THEATRE / Bordering on the dry side: Richard Loup-Nolan on Armstrong's Last Goodnight, by John Arden, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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The Independent Culture
The peace 'process' is a dirty and ruthless business. John Arden's 1964 play Armstrong's Last Goodnight, subtitled 'An Exercise in Diplomacy', uses a thorny 16th-century episode in Anglo-Scots history to focus on the steely machinations of realpolitik. In 1528, 15 years after defeat at Flodden, James V's Scotland could ill afford another war with Henry VIII's England. Aged only 17, James V's main preoccupation was to stamp some kingly authority on to his own turbulent backyard, with its schisms between Highlands and Lowlands and between individual feudal lords and their vassals. Not to mention the threat to the Catholic Scottish Kirk from the English and European reformers.

For hundreds of years, a state of 'bleeding anarchy' had existed in the Borders. With little protection from London or Edinburgh, the local chiefs north and south of the border fiercely contended for their own manors. In Arden's story, John Armstrong of Gilnockie, one of these legendary Border reivers (rustlers), has the misfortune to be singled out by Henry's commissioners as the sacrificial wolf in the peace negotiations.

Cynically exploiting the Scots' military vulnerability, the English refuse to string up one of their own Borderers in return. James sends his ex-tutor and man of letters, Sir David Lindsay (David Robb), to deal directly with the wild 'King Johnny o' Eskdale' to find a face-saving solution to this diplomatic nightmare. The struggle between Lindsay's courtly guile and Armstrong's feral cunning forms the tough main sinew of Arden's narrative.

Stuart Hepburn makes a frighteningly credible Armstrong with his long, lank hair and eyes that dart with rodent ferocity. He speaks in a rich and brutal Scots idiom of Arden's own devising, which contrasts brilliantly with Lindsay's more elegant figures of speech.

Rich and eloquent though it is, Arden seems at times intoxicated with his own linguistic invention. The director, William Gaskill, made some cuts to the play when he first worked on it nearly 30 years ago and should have made more on this occasion. The twists and turns of Arden's complex plot are clear enough to withstand abbreviation of some of the longer, static, dialogue-heavy scenes.

Armstrong's Last Goodnight is essentially a 16th-century western but, like any good western, it has deeper concerns. Religious sectarianism and sexual politics feature strongly. There's a fascinating confrontation, for example, between Lindsay's mistress (Alison Peebles) and Armstrong's wife Janet (Carol Brannan). Janet condemns the mistress's emancipated behaviour (she also slept with James V's father), while condoning her husband's affairs with local common women.

Directed and performed with commitment and attention to detail, this production consistently holds the attention but remains something of a dry theatrical experience. The blame can be laid squarely at John Arden's door for never allowing us access to the essential humanity of any of the protagonists.

At the Royal Lyceum to 17 Sept. (Booking: 031-225 5756)

(Photograph omitted)