Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – until 27 June 2015
The National Theatre of Scotland’s adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat has a righteous fury, combined with a drive born out of cleverly harnessed technology and a tight ensemble.
However, it does not always seem sure of itself and as a result is a curiosity rather than a convincing piece of theatre. Taking a stress-induced holiday from her job in an unspecified ‘North’, Lise travels to Naples, apparently seeking romance. It is not much of a spoiler to say she will end up murdered, as we are told this very early on. Instead the focus is on how and why this will happen.
The original novel is famously ambiguous and elusive, which are not qualities that are easy to evoke on stage. Lise’s character is constantly stressed as being unfathomable, and her motivations unknowable – which is always going to be awkward when Morven Christie’s convincing performance lays bare so much of her emotional interior. Adopting different personas in an attempt to wrest control of situations, Lise remains a figure who is difficult to get a handle on, but cannot ever be the ambiguous, almost absent figure that can be achieved in prose.
Instead, the atmosphere is strangely inconsistent, as the gripping tension necessary for a true thriller is in conflict with the themes of the piece. Unlike the source, there seems to be no possibility of the play becoming an analysis of the detective form as much as an example of it, but much of the discussion of misogyny, the ‘male gaze’ and the role of women as victims in fiction remains.
This surfaces in a variety of ways, some more successful than others. There is a definite inventiveness to Laurie Sansom’s staging, symbolised by the clever use of the transparent wall familiar from police procedurals. Ana Ines Jabares Pita’s video design, using cameras to screen live footage of characters, certainly has impact and relevance; a character shouting ‘escalator’ while shining a light up the skirt of a woman on a step ladder is less successful and considerably less sensible.
Gabriel Quigley (on screen) and Morven Christie. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Many of the other characters tend towards the sketchy, despite the whole-hearted efforts of the company. Ivan Castiglione and Andrea Volpetti’s lecherous mechanics seem less than real, while Ryan Fletcher’s sweatily creepy macrobiotics buff Bill is energetic but a shade cartoonish. Michael Thomson’s Richard is almost spookily underdeveloped.
The effect may very well be to show how every man Lise encounters is capable of her murder, but dramatically the result is unsatisfactory. The female members of the company fare better; Gabriel Quigley is smoothly versatile, while Sheila Reid’s huge talent and experience shines through when it is her face on the huge screen.
The strength of the ensemble comes when they are interacting in smaller roles or combining to create an atmosphere. This is best demonstrated in the opening sequence in Lise’s office, where Pita’s set, Chris Davey’s gloomy lighting and the insistent electronic burping of Philip Pinsky’s sound conjure up oppression and dread.
Such success is not always sustained. This is exemplified by the huge, blank clock in the first scene, that conjures up a timeless, nameless limbo, then being used more prosaically to show the times of later scenes – times that are also intoned portentously in case we can’t see it.
This inclination to tell us what is already on show is symptomatic of a production that does not quite seem to know whether it is a literary adaptation or a theatrical thriller. As a result, it does not convince as either. Too often the impact comes from the clever and modern staging, which in itself is somewhat at odds with the setting staying resolutely around 1970, rather than from the play.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal to commend. The theatrical and moral energy may be unfocused, but are certainly abundant, with fury and terror leaching out with an intensity that is almost hateful at times, aided considerably by running right through with no interval. Spark’s needlepoint satire, more nasty than playful, also still manages to surface occasionally, adding to a whole that is never comfortable but remains darkly involving.
Running time 1 hour 35 mins (no interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street EH3 9AX
Saturday 13 to Saturday 27 June 2015
Tuesdays to Saturdays: 7.30 pm, Weds, Sat matinees: 2.00 pm
Details and tickets: http://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/the-drivers-seat
Tramway, 25 Albert Drive, Glasgow, G41 2PE1
Thursday 2 – Saturday 4 July 2015Thurs to Sat: 7.30pm; Sat matinee: 3.00pm.
Details and tickets: http://www.tramway.org/events/Pages/The-Drivers-Seat.aspx
NTS website: www.nationaltheatrescotland.com
Buy the original 1970 novella: