First published in The Times, Thursday March 5 2020
On paper this gender-swapped version of Bertolt Brecht’s 1940 comedy looks intriguing. The novelist Denise Mina adapts, with the redoubtable Elaine C Smith in the lead and the award-winning Turkish director Murat Daltaban at the helm. Yet while the production features some fine flourishes, there is no escaping the overall sense of a messy and incoherent assemblage.
Mina updates Brecht’s satire to a present-day Scotland whose countryside is still in the grip of the mega-wealthy. Smith is at her most comfortable playing the drunken version of Mrs Puntila, the Jekyll-and-Hyde landowner who “owns half of Argyle, 90 cows and a forest”, romanticising poverty and doling out jobs to the desperate people she meets while touring her acreage. “I’m practically a communist,” she declares during one vodka-fuelled episode.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Certainly, Smith’s bewigged and bejewelled Puntila is a grotesque, but there is a horrible ring of truth to her depiction of a one percenter who, in her inebriated state, considers herself a woman of the people. She is less adept at portraying the flip side of the character and never completely convinces when Puntila sobers up and reverts to type as a heartless autocrat.
Smith, and Steven McNicoll, as Matti, the wise chauffeur who cleans up after his employer’s misadventures and has a clear-eyed view of the class divide, have an appealing chemistry and both are practised in breaking the fourth wall, as is the fine supporting cast, switching among an array of roles.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Yet, Brecht’s themes of equality, privilege and patronage, struggle to get an airing in Daltaban’s overcrowded production. Certain scenes drag on interminably, bloated by visual jokes that either outstay their welcome or feel unnecessary, such as a recreation of da Vinci’s The Last Supper as part of a dinner party scene. Mina’s script includes some funny lines and resonant observations but is often frustratingly lacking in subtlety. There are pleasures to be found in the live music and songs, composed by Oğuz Kaplangi and performed by the ensemble, and in aspects of the lush staging, but a tighter, more disciplined approach would have served Brecht’s fable-like tale better.