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SRB at the Theatre – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

SRB at the Theatre

March 21, 2016 | by Joseph Farrell

IN this case, there are two faces, two attitudes to life, two plays, both one-act, one-woman pieces, written by Peter Arnott, featuring identical twins, Isobel and Morag, played by the one actor, Janette Foggo, staged in successive weeks at Oran Mor, but begging for some imaginative producer to bring them together in the one bill. Maybe the pair are actually two sides of the one character, but overtly they are twins, as inward-looking as twins often are, linked by an intensity of exclusive relationship which other human beings cannot fathom, obsessed with that other quasi-self, driven desperately to be measured against the other, against her more than anyone else.

These are profound and moving pieces, featuring two people who are not very remarkable and not especially likeable, even if Isabel thinks she is. Morag plainly experiences moments of self-doubt, perhaps even self-loathing. A more mismatched pair of twins would be hard to imagine. The randomness of biology put them in the same womb at the same time, and they have to live out, in successive moods of resignation or resentment, stoicism or rebellion, the consequences of that chance. The imaginative exploitation of the same factor also provides Arnott with an opportunity to develop anew the age-old Scottish duality of character and vision, not quite Jekyll and Hyde but close to Robert Wringhim his doppelganger.

The play plumbs the depths of a complex relationship which is occasionally fond and affectionate, but for the most part lived as jealousy, rivalry, resentment, bitterness and even outright aversion. It is hard to think of anyone who could have embodied all these successive and conflicting emotions so convincingly and commandingly as Janette Foggo. She is marvellous not only in depicting two personalities or two angles on one dilemma, but in illuminating changing moods, reactions, hopes and disappointments. She expertly scales a crescendo of rising rage, then pauses, catches herself, looks wonderingly out at the audience, sinks back into herself, changes tack, alters mood and expression, before chatting calmly and reflectively, reproaching herself for her earlier lack of charity and moving on, taking every spectator with her as she probes into her deeper being.

She can be smug as Isobel and filled with loathing as Morag, for this work is not only about the ‘face’, if face is taken as the external mask which the world sees, but more about the inner being, the hidden personality which it is easy to take, or mistake, as higher truth. Isobel teasingly wonders if all those miserable people out there are maybe happy at home, an intriguing thought. If we deceive others with the face, whom do we deceive with the inner psyche? Ourselves? If Peter Arnott is interested in more than the face, he also avoids the glib conclusion that supposed self-knowledge is in fact any more reliable than conveying a public impression.

The two women come to different conclusions over the central, eternal question, put by Isobel – Am I not supposed to live? What am I supposed to do? In a sense the play deals with questions of liberation, and I cannot help wishing that Arnott had found some more resonant occasion for the epiphany, or for the path to better awareness, than a session Isobel attended of cognitive therapy. That encounter supposedly changed her life, but maybe she is cheating herself. Who can you trust in double works which give diverse responses to the same events? Arnott ponders deeply the burdens human beings are lumbered with, and avoids all the fashionable, clichéd solutions of this age on how to be free of them. Isobel and Morag are not weighed down by the false gods of consumerism or late capitalism, not by male-dominated society, nor even by Scotland and Scottishness, although there is nothing for comfort in the references to the impact of life in a Scottish culture.

For those of a philosophical turn of mind, it emerges, slowly and gradually, by implication and not by explicit statement, that the problem is being human. To be alive and reflective leads to an awareness of a dissatisfaction with the state of things, and a dissatisfaction with cannot be remedied. It is part of the world. It might be the fault of Eve or Pandora, but it is there. Arnott does not talk in those terms, but those who have read his recent novel, Moon Country, know that he is out to pick and prod beneath the surface of things, that he has a philosophical, not merely thoughtful nor superficially ideological, mindset. His characters come up against irritations which politics might exacerbate or, more optimistically, soothe, but which are stubbornly part of the world, or womb, which gives us birth. His outlook and his passions can be political, but he can also row in other seas.

The two women are twins, not clones, and undertake different journeys from their childhood days, but they are constantly looking over their shoulder at what the other is doing. It is always tempting to hone in on the decisive line, scene or incident, the ‘to be or not to be’ moment in the development of a play. There are several such here. Seated in the front row, Isobel mutters aloud, ‘When’s this bloody play going to start?’ She repeats the same line at the end, and maybe the play has never really started, or else it is not a play. Having uttered the line, Isobel does clamber onto a performing area, but this never constitutes a fourth wall to separate stalls and stage. The techniques are immersive. The audience are part of the action, compelled to listen closely to the urging and pleading, for the final judicial authority is vested in them. As Isobel, Foggo paces about on the performing area, but it seemed to me a mistake in the otherwise excellent directing by Stasi Schaeffer to allow her to walk about so much, meaning that the performer had to turn her back on sections of the audience, making her words unintelligible in some corners, especially when she was whispering confidentially to one section of a large room. Every word counts.

