First published in The Times, Thursday February 8 2018
David Harrower’s play, about a young woman in a pre-industrial setting whose life and consciousness are transformed by literacy, is a true contemporary classic, renowned globally, having been staged in some 25 countries since its premiere at Edinburgh’s Traverse in 1995. Indeed, the three-hander is arguably better appreciated abroad than at home, with this revival at the newly restored Perth Theatre only the fourth Scottish production in 20 years.
The play is a bold and interesting choice for Lu Kemp, in her second endeavour as the theatre’s artistic director. As in her award-winning staging of Sue Glover’s Bondagers at the Lyceum in 2014, this production is visually powerful, with Jamie Vartan’s lovely, millstone-inspired set lent multiple dimensions by Simon Wilkinson’s multifaceted lighting. The three characters appear to melt in and out of focus without ever leaving the stage. Smoke rises in clouds from the heavy flour bags stationed around the edges and the actors’ clothing, to swirl above their heads, caught in narrow shafts of light.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
The atmosphere is made all the richer by Luke Sutherland’s sound design, which features insinuating offstage voices as well as more robust sounds: the deafening grind of the millstone; the agonising scratch of a pen across paper.
For all its moody evocation of place, Kemp’s production places equal value on the spare lyricism of Harrower’s text. In showing us the ways in which their characters are tethered or empowered by the words they use, the trio of actors give precise, focused, and for the most part, admirably understated performances. Rhys Rusbatch is suitably earthy, though at times achingly vulnerable as the ploughman, Pony William, unkindly named for his affinity with horses. Michael Moreland is also compelling as Gilbert Horn, the despised local miller, who makes his money from the backbreaking efforts of the community, yet who is secretly far more interested in the life of the mind.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Jessica Harwick is assured, meanwhile, as the protagonist, known only as Young Woman, at first as taut and unyielding as the plain words she speaks, gradually bringing out ever more nuances as her character greedily acquires the language she needs to explain the harsh beauty of her environment, her emotions, physical needs and sensuality. Her path to such insight is exhilarating and frequently moving, though the actor’s portrayal never airbrushes out the increasing ruthlessness that comes with her character’s journey to enlightenment.