Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti is that relatively rare thing for the Royal Lyceum Theatre—a star vehicle, rather than an ensemble production, that happens to have two audience favourites: Elaine C Smith (the titular Mrs Puntila), whose position as a Scottish national treasure and broad pantomime favourite has more to do with TV’s Rab C Nesbitt than her undoubted talents as a serious stage actor; and Lyceum audience’s own favourite Steven McNicoll (Matti).
Smith and McNicoll’s differing approaches are symptomatic of a production with no firm idea of what this Scottish retelling is supposedly “about”.
It’s a pairing, however, which not only doesn’t work, but fails to gel in remarkably uninteresting ways. McNicoll’s appreciated because of his expertise in marrying theatrical contrivance with layered humanity, so he’s ideal casting as much-put-upon chauffeur, and “voice of the common man”, Matti. Unfortunately, his performance can’t help but illuminate the limitations of Smith’s harsh, show-boating approach to wealthy landowner Mrs Puntila, which feels more suited to a few minutes on the variety stage of the nearby King’s Theatre than this Brechtian revamp of the Lyceum—except that it lacks the subtlety you’d expect even there.
Smith opts to give us the flat boredom of a drunk who is just as grating when she’s supposedly sober; worse, given that she’s arguably best known for her work in comedy, Smith fails to “land” many of the play’s major comedic moments. As an example, her drunken outrage at the social injustices arising from a zero-contract, minimum-wage gig-economy really should come across as funny, given her position as a major employer, or at least deeply ironic. Sadly, the result is a lifeless “Isn’t this terrible?” feeling leaving you untouched, emotionally and (given this is Brecht) intellectually.
Smith and McNicoll’s differing approaches (unfortunately mirrored in the rest of the cast) are symptomatic of a production with no firm idea of what this Scottish retelling is supposedly “about”— with director Murat Daltaban forced to resort to a scatter-gun approach of theatrical business to enliven Denise Mina’s meandering script: which, all too late, suggests Mrs Puntila as a perfect symbol of Scotland’s skewered land ownership. An insight, of course, given to McNicoll’s Matti.