‘I hate theatre, especially when it is serious. Makes you cry.’ That sounds like a crucial line. It is spoken by Isobel, and raises a laugh, as it should, but it is misleading. To make people cry is not the modern way, and Isobel arouses laughter with her first, dismissive reference to Morag, ‘the culture vulture’ who likes serious theatre. Isobel was slighted at home, if her version can be trusted. She was the tearaway, the non-conforming one, the one who was picked on at school by pupils and staff. How could she know that chocolate should be given the Kelvinside or Bearsden pronunciation of choc-au-lait, and what made her deserve to have her ordinary spelling of that word on the blackboard rubbed out by the teacher who dragged her face over it? This is a beautifully observed moment, of the most deeply felt intensity and pathos.

Isobel marries, unlike Morag, and has children but she shows little interest in her widowed mother, whom Morag looks after. She does not like the idea of work, unlike Morag, who becomes a teacher, and a science teacher at that. There is something of pointedly arid and unsentimentally rationalist in the choice of the sciences rather than the arts. Morag is dry and precise, while Isobel is emotional and spontaneous. Both of them disapprove of the other, but who has more to disapprove of? Readers of glossy magazines will prefer the devil-may-care choices of Isobel, but life is harder and compassion makes other demands.

Isobel leaves her husband, and maybe that is liberation, but she also declines to take any part in looking after their mother. Her exposure to cognitive therapy persuades her that she is entitled to behave with flamboyance, to kick over the traces and to indulge herself. Is that the better way? Her position becomes even more privileged when her mother dies while she is temporarily looking after her, and leaves all her money to her, not to hard-working, conscientious Morag who had cared for her on a day-by-day basis. Isobel can then respond with the exultant cry that she is healthy and wealthy, and can do what she wants. She has been given the means for self-indulgent sybaritism, and who today would criticise her? However, her closing line remains – When is this bloody play going to start? The audience are free to wonder how it will end, really end.

Is she now free of all the lumber which weighs on humans? Her problem is still Morag, because Morag is part of her being. It does not matter who is good or who is bad, although this is a highly moral play, not a game of split personality. Morag has endured her own experiences, some identical to those undergone by her twin sister, and she provides her own answers in the theatre the following week when she strides from the back of the hall, and goes to take her throne-like seat against the stage wall, from where she addresses the audience as though she had gathered them around her in a corner of a pub. Initially she appears like the nuisance you cannot get rid of, or the sort of person who writes letters to the Herald complaining, always complaining. People disgust her. They can never live up to her expectations.

Is the world not good enough for her or is she, in spite of the face she turns outward, too good for the world? Obviously her main problem, and the focus of a bilious resentment which threatens to burst out like a river in spate is her sister, ‘a stupid selfish whore,’ she exclaims. She had left her husband, whom Morag had adored in a purely chaste way. She cannot help picking away at her own sores and scabs, even if she knows it will only make things worse. Isobel had everything and now she has even more. How could her mother have been so partial and so unjust?

Foggo is perhaps even more assured in this role, and gives a performance which grabs you by the throat. She even manages against the odds to arouse some sympathy for a woman who is in the grips of rabid hatred and self-hatred. The reflective, passive Morag and the instinctive, active Isobel are not two sides of one coin, but two ways of being. The two women share the same face, but Morag is considering cosmetic surgery to change her looks, so that she will no longer share a face with her sister.

These are mighty plays, raising huge, disquieting questions, humorous in part but never whimsical, inducing in an audience that sombre, meditative silence which is a sign of respect. They are more than domestic drama, but plays that widen out from the drama of one pair of sisters to confront problems that affect what would once have been called fallen mankind. They were staged as part of Oran Mor’s A Play, a Pie and a Pint programme, which is now a well established part of Scotland’s theatre scene, and guarantee of challenging, innovative theatre. It is a unique arena which has created and continues to draw an audience of its own, and it is good that it has maintained its standards, even after the much-lamented death of founder-producer David MacLennan.

From this Issue

Rebel Inc.

by Brian Morton

Growing Up with Glasgow

by Harry McGrath

Oor Willie

by Zoë Strachan

We’re All Doomed

by Dani Garavelli

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