Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 22 June 2017
The theatre element of the Edinburgh International Film Festival got off to a cracking start on Thursday, with This Story of Yours the first of three one-off rehearsed script readings in Traverse 1. In This Story of Yours, film director Gerard Johnson links up again with Peter Ferdinando – who stared in his films Tony (2009) and Hyena (2014) – to deliver a hard-hitting take on John Hopkins’ 1968 play about a cop who has killed a suspected paedophile.
It is particularly intriguing stuff, structured in such a way as to show two aspects of the aftermath first, before settling into a coruscating third act which depicts the original events. And what makes it so hard hitting is the lack of on-stage violence – everything happens in the audience’s head.
The play is getting on for half a century old and some of the setting and elements of motivation are clearly of the late sixties era. But its big themes speak of the dysfunctional Britain that has been contemporary in one way or another for all that time. Here are bent cops and men broken on the wheels of the system they serve.
Ferdinando plays the cop, Johnson, shuffling into his front room late at night in search of a large drink. He’s just back from the station where a suspect has collapsed and been taken to hospital by a colleague.
It’s all described in great detail by Benny Young, reading the stage directions. The cluttered space, a room over-filled with furniture, Johnson’s wife, Maureen (Polly Maberly), coming downstairs, the physical elements of the ensuing confrontation as Johnson tries to reveal what happened that evening.
It’s an argumentative, drunken shouting match that nudges at a violence that is only partly physical. He never quite gets to the nub of the matter, however, hinting at something he can never say, while Maureen tries, but fails to get him to open up to her.
There’s a detached force to Ferdinando’s performance. He continually breaks the rhythm of Hopkins’ script, never allowing it to become comfortable, so that there is constant sense of a faltering, failing conversation which is quoting itself. For all her own intensity, Maberly has a deliberate disinterest.
The next day, with investigating officer Cartwright, Johnson again tries to relate what happened in the interrogation room.
The violence is deeper beneath the surface but still there in Steven Mackintosh’s smooth Cartwright who has an underlying sense of power. He never overtly offers to collude with Johnson to cover-up the facts, but he certainly hints that such a thing is available.
The cracks in Johnson’s sanity which are revealed under Cartwright’s interrogation are opened up in the third act, where Cavan Clerkin gives an exceptional performance as Kenneth Baxter, a suspect brought in to the station on suspicion of raping a ten year-old girl.
Suddenly Ferdinando is right in there, darkly intense and disinterested by turns. Clerkin gives a complexly obfuscating performance which never allows you to form an opinion as to to Baxter’s guilt or innocence.
It is brilliantly done, all that has gone before serving to illuminate the twisted, dark conclusion. It is given an extra intensity by an abstract soundtrack (presumably by Gerard Johnson’s brother, Matt, although he is not credited) of dark bass hums and glistening tones building into a sinister underpinning of the reality.
The tale a cop broken by what they have witnessed has become a trope since this ground-breaking play. But as a story editor on Z Cars with 57 episodes of the police drama to his name, Hopkins knew his subject and how to break out of the conventions of the time.
Hopkins script was made into a movie – The Offence (1972) directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Sean Connery. Compared to this reading there is an overt violence and darkness to it, the scuzzy edges of the script are given a reality thanks to its use of visual clips of the horrors witnessed by Johnson.
The reading has its own edge, however. Thoroughly modern, thanks to the music soundscape, it is somewhere closer to its audience than a radio drama, but still using their own minds to create the reality.