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Theatre and Dance Female gaze with a sharp focus

ANGUS REID sees some perceptive productions of work by women writers and directors in Edinburgh and Glasgow

IT’S the outright identification with working women that makes Francis Poet’s outstanding play Fibres (Citizens Theatre, Glasgow/Touring, ★★★★★) so effective.

Maureen Carr, as the central character Beanie, has been poisoned with asbestos from washing her husband’s clothes. “No-one wanted my brain,” she says after a lifetime of working with her hands but it is through her autodidact’s brain that we understand not just what asbestos does to the body but how the whole syndrome fits into capitalist oppression.

Her dying husband may be fatalistic but she remains rational, even as a remembered voice after her own death, in the dreams of her grieving daughter. “Just you make our deaths cost them,” she insists softly.

The fibres are the poison of asbestos but also the threads of vulnerable connection between husband and wife, parent and child, woman and lover-to-be.

The play begins as a quartet of monologues, rather like Sylvia Plath’s poetic classic Three Women, but dares to develop further, opening beautiful scenes of awkward dialogue between characters whose inner lives we understand, who are groping towards solidarity, forgiveness and love.

This inspired dramatic structure is tempered by a language weaving poetic images, gossamer-light, through a story that is not just a deeply angry treatment of social injustice but a tender portrayal of real people.

Asbestosis is predicted to reach peak mortality rates in the coming years so don’t be surprised to sit beside someone who has lost a husband, a father or a mother, as I did. It was a rare honour to share this magnificent and deeply moving play with her.

Rhona Munro’s Frankenstein (King’s Theatre Edinburgh, ★★★) hurtles through the horrors with its original author, the 18-year-old Mary Shelley, as its principal character.

She embodies a feminist agenda, providing a running commentary on the moral failings of self-appointed “great men” and, a frantic plot-smith chasing a bestseller, dashes from scene to scene. This meta-theatrical conceit makes the most compelling relationship the one between the author and the monster and that sets up an unexpected twist in a narrative of Oedipal revenge.

The brute may well murder his father but he does his mother proud. She cares in a way that Frankenstein cannot and the monster will not avenge himself on her for his awful existence.

Set in a glacial library of the imagination, the experiment is wired up between bookshelves and the ghoul flits between alcoves from murder to murder. This slick and icy production imbues the classic with a provocative and violent feminism.

The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (Glasgow and Edinburgh venues, ★★), adapted by the author from her own novel, fails to establish itself theatrically.

It may work as Trainspotting-esque prose but when the entire reality of a play is filtered through the subjective paranoia of an individual stuck within a cyclorama of her own fantasies, the message reduces itself to a rant, devoid of dramatic tension, social context or meaning.

For all that this is an energetic ensemble piece, there are no real characters, no conflict and no sense of jeopardy.An exercise in self-indulgent fantasy, it renders a state of mind as though the whole production were the audition for an art-film.

Failing to say anything convincing about the care system or about the people, conditions or psychology of those within it, it’s a wasted opportunity and the experience was like having your face rubbed in last night’s puked-up purple prose.

Were you ever at a rave and wondered what it might look like from space? Gisele Vienne’s techno-driven dance-piece Crowd (Tramway Glasgow/Touring ★★★★★) paints that particular picture to perfection.

Wordless, but entirely articulate, it’s fucked-up and bleak but beautiful. Vienne brings 15 individual stories together for a collective ecstatic experience, where the desire is to escape from individuality, repression and anything hetero-normative.

Mesmerising and slowly changing tableaux offer a vision of humanity liberating itself, or trying to. Individual identities dissolve in shared delirium, then re-emerge as same-sex desire — a male couple make up, a gay pass is spurned, there are fleeting lesbian kisses and sisterly solidarity.

And, unforgettably, this Rite of Spring plays out in front of an excluded character, the youngest girl, an immature princess, a dying swan in mercury shoes.

A masterpiece. Why is it that I can only imagine a woman making work this good?

Fibres plays Traverse Theatre Edinburgh on October 29 and 30, box office: traverse.co.uk and Frankenstein tours nationally until March 7 2020, details: selladoor.com

 

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