The publication of Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark in 1981 was a landmark in modern Scottish fiction. Its dystopian story of a morally bankrupt alternate reality (Unthank, a thinly veiled 1970s Glasgow) is twisted in with that of Duncan Thaw, a thinly veiled version of Gray himself, in a warts-and-all memory of the failures of childhood love and art school life.
The latest adaptation – for the Citizens Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival by writer David Greig, director Graham Eatough and composer Nick Powell – might not make a similarly large splash, but it is still a landmark event. It reunites the trio who made their name in the much lauded Suspect Culture, and marks the high point in the EIF’s reimagining of its relationship with Scottish theatre.
There is no doubting the cleverness of Greig’s adaptation. He finds a representation not just for the content of the original but also, in collaboration with designer Laura Hopkins and video artists Simon Wainright, a representation of its physical manifestation – its typography, binding, artwork and even its index and the epilogue, famously inserted before the end of the book.
Most interestingly, they find ways of representing in the theatre the relationship Gray creates with his readers on the page. Breaking the fourth wall and putting the stage into Gray’s head when Lanark steps out of the play to interrogate him on its narrative being just the most obvious. Meanwhile Powell’s sound design maintains the sense of immersion in the narrative.
Sandy Grierson slips tightly into the role of the self-obsessed, twisting, flawed-in-love Lanark. He wanders, naively direct, into the opening scene of Act II – like the novel, the adaptation shifts its structure – where he hooks up with Unthank’s young hedonists. Paul Thomas Hickey is all smarm and Machiavellian intrigue as their leader, Sludden, with Jessica Hardwick sparky and direct as the coldly cynical Rima, who Lanark immediately falls for.
Under Eatough’s direction the ten-strong ensemble whirl the narrative forward, from Elite nightclub to tram-stop to party and bedroom. And when Lanark is consumed and spat out into the institute where his dragon-skin condition will be cured, the casting ensures that notions of alternate versions of the same reality are maintained.
Such casting of types – Louise Ludgate’s mother figure, Hardwick’s object of obsession, Hickey’s smooth operator and Communicado cofounder Gerry Mulgrew as a father figure of authority – is retained in Act I, which splits Acts II and III. Here, plain-suited oracles relate Duncan Thaw’s life to him, with a dulled resignation.
The attention to the details of the original mean its own failings also emerge. There is a sense of over-studied, overworked metaphors and that the text is so dense that it both demands an instant reviewing and goes on too long.
That said, as a big festival event it is timely and memorable for all the right reasons.
We need your help…
When you subscribe to The Stage, you’re investing in our journalism. And our journalism is invested in supporting theatre and the performing arts.
The Stage is a family business, operated by the same family since we were founded in 1880. We do not receive government funding. We are not owned by a large corporation. Our editorial is not dictated by ticket sales.
We are fully independent, but this means we rely on revenue from readers to survive.
Help us continue to report on great work across the UK, champion new talent and keep up our investigative journalism that holds the powerful to account. Your subscription helps ensure our journalism can continue.