Judging by the curtained stage at the back, Clydebank Town Hall was envisioned as a place suitable for theatre productions, but standards change and the touring group who put on The Cause of Thunder did not consider the proscenium stage serviceable for a show like theirs, which invites intimacy, not distance.
The acoustics in the large, cavernous hall are not ideal, and there is no lighting rig or raked seating. These are challenges once faced routinely by companies like 7:84, Wildcat and Borderline when they took their productions to small, often improvised, venues the length and breadth of the country, but these days are gone.
The visiting group with Chris Dolan’s new play erected a slightly raised platform close to the front row as an ad hoc performing space. Two small tables and chairs and a bar suggest a pub. A more or less impromptu meeting of friends seems about to take place and since there is no thought of a theatrical fourth wall, the audience becomes the fellow drinkers and listeners as a tale is told. That is not to say that the technical team, David Hayman Jr as director and Fraser Milroy as technical manager, dispense with all theatrical devices. They have brought their own sound effects, so when Bob Cunningham makes his entrance, he does not slouch in but strides in to the accompaniment of peals of thunder, sounds which will ring out to striking melodramatic effect in the course of the performance.
The first words spoken by Bob, ‘Blow, winds, crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!’ could be the challenge to the elements issued by King Lear, dethroned and forsaken, buffeted by wind and rain on the moor. Is this man the Lear of the shipyards, racked by inner rage, abandoned and uncomprehending? Or is he just soaking wet?
Bob was last seen three years ago when the same team of writer Chris Dolan and actor David Hayman produced an earlier monologue, The Pitiless Storm. The storm then turned out to be more pitiless than they expected, for the spirit of that play was optimistic and exhilarating, since it was set in the days immediately preceding the referendum which all three, writer, actor and character were convinced would lead to independence. The final production took place the night before the vote and Bob’s closing line had a grand rhetorical flourish, ‘This is our Ascension Day!’ History took a different turn. The feet of all three were firmly planted in the clouds that night, but they were back on earth the following day.
On that night, Bob was also facing the dilemma of whether or not to accept an OBE offered to him for his services to trade unionism. It was hardly a choice for such a man. The royal letter was shown to the audience before being torn contemptuously apart. In the new work, which is not precisely a sequel but an updating on the life of the same man, he has in his pocket a different kind of missive, one offering him terms for retirement.
Bob is aware he is in a ‘different universe’ compared to the hours before the ‘Big Day’, which was ruined because ‘some bastards voted No’. His feeling is that he is living in a world which is post-something – post-referendum, post-truth, post-hope, while he himself is post-work, work which may have been grinding and hard but which conferred meaning on his life. Retirement can mean different things. It could mean freedom, new opportunities, new adventures, new horizons. It could also mean losing bearings, and an exit from the market-place which is the fundamental provider of value in late capitalist society. It could mean aimlessness or personal transformation and even conversion. He is not sure.
In character and outlook, there is something in Bob which recalls those strong, angry, unanchored men who people the fiction of the late William McIlvanney. In any other culture he would be an unlikely hero, but he is a common type here. Fundamentally a good man, whose instincts are sound and humane, whose imagination has not atrophied, who has not lost the capacity for wonder, he is essentially bewildered. Something has gone wrong. Some kind of secular original sin has been committed – and Dolan is skilled in the subtle, unobtrusive use of semi-religious images – but he is not sure where or by whom, or what he can do about it.
The year 2014 was, in his view, pivotal for the man and the society in which he has his being. Real decisions are taken elsewhere, and that is the basis of his rage against the outcome of that year’s referendum. He is upset at the result of both referendums, but especially The referendum. David Hayman must be the only actor who can actually speak in italics. Had it gone differently, decisions would have been open, accountable, visible, reversible, but the loss means that Bob and his kind are condemned to live in a new Plato’s cave, aware that events are unfolding outside, but unable to influence or even fully understand them. Of course, there are references, equally bitter ones, to the later referendum, when the three musketeers morphed into the three Brexiteers, Asshole, Podger and Take-The-Piss. ‘The Brexit hokey-pokey.’
