THEATRE / Women on the verge: Richard Loup-Nolan on Dundee Rep and Edinburgh Lyceum's Dancing at Lughnasa and Death and the Maiden

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The Independent Culture
Dundee Rep and Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum are attempting an ambitious double whammy with co-productions of two international hits, Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa and Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden, which swap cities later this month.

Kenny Ireland's production of Dancing at Lughnasa evokes the emotionally claustrophobic world of five unmarried sisters in 1936 rural Donegal with confidence and sensitivity. That summer's chief significance was not the expectation of the harvest dance hanging over Ballybeg 'like a fever' but the looming possibility of the household's break-up.

Dermot Hayes' lyrical set, with its smoking chimney stack and towering trees boasting thick green astrakhan clouds of foliage, lends just the right air of ambiguous reality. Kenny Ireland's cast respond to the underlying rhythms of Friel's acutely observed dialogue to produce a delightful waveform of changing mood and emotion. Gerda Stevenson as the extrovert Maggie is the perfect foil to Ann Louise Ross's self-oppressed Kate, and Niamh Linehan's gawky Agnes turns out to be a fiercely independent spirit with the feet of an angel.

Already a West End hit, the political chiller Death and the Maiden makes its first visit to Scotland in Hamish Glenn's production Set in the fragile new democracy of contemporary Chile, Dorfman's three- hander is a riveting and rigorous exploration of the possibilities for social justice and personal redemption in a society where the perpetrators of years of totalitarian crimes against humanity cannot be brought personally to book.

A friendly stranger gives human rights lawyer Gerardo (Robert McIntosh) a lift home, but when he drops in later for a drink, Gerardo's wife Pauline (Alison Peebles) is convinced that she recognises the stranger's voice as that of the doctor who raped and tortured her 15 years ago. Paulina decides to take justice into her own hands, placing at stake not just the lives of her captive, Doctor Miranda (Michael MacKenzie), and her husband, but also, possibly, the new judicial process in Chile, for Gerardo has just been appointed to serve on the commission investigating the human rights abuses of the Pinochet years. The events of the play which develop from this highly charged dramatic premise follow some of the plotlines of a conventional thriller, but Dorfman has no interest in exploiting his situation gratuitously, and focuses instead on the agonising human dilemmas of Paulina and her husband.

Robert McIntosh's Gerardo is a heart-rending picture of an honourable man torn between two passions - for his wife and for justice. Alison Peebles as Paulina shows us a woman imprisoned and scarred by horrors most of us can't even begin to imagine, while Michael MacKenzie should be commended for refusing to play Miranda as a monster, imbueing, his Schubert-loving persona instead with a banal venality.

The Salt Wound by Stephen Greenhorn, 7:84's latest touring production, also shows a woman taking on a predominantly male establishment, in this case a mother in a Scottish fishing village who does not want her son to throw up a career in the bank to join his father on the boats. Muriel Romanes' Brigit is a bold, self-righteous woman who rages against women's historical duty to sacrifice their men. Greenhorn's new play is thematically ambitious, but the 'tragedy' at its centre is too predictable and there seems little justification for its flashback construction, which fatally inhibits the impact of an essentially strong story. Too much reporting and not enough action.

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