subtitled 'An Exercise in Diplomacy' it will survive for as long as there are people who try to disarm violence with verbal argument.
Arden is saying complicated things through a story as direct as a folk-song. And the sovereign quality of Gaskill's production is that it touches all the detail of tribal feuds, court intrigue, and fears of an English war without obstructing the main narrative drive. For all the weight it carries, it remains essentially the story of a chieftain and a courtier who sink their differences and approach one another man to man, only to be driven back into their official roles, which leads to treachery and death. Henk Schut's design brilliantly transmits the drama's polarities with a naturalistic forest flanked by abstract metal representations of a castle and a palace: two worlds, neither better than the other.
Stuart Hepburn plays Armstrong with a raw inarticulate pugnacity, gradually disclosing the lion-hearted warmth, cunning, and social grace of a natural leader. David Robb's Lindsay moves in the opposite direction; a gracious, silver- tongued diplomat, overcoming all opposition by the gentlest means, but finally - after betraying his protege to the King - slumped in defeat with nothing to say. Border and court society each generate their own theatrical rhythms, which meet and embrace, leaving you to work out which is the guiltier in the eternal defeat of good intentions.
Those who dismiss the modern German stage as a place of all scenography and no content could hardly back up that opinion with a better example than Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other - a Berlin smash-hit which arrived for four nights in Edinburgh's refurbished Festival Theatre. From his first play, Offending the Audience in the 1960s, Handke has always held the human race at arm's length, but at least his early pieces were fired by powerful ideas. In the wordless new 90-minute show (a cast of 40 said to present 400 characters, but who's counting?), he emerges simply as a people- watcher, observing crowd behaviour without trying to make sense or shape out of it. On a Magritte-like set by Gilles Aillaud (derelict car on a sea-rimmed patch of desert), the varieties of humanity come and go in all their inexhaustible insignificance.
Scenographically speaking, Luc Bondy's production is the work of a master. It establishes an atmosphere of apprehension which is kept alive by imperceptible lighting changes, and periodic wind-storms that blow the cast off stage. Bondy also creates a succession of micro-dramas which lift the scene above literal reportage. Two men cross over, appear to recognise each other, return, and then flee in panic. A frustrated netball player climbs the pole and delightedly puts the ball through the net over and over again like Eeyore's balloon. A girl evades male sexual harrassment only to be assaulted by a toy car. A Lufthansa crew march and countermarch over the set pursued by a man playing aeroplanes. This catalogue could go on and on. Wednesday's audience began by laughing appreciatively and then fell silent on realising that there was nothing else to the show. Apart from a compulsive habit of bringing episodes to an end with pratfalls and muggings, no pattern of any kind develops, and you are left feeling that the company could easily busk away for another 90 minutes if need be.
Off Out, Gill Adams's new Hull Truck piece at the Assembly Rooms, takes a comfortlessly convincing look at the domestic side of prostitution. Asthmatic young Danny spends his days glued to the television set, sometimes briefly joined by his mother, June. They never discuss her work; but when a new sofa arrives from her masterful admirer, it's clear that she will be having even less time for family life. Seedy domestic bickering alternates with the blood and brutality of the streets. Characters fit the stereotypes of ageing tart, drug-addict, and pimp, but they are also fully realised individuals and fearsomely well played by Damian Cruden's cast of four.
At the same address Henry VIII: Diary of a Serial Killer betrays its origin as a company-devised show. It opens as a Buckingham Palace tour; but once the bluff king's ghost (Ralph Oswick) has replaced the guide, John Abulafia's production turns into a homicidal knees-up, featuring a 'Be My Queen' game show, and a royal consultation with the Immaculate Conception dating agency. Mostly the show confronts you with a clenched smile. When this relaxes, you find yourself in the company of five comically and musically resourceful actors.
'Armstrong's Last Goodnight', Lyceum, 031-229 9697. 'Off Out', Hull Truck Theatre, Hull, 0482 23638. 'Henry VIII', Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple, 0271 327357.
Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated
tvAn expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle
artLee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Asteroid narrowly scrapes past Earth: how to watch the closest space rock for decades as it flies by
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
- 4 British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
- 5 Watch Richard Dawkins read his own hatemail: 'I hope you do get sodomised by satanic monkeys in hell'
Mr Selfridge series 3: Actress Kara Tointon says 'we're starting to see his demise'
Ed Sheeran texts Noel Gallagher to offer him tickets after Wembley Stadium rant
Benedict Cumberbatch says Hollywood is better for black British actors
Emma Watson to play Belle in Beauty and the Beast
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
30,000 reasons why the rhetoric on immigrants claiming benefits can stop now