Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
5 May – 23 May 2009
Tue – Thu, Sat matinee & Sun evening £13 (£8/unemployed £5),
Fri & Sat evening £16 (£12)
Theatre Royal, Bath
10 June – 20 June 2009
An oversized, transparent and monochrome reproduction of Titian’s The Three Ages of Man is the first thing we notice when the Traverse’s stage is illuminated and the premier production of Gregory Burke’s latest play, Hoors, begins. It dominates the set, a prop that remains present throughout the action. Its purposes are multiple: it is an apropos reminder of themes; it is thought-provoking; it is a backdrop to our drama – a decoration; it is a wall that separates our two, revolving sets (a living room, a bedroom); it is also a humorous effect, an object for our characters to interpret. A comic excerpt:
Tony What is it?
Vicky It’s The Three Ages of Man.
Tony Is it?
Tony It’s filth is what it is.
Vicky So what’s filthy about it?
Tony Well, I mean, the lassie here, she’s a nymphomaniac obviously.
Vicky Is she?
I mean she’s got two… two, what are they, recorders?
Tony … symbolic, isn’t it?
Tony But what matters is… why the two? That’s my point. What’s she saying with the two of them?
It’s obvious, isn’t it. She’s saying to the boy, she’s saying, cards on the table, cards on the fucking table here, mate, if you aren’t up to the job, if you don’t manage a good enough –
Tony – on your recorder here… then I’ll be needing a spare.
No excuses. Hard week at work? Stress? Medieval diet not conducive to a healthy circulation?
Not fucking interested, pal. If you’re not up to the job… jog on.
What more does Three Ages signify? What thoughts does it provoke from the audience? How does it relate to the meaning of our play, the themes explored?
The painting represents the three basic stages of life: infancy, youth, old age (and death, implied by the two skulls the old man holds and contemplates). It is a narrative set in one pastoral landscape, which emphasizes the universal nature of the theme and, perhaps, the quick passage of time. To the viewer’s right are two infants, pleasantly asleep beneath a dead tree. Climbing on them is a putto. To the left are two enamored youths (a nude male, a clothed female). In the central distance, downhill, sits the old man. In each state, man is either asleep or lost in thought, a dreamer. The sentiments expressed in Giambattista Marino’s (1569-1625) poem, “Life,” are relevant: «Dalla cuna alla tomba è un breve passo» (“From cradle to grave is a brief step,” translation by Arturo Vivante).
(For an excellent, in-depth analyses of Three Ages, I recommend Judith Dundas’ “A Titian Enigma,” Artibus et Historiae 12, 1985, pp. 39—55.)
In Hoors, Burke is most concerned with the last two stages. To understand his interpretations and the significance of the painting, a plot summary is needed. Vicky and Andy are engaged to be married. The event is set for the next day (the action takes place over the course of one night). But the audience never sees Andy, only his coffin, for the bachelor party, set in Amsterdam, was too much. We are told of his overdosing on laced speed bought from a seedy dwarf and his subsequent heart failure in the airplane lavatory with a budget airline stewardess, as he was attempting to join the “mile-high” club. Thus, there will be a funeral instead of the intended wedding. A relieved Vicky and her younger sister, Nikki, sit in the living room of a modern flat, expensively furnished, in small-town Fife. Stevie and Tony, old friends of Andy, are the only people come to pay respects to the dead man at his wake. The characters catch up, pop tranquilizers, drink heavily, snort cocaine, reflect introspectively and try to hook up with one another. They are a contemptible group.
For Burke, the loving youths represent Bacchic decadence – the £1200 pocket book, the stag party, the drinking, the drugs, the sex, the oblivion. This is a completely different perspective than that of Dundas (mentioned above), who writes of “innocent love,” the pastoral ideal and the unobtrusive nudity of the male figure, who “becomes part of the landscape,” nature. As an interpretation of the painting, I agree more with Dundas’ argument. However, the play does not pretend to attempt an analyzation of the Three Ages (except satirically, as in the excerpt above). Rather, Titian’s artwork is as an inspiration, a suggestion for this artwork, Hoors.
Interestingly, Burke takes the old man out of the picture. There is still death, but it is not natural. There is no separation of the stages as there is with Titian, at least not so dramatically. Instead, the death is premature, a consequence of excessive youthfulness, and our young characters (all in their twenties and thirties) are confronted by it. It forces them to realize the fragility of life, the inevitability of death, and their own progression toward middle age. As a result, they are all taken with a feeling of ennui.
Especially Tony. He is a successful business man, now living in Dubai. He has a wife (they are divorced) and two children. Once a construction worker in this blue-collar town in Fife, he comes back expecting to be glorious in his wealth, only to find that the town has prospered too in his absence. He was handsome – Vicky recollects him as “braw” – but he has lost his looks. Desperately and pathetically, he attempts to seduce both Vicky and Nikki, unwilling to accept his passing potency.
