Edinburgh Fringe Reviews: Tales of Redemption

Tales of Redemption are as old as drama itself but Jeremy Weller's Doubting Thomas and Jean-Marc mahy's A Man Standing have brought gut wrenching, authentic biographical stories of prison, gangland murder and violence to the fore.

Feature by Eloise Hendy | 17 Aug 2016

The story of redemption is an old one. The blood-soaked man who sees the light, changes his ways, repents. It is a familiar, even fairly comfortable narrative arc. Yet, in Doubting Thomas [★★★★★] and A Man Standing [★★★★] , both at Summerhall, nothing feels remotely comfortable. For these pieces are not dramatic exercises in catharsis, dreamt up by playwrights who fancy themselves as contemporary heirs of Greek theatre. They are not simple progressions from 'bad' to 'good', because what real human life can be reduced to such black and white terms? They are in fact both, crucially, stories of real people, who now stand on stage before the audience's eyes. As the stories of real blood-soaked men, told from their flesh and blood lips, they are more powerful and compelling pieces of theatre than any imaginary transformation tale.

The Thomas of Doubting Thomas is Thomas McCrudden, Glasgow gangster, turned prisoner, turned performer. This is award-winning director Jeremy Weller's forte – taking remarkable lives and devising remarkable pieces of theatre, to reveal the drama that constantly surrounds us. He specialises in immersive, inclusive theatre, that puts individuals centre stage. It is theatre of both the personal and the grand scale. In this sense he is a true contemporary heir of Greek tragedy, as his pieces reveal the intense power and pathos of supposedly 'ordinary' modern lives.

While personal transformations are clearly central to Weller's work, the fact two of his major proponents are Sarah Kane and Lars von Trier gives some suggestion that his pieces are far from tame. There is no avoiding the brutality of Doubting Thomas; violence seethes throughout the work. As Thomas himself admits, he has committed almost every act of violence imaginable. Beatings, stabbings, slashings – you name it, he's probably done it. Domestic abuse, prison brawls and suicide are all held up unflinchingly. How did a man so addicted to violence his peers likened him to a fighting street dog get to be standing under the glare of stage lights? Well, as Thomas suggests, it is more of a natural progression than may first meet the eye. For, in his words, he has been acting his whole life, putting on masks and filling roles "none of which was me!"

It is this idea that provides much of the poignancy and emotional impact of the piece. It is an intricate study of how those who society most fears are often the ones most filled with fear themselves. It is a story of worthlessness and desperation. Reared in poverty, never shown love, relegated to society's fringes – is it really surprising that gang violence seems to offer glamour and the allure of power? It is a story of lost boys desperately playing the part of hard men.

Jean-Marc Mahy – the former convict at the heart of A Man Standing – also portrays his younger self as a lost boy, trying to run with the tough guys and getting utterly overwhelmed. In this piece, the violence is more psychological. Prison beatings and suicide are again prominent features, but what strikes the audience most is the savagery that solitude wreaks on the mind. Sent to prison at age 17 for the inadvertent manslaughter of a policeman, Mahy faced the full wrath of the justice system. He was locked away for 20 years, three of which were in total solitary confinement. White tape makes a box centre stage; a single stool stands inside. This is Mahy’s cage, where, for over an hour, actor Stephane Pirard will recall young Jean-Marc’s ordeal. All the while watched over by the older Jean-Marc’s hauntingly direct eyes.

Indeed it is Jean-Marc’s unrelenting stare that gives the piece its power. Knowing that Pirard is acting makes it difficult not to analyse his contortions within the cell as melodramatic, over the top, all too ‘acted’. Yet, Jean-Marc’s gaze jolts you back into the knowledge that this is not mere dramatic exercise. His eyes pierce all the action – all description of the torment of confinement are contained in his eyes. His eyes truly appear to have been to hell and back. Redemption may be an old story, but in these works it feels viscerally raw and necessary.

Doubting Thomas, Summerhall, until 28 Aug (not 15 Aug), 7.20pm. £10 (£8) £20 Family tickets. A Man Standing, Summerhall, run ended