My misgivings about The Tron’s Open Stage competition – that the public vote would ensure mawkish, safe drama - are squashed by Sea and Land and Sky. My defence - its online trailer suggested a more conventional take on World War I - can’t escape that LASAS harks back to the vicious theatre of Edward Bond, Howard Barker and even the blessed Sarah Kane.
If the final scene is disappointingly sentimental, and the odd line smacks of historical research bubbling to the surface (“fifty seven thousand men die in the first two hours,” indeed), Abigail Docherty’s script is admirably uncompromising in its presentation of the psychological impact of violence. Scattered body parts, desperate humping amidst the carnage, corpses embraced and wounds self-inflicted: Docherty’s portrayal of psychological d isintegration in the face of World War I’s horrors is unflinching.
There are moments in Andy Arnold’s direction that lift the action beyond the immediate violence into an abstract absurdism: Tyler Collins gives his philosophical deserter an overdone gravity, while a disembodied head expresses a desire to die old and horny. The dead soldiers carried about by the deranged nurse could have done with a little more weight, and the collection of body parts slips towards slapstick.
With a solid set that doubles as trench and endless road through fields of slaughter, LASAS is nasty theatre, uneasily between naturalism and a symbolism. This is difficult theatre: the dry delivery gradually gives way to hysteria, and it is a challenge for the show to live up to the extremity of the script’s themes and episodes. Yet its message is familiar: war is hell. Even Paul Riley’s working-class romanticism can’t transcend the brutal rending of flesh and hope.
Towards the end, the script betrays a lack of confidence, bringing in domestic murder to add to the pathos: whether the revelation that one nurse committed matricide is an attempt to show the universality of savagery or a late plot twist is debatable. However, I do accept that this made for a more engrossing victor of Open Stage than my own entry, the burlesque Greek Tragedy.
Playback, over in the Briggait and the latest community-focussed project from Ankur, is very much youth theatre gone tough. Bigg Taj rocks the mic, young actors play gang members and the story is a hip-hop variation of the struggle between good and evil social impulses. The competing stories don’t always mesh effectively – Taj’s narrative only becomes relevant in the last moments, and feels like an after-thought finale just to prove how bad the bad boys really are, but it is exciting to be ushered around the Briggait’s cold storage spaces and see how community theatre is attempting to take on the challenge of both physical and site-responsive theatre.
Since the play is set in the places where I live and socialise, the question of authenticity becomes vital. There’s a slight sense that the script is spelling out the tension, using almost stereotypical notions of communities and gangsters, yet the theatrical presentation of Glasgow South’s street youth is recognisable and chilling. Ankur still haven’t quite found their voice - the integration of local detail and the archetypal narrative isn’t complete, but it does feel as if their fusion of community work and ambitious productions is a leading edge within Scottish theatre.