Which brings us to two more essential themes. The first, Burke specifies in an interview as the “transient nature of youth, prosperity, love.” Tony has lost the first and the last, as well as the pleasure of the second. Stevie is altogether unremarkable anyway, but in a poignant dialogue with Vicky, he says: “Never been good at it. Even when I was younger I couldn’t do girls. Women. I was rubbish at it. I wasn’t funny. I wasn’t charming. I wasn’t… anything. (Beat.) But at least I was…” Vicky finishes: “young?” Vicky has technically lost nothing (she didn’t love Andy), but she is about to lose her wealth (she refers to the expensive furnishings as an “illusion”), and, inevitably, her youth and already fading beauty. Nikki is the most removed, but it is inferred, tragically but naturally, that she too will lose all these things. As Shakespeare writes in Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must / as chimney sweepers, come to dust.”
The other theme, more subtle, is taken again from the Three Ages: the reversal of traditional gender rôles, depicting woman as dominant over man. On Titian’s female and her place in the composition, Dundas aptly writes: “It is on her, above all, that the light falls, and it is she who dominates the scene by the vividness of her red and white dress and by her eager expression. Thus, paradoxically, the nude figure, which usually is the focus of attention, here becomes a foil for the clothed one.” While he sinks down, earthward, she sits upwards, energetic with her two flutes to his one. Is she still innocent and he of negative experience? In Hoors, the men are similarly weak compared to the women. Stevie in particular, who is dull, ineffectual, shy – Vicky describes sex with him by whimpering pathetically. Tony too, for despite his eloquence, he is only as strong as his physical appeal over women, which he lost with his youth. Nikki – young, beautiful, intelligent, affluent – is the dominant character. The men worship her, but she neither needs nor wants them; Vicky, slightly older, not as successful or educated, is jealous and more open to their flirtations.
Now, on to the production:
It is exciting to see the premiere of a play, especially when its writer is a contemporary master, as Gregory Burke certainly is. He is most famous for Black Watch (click here to read Heidi Holder’s review), which won the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Play and the South Bank Theatre Award in 2007.
The acting is superb on all counts. Andy Clark, who I saw in a Traverse “A Play, A Pie and A Pint” show last March called The Ching Room, is particularly excellent as Tony. It is a complex part that requires an insecure, waning self-confidence. Clark is energetic and his greatest strength is in the comic but intelligent oratory of his character, something we also notice in his Ching Room rôle. Michael Moreland is a sufficiently pathetic Stevie. Uneasily, he is able to force some sympathy out of the audience (until Scene Sixteen, anyway – you’ll see). Lisa Gardner who plays Vicky handles her character’s complex and entangled emotions well. And Catherine Murray captures Nikki’s enchanting personality and strength. The script is fast-moving, with many short sentences and interruptions, so the players must be commended on their grasping of it.
The direction, under Jimmy Fay, is likewise of great quality. Movements are polished and natural, the space is used perfectly, the many beats and pauses of the script are all properly observed and enacted.
The set, designed by Conor Murphy, is original and functions exceptionally well. There are two rooms: the living room and the bedroom, which are divided by The Three Ages of Man. The set mechanically revolves, so that there is no need for black figures to pop out from behind curtains and fuss about with bulky furniture at the end of each scene. Nor is there any need for an intermission. This useful feature also allows for more scenes than usually possible in a stage play, and for those scenes to be quickly paced. At the perimeter of the revolving set is the normal stage, which does not move. Here is placed Andy’s white coffin, which, like Three Ages is always present – a sort of memento mori. As a stage effect, the painting is an interesting component. It is reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s use of paintings in his films (for example, Pierrot le fou). While other playwrights have certainly attached symbolic importance to decorations, Gregory Burke and Conor Murphy make this one integral to the play, its essence.
It will be interesting to see how this and future plays by Burke will do against the immense success of Black Watch. Like Black Watch, Hoors is very Scottish with its “ays” and “kens” and “braws,” &c, making it hard for those unused to the dialect to understand. What made Black Watch so popular, even to an international audience, was that it dealt with the Iraq War. At first, I thought Hoors lacked such a context and that as a result it might not fare so well as its predecessor. But the economic recession (is there an article capable of ignoring it?) has provided that context. A suburban, newly-built, costly house, no-doubt mortgaged, is our setting – the sort of place that’s partly responsible for the economic situation we are now in. Gregory Burke, realizing this, said in an interview with the Herald: “I suppose it’s about the end of an era of consumer-filled hedonism that we’ve just been through, and about how long before you move on. Here’s something that was meant to be a celebration, but has now turned into this economic disaster.”
Whether it does as well as Black Watch or not, it is an excellent play, well-written, and its first production does it great justice. It is at once a sex-filled comedy and a thought-provoking drama.