First published in The Times, Tuesday August 25 2015
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that the Edinburgh International Festival and the Citizens Theatre were teaming up to create a theatrical adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. The author himself had a go at translating his mammoth dystopian novel for film 30 years ago but was forced to abandon the project as a fool’s errand. It is therefore much to the credit of playwright David Greig that his adaptation of Gray’s big beast of a book for the stage is both comprehensive and reassuringly coherent.
The “Life in Three Acts”, directed by Graham Eatough, runs to nearly four hours and is remarkably faithful to its notoriously tricky source, which opens on Book Three, contains an Index of Plagiarisms and even a meeting between the title character and his author (one of many thinly disguised versions of Gray himself).
Eatough’s production is rich in exhilarating set pieces, from the early scenes in Unthank, where the citizens are deprived of affection and sunlight and develop an all-consuming skin condition, to the distinctive middle section, in which Greig ingeniously splits the subjective coming-of-age of Glasgow artist Duncan Thaw among a ten-strong ensemble clambering around Laura Hopkins’ skeletal set.
The script is best when mining the dark humour that belies Thaw’s mental disintegration, and the supporting cast is replete with fine comic talent (Gerry Mulgrew, Andy Clark, Louise Ludgate). The scenes focusing on Thaw’s early life are a particular pleasure, with Grieg brilliantly reproducing Gray’s flair for vivid, revealing dialogue.
Over four hours, however, a feeling creeps in that the material would have been better served by a less reverential adaptation. There is so much colour and incident that it becomes difficult to engage emotionally with Sandy Grierson’s performance as the hapless Thaw/Lanark or his relationship with Rima (a stand-out Jessica Hardwick). While Eatough’s production is always visually impressive, it never really comes close to conveying the visceral horror of Gray’s Unthank. Ironically, though the production offers manifold pleasures, a leaner distillation of the great novel’s themes would have come closer to capturing its essence.