He has no great conceit of himself, but Bob is today a representative man. Pseudo-psychologists would diagnose a severe case of low self-image, but they would be mistaken. He is clear about his place in life, and does not shy away: ‘Bob Cunningham. Born Glasgow. Worked most of his life for the Union. Probably die Glasgow. End of.’ But it is not, or should not be, the end. He is not, and knows he is not, ‘one of the chosen’, so his plight cannot be endowed with the status of tragedy, but Chris Dolan is masterly in allowing the tragic to be glimpsed in the commonplace and in forging a comic tone which endows the man with pathos as well as self-deprecating humour. Bob could be the twin of Arthur Miller’s salesman.
He is not merely a political animal, but he has not made any great success of his private life either. The monologue is of its nature introspective, so his wife Ethel, who had left him, is not able to speak in her own right. Bob carries with him a letter she had written after leaving him, but its tenderness only heightens the mystery of why the couple split. I cannot help regarding this aspect as a weakness in the writing. Bob’s pain is raw, deeply felt and movingly expressed, but while his regret at his loneliness and the failure of his marriage is deep, the emotional life of the couple is under-written. Bob has no bilious words for Ethel, but since there is no two-sided probing of the shipwreck and no assumption of responsibility by Bob, this dimension lacks the depths it might have had.
He is not a man without qualities, but he is a very Scottish type, the irrelevant man, the marginal man. From his position on the side lines, he observes day-to-day life as well as political reality. Not all actors, no matter how skilled or experienced, are equal to the challenge of the one-man show, but Hayman gives a virtuoso performance as he not only presents the full gamut of emotions – melancholic, disillusioned, pained, bemused, amused – that rack this lonely man, but shifts effortlessly from the whimsical to the passionate, from the droll recollection to the committed reflection. He does not bring multitudes onto the stage but he adopts a multiplicity of guises to make the stage seem peopled by ghosts and memories.
The personal is not the political but the two overlap, particularly in the stories that are interspersed in the monologue. The gruel of realism is tempered by the charm of the whimsical, odd tales that are naturally introduced into the narrative but which have the piquancy of fable. Ethel had been a story-teller, and the stories scattered in the text allow it to lift off, but not towards a sugar-candy, parallel Elfland totally divorced from the world they inhabit. Nobody lives happily ever after. Bob recalls Ethel talking of two girls, Nadjme and Amber, who were like twins, ‘the Sun and the Moon’. When together, they were surrounded by voices or whispers which transported them to another dimension which, Nadjme said, was inhabited by angels and jinns. Amber began to think that at night she could fly where she wished, and Ethel used this experience to persuade the more prosaic Bob that there is an unseen world crowded with such delicate creatures, but the enchanted, Arabian Nights world cannot endure. The lights that flash are letter bombs and the whispers are transformed into racist chants which drive Nadjme and her family from the city. The exotic turns brutal.
And Bob sees ugliness all around, in the treatment of immigrants, in the neglect of old folk, in the philosophy which runs down the NHS, and in the crushing of hopes of those among the left-behind who unexpectedly awaken to the beauty of daffodils and wonder why they are planted in the middle of motorways and not at the side of streets. He is growing old, and fearful of spending his closing days as a ‘coffin-dodger’. Pessimism and optimism are at odds and, as in the earlier monologue, he finds some desperate hope in a quasi-religious vision. He and his wife had seen a depiction of the Resurrection of the Dead and Judgement Day, not in Tuscany or Provence but, somewhat implausibly, in Port Glasgow. In his idiosyncratic, apocalyptic and desperately optimistic interpretation, the painting is a glimpse of the next rebellion, when men and women cling to each other and ‘refuse to disappear’. Thunder is needed at that point.
Like Bob, Dolan is a man who takes things too seriously, and only in English could that be taken as a rebuke or a jeer. They both take Scotland seriously, and ponder its condition and its future. This is a thoughtful, deeply felt and deeply moving, engrossing work. It will not transfer to the West End, and is not likely to be seen in Paris or Milan, but its production, and the zeal behind it, is an important sign of the vitality of Scottish theatre in these dark days.