How many stories can a simple map hold?
This is the question we’re invited to answer this week with Alabaster Productions’ revival of I Was a Beautiful Day at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, arriving after their recent run at the Finborough Theatre. The play was commissioned in 2005 by the Traverse to mark the opening of Stornoway’s An Lanntair Arts Centre, and was clearly a labour of love for Lewis-born writer Iain Finlay MacLeod who has been described as one of Scotland’s most prolific Gaelic playwrights.
Dan, played by Robert Willox, is a Gulf War veteran discharged after suffering shell-shock. He has locked himself away in hospital by his own volition. An islander exiled from his native Lewis, we see him battle demons that haunt him not only from his time in Iraq, but stretching right back to a troubled past on the island. He expresses himself through art, using his love of the land and sea to escape in to fantasy, capturing the island as he sees it in his mind’s eye; the beautiful Western Isle lilt of his accent setting an almost musical background to the piece as he recites the Gaelic place names of his birthplace.
Lube, a Glaswegian patient with his own problems, literally bursts in to Dan’s room upsetting the calm he has instilled for himself. Martin McCormick has shown us his darker side in performances such as The Ching Room at the Citizens Theatre and Vox Motus’s Bright Black, but here we see him bring a softer, almost subtle portrayal of the every-man Scot to the role of Lube as he edges towards inevitable breakdown. The state of his mental health is sensitively portrayed in a manner that supports the idea that any one of us may be afflicted, without resorting to stereotypical aggression or angst – a real credit to Beckie Mills’ direction.
We are moved forward by the arrival of Anne, a cartographer from the Ordnance Survey who has been charged with mapping Dan’s home, the Isle of Lewis. She is interested in his knowledge of the island’s places and names, bringing a new lease of life to the broken man as she befriends him and encourages him to help with her work. Kirsty Stuart creates a very natural, very likeable Anne, and as the character becomes almost a counsellor-type figure she develops great apathy with Willox’s Dan.
The play does seem to dip part way; the humour dries slightly and the plot seems to jar to the point that you’re not quite sure which, if any, of the sub-plots will come to the fore. Several strands are ultimately left unresolved – but this is not overall to the detriment of the piece. We are quite suddenly presented with a twist, an escape in to an element of pure fantasy that seems to embody MacLeod’s own native experience of Lewis. We are transported with Dan and Anne to Lewis as they step in to a gigantic map of the island, the features and place names from Dan’s mind intact, his final monologue painting a vision of an unblemished Scotland that will stay with the audience long after the final bows.
A simple and highly effective design by Anna Bliss Scully and lighting created by Richard Howell perfectly frame the action, whilst Mills’ creative use of the Tron’s entire playing space in an almost Brook-like fashion encourages the audience to truly open their imagination.
I Was a Beautiful Day runs at the Tron Theatre until Saturday 17th April. Booking via the website.
This review was written by one of our young writers Kris, who is based in Scotland. To read more from Kris, see his website here.