Touring – reviewed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
How to Act, the National Theatre of Scotland’s acclaimed production, is intriguingly named. There are shades of meaning behind that phrase, dealing with the expectations of society as well as the actor’s craft – coupled with a hint of know-it-all prescription.
This reflects what is provided by Graham Eatough’s play – there are several layers, dealing with the apparently elusive nature of truth, and the insidious nature of the abuse of institutional power.
Presented to great acclaim at Summerhall at last year’s Fringe and now touring, it takes the form of an acting ‘masterclass’ from renowned director Anthony Nicholl (Robert Goodale), with Jade Ogugua as Nigerian-born Londoner and aspiring actor Promise.
It is far from being as cosily meta-theatrical and as potentially annoying as this sounds (although there are some interesting points made about the strengths and weaknesses of theatrical forms and processes). Instead, it is more of a vehicle for observations on gender politics, colonialism and exploitation in all its forms.
Indeed, developments since the play’s premiere have made some of it even more worryingly topical. It is difficult to go into exactly why this is without giving away much of what happens – although, to be honest, the twist in the plot is a shade predictable and in many ways the least interesting thing about the play.
Instead, it is the ideas fizzing out that truly impress, all the more so for the lack of didacticism and easy answers, and the stern refusal to give audiences an easy way out.
The two performers are utterly mesmeric. Goodale’s smug, overly modest representation of unchecked white male privilege is utterly convincing, and nuanced enough to react to the play’s revelations believably. Ogugua provides an equally complex characterisation, starting out as an eager, slightly perplexed drama student, but coping equally well with the tales of colonial and personal appropriation that start to emerge.
The staging is nigh-on-perfect – beautifully limpid but adding just the right degree of artifice. The direction, by former Suspect Culture artistic director Eatough himself, is wonderfully served by Karen Bryce’s lighting and E J Boyle’s movement direction in particular.
It does not all work – the elements of the story told in flashback do not quite sit as naturally as they might. This is wholly forgivable, however, in so far as they are presented almost as a chorus commenting on the action. This is not the only thing that harks back to the earliest days of the Western theatrical tradition.
The whole piece is redolent of Greek tragedy in its suggestion that responsibility is both an individual and a collective matter. Tragic convention also supplies the fatal inevitability about events that explains why the supposed plot twist is nothing of the sort.
The character of Nicholl begins the evening by saying that theatre is dying, and the play that follows certainly does touch on the very palpable limits of the theatrical experience. However, it also reminds us the massive possibilities live theatre has always contained – in this case for the kind of thought-provoking, potentially troubling experience few other media can hope to provide.