Review: Lanark

“Are you still there?” “I’m still here”

By Tom Barry

Lanark is a supremely strange play. The story is disjointed, the characters many and varied, and the eponymous hero caught up in the midst of the madness may be the maddest of all. A free adaptation of an adaptation of the novel by Alasdair Gray, Lanark: A Life in Four Books, follows Lanark, both man and boy, as he traverses the surreal city of Unthank and the sinister Institute wherein any nonconformity is a literal threat to the occupants’ wellbeing, and citizens afflicted with Lovecraftian diseases are taken for treatment (or rather, exploitation for profit). The absurd interactions and outrageous characters disguise a grounded social commentary on the writer’s part, and explores the reasons why people find themselves in lives they never pursued, often as a result of an unwillingness to change, or a fear of reaching out.

Lanark (Dan South) carried the play admirably, portraying a demure personality with an endearing shyness often out of keeping with how he is regarded by the rest of the play’s population. South rarely left the stage for the show’s entire two-hour runtime, and was supported by a stellar ensemble cast who flit in and out of Lanark’s world with fluidity and charm; the ‘Oracle’ sequence at the beginning of the second half was especially impressive for its energy and synchronicity, without which the play would feel dangerously close to indulgent. The set was conspicuous in its absence; apart from a large bed utilised time and again in astonishingly varied ways, the changes in scene and state were informed largely by the play’s lighting design (Izzy Marsh), which provided just enough information to nudge the audience’s awareness of place without obvious signposting. Marsh’s design reveled in darkness; several scenes took place in a dimness approaching total black, and often it is what can’t be seen that is most important. It would be nigh impossible to decipher when one sequence ends and another begins without it.

“Often it is what can’t be seen that is most important.”

The play’s second half was far more engaging than the first; having established to some degree the recurrent characters and their relationships, it gave the cast and the director more freedom to challenge the audience to increasingly mind-bending suspensions of disbelief. I cannot think of another Drama Barn play that has so fractured the conventions of theatre and done so entirely in keeping with the play’s theme; subversion abounds throughout Lanark, and it is always gratifying to see a cast so brazenly enjoy themselves. The script was saturated with bizarre comedic twists that lent the play enough goodwill from the audience to allow them the more esoteric sections of the piece. It is exceedingly difficult to describe exactly why Lanark is worth seeing, as it purposefully confounds and surprises every expectation. Those daunted by the prospect of a play that demands you work hard and fast to keep up with proceedings should give this one a miss, but I can’t recommend Lanark enough to anyone who longs for something utterly original and quietly profound.

Lanark, a free adaptation of a free adaptation by David Greig, directed by James Ralph. Performing at the Drama Barn on Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th of May at 7:30pm. Tickets available online and on the door, £4/5.

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