Thursday, 30 June 2011

The King of The Stabbed Up Nation

If theatre has a purpose beyond entertainment – which is increasingly a by-word for freak show or sentimental exploitation of ambition – it can engage with political and social issues. My own tastes prefer something more intimate and personal: dance is always good for an abstract take on emotions or ideas, and explicitly “issue-based” drama is all too frequently blunt. Nevertheless, the strong Caledonian tradition of realism, leading back to the recently revived Men Should Weep and through Trainspotting, is still healthy.

Scottish theatre has reacted energetically to the political shifts of recent years: ironically, two of the strongest responses have come from plays that have roots in the past. Wee Andy, a short play that emerged from the Greek-style tragedy of Fleeto and King of Scotland, re-engineered from a previous Fringe success, and now with added celebrity satirist Jonathan Watson, both grapple with the hard realities of financial and social depravation.

While Fleeto has a rough-hewn poetry, Wee Andy is a savage blast of frustration. The victimised hero hardly speaks, and much of the script consists of angry lectures, political diatribes and coarse social analysis: author Paddy Cuneen is clearly frustrated by the lack of political will to clean up knife crime and the society that perpetuates it. A grim piece of gritty realism, it is a direct, simple polemic.

Wee Andy is disappointingly dogmatic: there are few gradations of good and evil, and Cuneen's rage fails to suggest a solution, beyond perpetuating a vigilante cycle. Yet this immediacy might be the point: without a clear statement of disgust, can the horror of a slashed up, fucked up generation really be expressed?

The King of Scotland dwells in no less a deprived estate, but the hero’s madness slips into a magic realist world of talking dogs and flying taxis. Watson is confident in the monologue: he lends the descent into an insanity a friendly familiarity, and failed romance and social exclusion  combine to describe a life lived without purpose and false hope. If the final delusion of royalty is a hackneyed stereotype  - madness is rarely recognisable once it reaches the stage as anything more than a blunt metaphor – The King of Scotland takes a wry glance at Scotland’s self-image and the empty rhetoric of social improvement.

Although there is a clear reason why this theatrical vision of madness is unhelpful – it hardly helps dispel the stigma of mental ill-health if a vague, and amusing, craziness is substituted for the representation of psychological sickness – it allows The King of Scotland to poke at the underlying delusions beneath the romantic ideals of political positivity. Without a clear villain, The King pictures a disintegrating society, sugar-coating the message through humour. And by playing in a more abstract territory, it asks broader questions about how the decline of an entire class has been connived at by a political class more interested in the talk than the walk.

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