First published in The Times, Friday August 25 2017
Legend has it that when Dustin Hoffman was filming Marathon Man, the renowned method actor stayed up for 72 hours so his performance as a sleep-deprived torture victim would be authentic. His co-star, Lawrence Olivier, was scathing: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
Anthony Nicholl (Robert Goodale), the sage at the heart of Graham Eatough’s new play, has travelled far and wide in search of pure theatrical performance. We meet him ahead of the master class he is leading, railing against the clutter and pretension of contemporary theatre. His own technique was forged, we learn, following an epiphany experienced while on tour in Nigeria.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
One element that undoubtedly rings true about Eatough’s production for the National Theatre of Scotland is its portrayal of the acting workshop as a forum for soul baring and mortification. Promise (Jade Ogugua), the student participant, is asked to dig deep in order to more honestly communicate with her audience. The self-regarding Nicholl flatters himself that he is precisely the man to break through the Nigerian-born undergraduate’s protective shell.
Yet, as the actor leads Promise into his “safe” performance space (the inevitable circle of shoes), he is unwillingly opening Pandora’s box. The young woman’s memories of her childhood bring forth a cry of rage for the disenfranchised peoples of the Niger Delta (among them her mother) that completely trounces NIcholl’s banal and patronising ideas about the beauty, purity and simplicity of African culture and ritual.
Pic: Tim Morozzo
For most of the show’s 70-minute length, Eatough captures exactly the right balance of satire and drama, which is nicely reflected in the performances. Unfortunately, the playwright can’t resist further hiking the dramatic stakes, a wholly unnecessary move given how stacked the play’s moral deck already is. The final ten minutes groans beneath a series of credibility-stretching revelations, and ultimately dwindles away rather than ending with a wallop.