Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Straw Chair (Borderline)

The revival of Sue Glover's script The Straw Chair is a canny move by Borderline theatre company. It hasn't been seen outside of the central belt before, even though it belongs to a period when Scottish theatre was developing a powerful tradition of scripted theatre. Glover herself can be seen as one of the dynamic artists who, in the 1980s, began to give Scotland scripts strong enough to challenge the best international work and, unlike 7:84's famous Cheviot, offer a repertory of plays that could be recreated. 

Bondagers went on to become Glover's most revived script -
perhaps because it gives more opportunity for the dynamic mix of physical and scripted theatre that has dominate theatre during the 1990s and influenced the first generation of National Theatre of Scotland's artistic directors (Blackwatch is a well-known example of how movement was used as a story-telling device). Yet The Straw Chair examines similar themes - the nature of the rural environment and its impact upon its residents, Scotland's history and the oppression of women. But while the scope of Bondagers is broader, covering an entire community, and more explicit in attacking a feudal system, The Straw Chair is more detailed and precise. A single woman's fate is at stake.

Lady Grange - possibly the protagonist of The Straw Chair, since her biography formed the inspiration for Glover's script - is a difficult character. An alcoholic, when circumstances allow and a thief, in order to make circumstances allow for alcoholism, she is an unlikely heroine and has little of the dignity required for her to be a symbol of women's oppression. Having irritated her husband, and possibly threatened his political and social security, she is abducted and dumped on St Kilda. Her attempts to escape are foiled, and she is finally defeated, embracing something that appears like madness.

This much is historical: whether her sexual intensity and regal antagonism to her maid is equally historical or Glover's imagination is theatrically irrelevant, but it makes her a superb female role. Raging against her husband and his allies, encouraging the desire of the recently arrived couple, she has a tragic dignity, if not social respectability. Yet she exists in a stasis. Trapped by geography and her memories of a decadent past, Grange turns inward, wasting her intelligence on plotting how to steal brandy and provoke her companions. Her moving final speech, in which she ruminates on her fate, is hardly an acceptance but a fragmented attempt to make sense of her doom.

Yet her story is explicitly an example of injustice, how the Scotland of the early 1700s handled problematic women, excluding them through force and violence. The arrival of a minister, who initially regards her with distaste, allows Glover to emphasise the gap between the civilised veneer of Edinburgh society - piety and aspiration - and the harsh treatment of those who did not fit. His faith in the good offices of Edinburgh gentlemen is destroyed by the end of the play. Coming to accept Lady Grange's victimhood, his Christianity forces him to reject the social order that might offer him a livelihood. 

This tension, between the oppression of women and the smiling
piousness that managed it, drives The Straw Chair. By being set on St Kilda. it embraces the romanticism of the islands, even as it reveals the hardship of the island life. The recollections of Edinburgh and its niceties contrast the tough yet simple lives on St Kilda against a dishonest luxury. Lady Grange's confusion, aided by drink and spurred on by her husband's infidelity, becomes the confusion of a nation caught between urban and rural modes of living.

Borderline's production gives the script plenty of space, placing the performances and scenography at the service of the words and disguising the social commentary beneath an apparently period drama. The love for St Kilda expressed by the minister, his wife and the single character who lives on the island by birth and choice echoes the romantic call for simpler times - even the sincere religion of the islanders is uncomplicated by the detail of theology and tangled in more pagan worships - yet the power comes from the mainland and  the aristocratic system that enables trade.  

Scottish identity has become a major theme in contemporary theatre - Dunsinane  grappled with it, and even Some Other Mother, a play that is about the injustices of immigration, asks questions about how Scotland defines itself against other countries. The Straw Chair casts a critical eye over the past, juggles with a true story and the idealism that imagines St Kilda as a lost paradise, provoking most where it entertains.

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