Theatre: War and grease

Click to follow
AGAINST A backdrop of increasing debate about theatre's form and function in relation to Scotland's political evolution, these two plays exemplify contrasting approaches to topical themes.

Stephen Greenhorn began writing Dissent, his follow-up to the much-feted Passing Places, only in May this year. His self-styled "political thriller", following the progress of a would-be candidate for the Scottish Parliament up New Labour's greasy pole, spans Blair's first year in power, as seen from its Glaswegian setting.

More than 80 years separate this locale from that of Frank McGuinness's award-showered drama, which imaginatively re-enacts the 36th Ulster Division's experiences in the First World War to illuminate the psyche of Northern Irish Protestantism in particular, and men at war - actually or emotionally - in general.

Dissent's narrative style is pacy, plot-driven and brazenly disputatious, rooted in strongly fashioned characters and breezily iconoclastic humour. Our aspiring MSP, picked out by the local party power-brokers, soon starts to find this patronage less flattering than onerous as he realises the Faustian price being demanded.

The conflict between youthful ideals and grown-up realism, the merits of parliamentary versus direct-action methods, the point where compromise shades into corruption - these may seem familiar. But they are exactly the kind of hard choices thrown into fresh relief by Blairism and the battle over the new parliament's seats and its democratic soul.

Greenhorn triumphs thanks to his delight in and dexterity with complexity and contradiction, piling on layers of perspective, reference and insight with an uncanny lightness of touch. He is matched in this 7:84 production by vivid, multi-faceted performances from the six-strong cast.

While McGuinness tackles his subject from the opposite historical direction, he utilises a comparable semi-distilled naturalism, created through characters whose ordinary voices and inconsistencies strike an empathetic chord.

As we follow his eight volunteers, a rough microcosm of Northern Ireland's regions and classes, from enlistment towards the Somme, we see them gradually cracked open by terror and their growing closeness.

Loyalties to higher causes and fellow fighters, the brute demands of survival, the nature of heroism - all are paralleled in the interrogation of the Ulster Protestant mind-set; evoking the war's agonies neutralises our prejudices.

Michael Duke's production brings out the subtleties of argument by mirroring McGuinness's emphasis on the transcendently human. Richard Dormer, as the sole survivor, is particularly outstanding in an excellent cast.

`Dissent' is touring Scotland to 6 December (0141-334 6686), and `Observe the Sons' until 21 November (01382 223530)

Sue Wilson