Published in The Times, Tuesday March 10 2015
Anyone who has seen a play performed in a foreign language will be accustomed to letting their eyes roam between the stage and the supertitles. Less familiar is the experience of watching live theatre that also incorporates signing for deaf people along with an audio description for the visually impaired. This may require an adjustment on the part of some members of the audience, but it also reinforces how inaccessible and excluding the majority of theatre performances are.
The fact that deaf and disabled actors are front and centre of this update of Federico Garcia Lorca’s great tragedy is the most noteworthy aspect of the co-production for Dundee Rep, Derby Theatre and Graeae Theatre Company. Rather than shying away from the mix of abilities and ethnicities in the cast, David Ireland’s script tackles notions of prejudice head-on. At one point, Amy Conachan’s Olivia, a wheelchair user, is asked whether or not she has a working womb. Another character bluntly announces that she doesn’t like black people, an unsettling echo of recent, well-documented comments by an ex-UKIP councillor about her “problems with negroes”.
Where the production unravels, however, is in its attempt to marry Lorca’s tale of passion, illicit love and bloody revenge with the kind of prosaic writing you’d find in the average episode of EastEnders. Listening to references in the script to IKEA furniture, “selfies” and Strictly Come Dancing, merely serves to remind us of the importance of Lorca’s poetry in making such an intense, melodramatic scenario credible.
Ireland’s excessive desire to make the play relevant by replacing fire and passion with the everyday is compounded by Jenny Sealey’s stilted direction. Key scenes, including the wedding itself, are so bogged down in ill-judged jokes and peripheral action that we lose sight of what is at stake dramatically. Fine actors, such as Conachan, Ann Louise Ross, as Olivia’s aunt, and Irene Macdougall, as a blowsy neighbour, struggle to break the monotonous pace.
The dynamic final sequence, in which Ricci McLeod’s cuckolded groom sets out to avenge himself against his bride and her lover, offers flashes of what might have been, and the production delivers a powerful final image of three bereaved women framed within designer Lisa Sangster’s fractured family portrait. But it’s hard to take the blood-spattered denouement seriously when everything leading up to it has been so steeped in banality.