The Doubtful Guest / If That's All There Is / Bette Bourne: A Life In Three Acts / The Last Witch
Various venues, Edinburgh
August, 2009

** / **** / *** / ****

The second wave of Traverse Theatre openings this Edinburgh Fringe season have maintained the firm quality of this year’s slate, with the exception of Hoipolloi’s The Doubtful Guest. This production, seen on tour in England last year, recapitulates the disparity between Hoipolloi’s Hugh Hughes-based shows and their company work; the latter too often takes some charming but slight ideas (in this case, a poem by Edward Gorey) and fatally overworks them. More heartening is the Inspector Sands company’s follow-up to 2006’s Hysteria. If That’s All There Is dissects a triangular relationship – she’s bored, he’s boring, his shrink is perversely intrigued – with humour, physicality and the sort of black mordancy embodied in the Leiber & Stoller song from which the title is derived. And Bette Bourne: A Life In 3 Acts takes five-star material – the biography of drag icon and activist Bourne, as told to Mark Ravenhill – and presents it nakedly onstage. Bourne is, at least thus far, hobbling himself by over-reliance on a script which sits in front of him; when he flies free and ad-libs direct to us, the power and joy of his personality are truly unleashed.

But the Trav’s phase-two flagship production is actually staged round the corner in the Royal Lyceum, as part of the International Festival. Rona Munro’s The Last Witch is founded upon the case of Janet Horne, burned in 1727 for witchcraft at Dornoch in Sutherland, the last such case in Scotland (which was one of the most enthusiastic countries in Europe for witch-hunting). However, since virtually no hard facts about the case survive, Munro is free to paint her own dramatic picture involving not just power-plays with the secular authority of the sheriff, the Kirk minister and Janet’s neighbours, but a deal of ambiguity as to how far Janet herself exploited such allegations to bring in gifts which formed the means for her and her daughter to live.

Traverse artistic director Dominic Hill’s production centres on Kathryn Howden, now one of Scotland’s most impressive actresses, who steers her character between vanity, bewilderment and coruscating honesty. The second-act succession of scenes between the now-imprisoned Janet and her neighbour, the minister, the sheriff and her daughter contain some terrific writing. The natural/supernatural actuality is also ambiguous, as the mysterious Nick (Ryan Fletcher) seems to gain a smirking kind of control over virtually all parties. The production brightly adorns both the International Festival and the Traverse’s own artistic policy.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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