Writer: Sue Glover
Director: Liz Carruthers
Producer: Liz Burton-King
Reviewer: R. G. Balgray
Maybe there’s something just a little too “bare” about Borderline’s revival of The Straw Chair at the Tron in Glasgow. This should probably be no surprise given the powerful hold St. Kilda has on the Scottish imagination: the brooding, rocky outcrop represents an image of raw power and human resilience in the face of adversity, but it is also a byword for isolation, bleakness and ultimate failure. Suitable material for drama then, you would think?
First impressions on entering the theatre would be to say yes. The stripped back stage set is hugely effective: a grassy slope suggests fields, cliffs, even the prow of a ship; a rickle of stones, by contrast, is bed, seat, and the bleakness already mentioned. And a huge stretched canvas behind reinforces the impression of both a sail and a wide, unforgiving sky. Add to this a soundtrack of gulls, gannets and skua, with Gaelic psalms as counterpoint, and you could expect any audience – and this had a full house – to be impressed.
Against this backdrop, a number of domestic dramas play out. The story of the aspiring “stickit minister” in search of a living there, and his new wife, contrasted with the ad hoc imprisonment there of Rachel, Lady Grange; and, of course, through Oona, the servant, completing the cast of four, the everyday struggle of what life on the island really meant, months of solan goose eggs, and a diet enlivened by dried and salted puffin and gannet. The cast in this production make much of their material. Isabel, played by Pamela Reid, the newly-wed finding out what marriage could mean, does develop and grow, from naïf to sober-eyed realist throughout the play. And her husband, Aneas (the wanderer, of course) is splendidly stuffed-shirt in a way we would all recognise, even expect. But the audience’s eyes, and sympathies, are caught and held by Selina Boyack as Rachel. As the “uncomfortable” wife she dominates the stage; at turns rumbustious in drink, earthmotherish in her advice on “the honey time” to Isabel, pleading, sleekit, and an argument waiting to happen, she can seem an odd mixture unlike most other Scottish heroines – and is played as something of a rara avis too, Mrs Rochester channelling Jennifer Saunders, as it were.
It’s just a pity then, that so much of the defining action takes place off-stage; or has already taken place, in the case of the shameful actions of Rachel’s husband. But, watching the audience discussing the production as they filed out, it was easy to sense their engagement: somewhere, across wind and water and in the sea-birds’ cries, the play had said something both subtle and rewarding about its tiny corner of the Scottish experience.
Runs until 18th Apr then touring