At a time of year when most theatres across the land are bursting with colour, raucous laughter and the panto spirit, it’s typical of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, long-established as the Scottish capital’s home of new writing, to instead present a pair of one-act plays in which winter is a time to withdraw from the world and hibernate, a half-way-through-the-dark time best slept through.
While playwrights Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro wrote their works separately, there are certainly common themes and imagery to be found on Kai Fischer’s simple transverse set which, viewed through fine gauze, splits its audience in two.
While playwrights Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro wrote their works separately, there are certainly common themes and imagery to be found on Kai Fischer’s simple transverse set which, viewed through fine gauze, splits its audience in two. Greenhorn’s first act begins with lovers Shula and Avril on the top of Edinburgh’s dead volcano, Arthur’s Seat, waiting for the first transformative snow to fall; Munro’s second act eventually shifts its action to an Edinburgh street made alien by its drifting whiteness. Both writers also reference the Regent, the city’s LGBT-friendly real ale bar, though it’s somewhat distracting that both writers believe it’s the kind of place that has regular karaoke.
Greenhorn’s tale is essentially focused on two sides of a love triangle; old school friends Shula (an earnest Deborah Arnott) and Avril (a bright ’n’ breezy Karen Bartke) who have become secret lovers, not least because the latter is married to an unseen Craig. It soon becomes obvious, however, that Avril has, in fact, died; that, in an intelligent dramatic decision, Greenhorn shows us the story of this relationship backwards, possibly as Shula attempts to work through her grief and resist the temptation to just hide herself away from the world of “normal things”.
Munro’s second act is also about how we survive the loss of a partner – the difference being that an echo of the dead man survives, briefly, in the body of a polar bear that ate him. Munro’s script is both more overtly humorous than Greenhorn’s and, arguably, more thought-provoking. The bear (a white-fur draped Caroline Deyga, all expressive body moves and subtle facial expression) processes experiences and emotions as tastes and smells – surprise is lemon and vinegar, guilt is mint, while home is shortbread made by someone who loves you. This bear of few words is matched by brash, self-centred seasonal worker Jackie (an excellent Kathryn Howden, who absolutely inhabits Munro’s jumpy dialogue); she’s just as out of her depth, far from the city lights, as the Bear is among human civilisation.
Arguably, Greenhorn’s piece is a tad too episodic and right on in its social realism; aspects of the “love that dare not speak its name” plot, and references to lost benefits, feel more 1990s’ EastEnders than the Traverse Theatre in 2015. Munro’s magic realism, by contrast, feels far more fitting for the time of year – and even feels faster. Deep down, though, both works share an introspective regret that, while fascinating to watch, remain a tad depressing.