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THEATRE Atrocity exhibition

ANGUS REID sees a brilliant demonstration of class struggle at its most lethal

Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

IT’S not often you see theatre that feels dangerous. But Murat Daltaban’s production of Brecht’s savage comedy of class relations is fired by a tangible sense of rage. He means it.

In it, there is a jobcentre but the place looks like a cattle market, where employers, on a whim, size up candidates by physical attribute.

Workers are animals to be sentimental about, then exploited, then slaughtered. As though it were a common event, a failed jobseeker commits suicide.

I have never seen the business of being “measured” for a job shown with such stark and brutal clarity.

We are guided through this social nightmare by the drunken capitalist Mrs Puntila, a kind of imperious female Alan Sugar. She solicits for minions and bestows human tragedy on whomever she touches.

Sometimes, she suffers “debilitating episodes of sobriety,” in which her cruelty is unleavened by good humour. But mostly she is drunk and when she is drunk she is hilarious. She tells the truth.

First, she tells the truth to working-class people whom she leads on and betrays. Then she tells the truth to her professional peers, whom she loathes and loves to torture.

And, eventually, she turns and tells the truth to the audience. We’re Scottish. Do we not love Scotland, just the way she does?

In the wig, the heels and the penchant for verbal fantasy, Puntila is a battleship from Glasgow’s West End. This is not just Alan Sugar, this is Nicola Sturgeon off the leash, utterly persuasive and a total bitch.

This exhilarating vision is brought to life by Elaine C Smith, actor, feminist and activist. She plays it with garrulous candour and you see double, both the actor and role. “This is dead German,” she says. “D’ye get it? Brecht? Dead German?”

She relishes every twist of Denise Mina’s bitter and witty script as she constructs the atrocity that is this character.

The words are sharply Scottish but the setting reveals a universal message. With deft economy, Tom Piper’s design invokes the fantasy Scotland that corporations like to sell — a pheasant in the cupboard, a red leather armchair and silky vistas as superficial as scaffold mesh.

But they are splashed with blood and brains and littered with empty bottles.

And the play asks: what weapons do we possess against this genius for manipulation? How can we stop this monster?

Unmissable.

Runs until March 21, box office: lyceum.org.uk and from March 25–April 11 at Tramway, Glasgow, box office: tramway.org.

 

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