Written by Bertold Brecht
Adapted by Denise Mina
Directed by Murat Daltaban
“Never accept charity instead of your rights” – this exceptionally powerful excerpt from Denise Mina’s adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s socialist satire had the potential to solidify a lacerating piece of Scottish theatre but instead sits as the dribbles of a once splendid cocktail, knocked to the floor.
We are no longer following an aristocrat in Finland, no, far from it – we’re right on our back doorstep. With Scotland’s cherished Elaine C. Smith taking the gender-switch role of Mrs Puntila, the drunken Scottish landowner who adores one thing above a drink – a nightcap. Her faithful chauffer Matti, the quintessentially clever sober in this master-servant comedy could potentially find himself betrothed to Puntila’s daughter Eva, in place of her fiancé the Attache.
Updating this socialist satire, Mina desires to paint Mrs Puntilla as the lush in our lives, usually an ‘aunt’, who has no relation to us whatsoever. Ideally, Puntilla should be the Jekyll & Hyde, the opportunistic split-self, but Murat Daltaban’s interpretation of Smith’s character casts too wide a net. In reality, the distinction between the bitter, callous and cold (sober) Puntilla isn’t discernible from the inebriate. Unengaging, Smith feels stagnant throughout much of the production, disjointed from the room. Largely down to Daltaban’s direction, structure seems devoid for the most part, scenes rolling into the other, broken by musical introductions. Interludes of sorts, which become indecipherable in a cauldron of noise, poor audio quality and repetitious scoring which tunes the ears out.
Who does make a positive impression is Lyceum favourite Steven McNicoll. Instantly a connection forges with driver Matti, it’s difficult not to fall for his witty cynicism or deft control of the stage. Bouncingly lyrical in attitude, McNicoll achieves the only firm laughs this evening, which is still a stretch. A production of extremes, McNicoll sells the mood but sits in stark contrast to the deep-rooted gravity of the nihilistic social injustice performances. The two extremes find no correlation, the humour isn’t landing, which costs earnest tonal changes to feel abrupt, uncertain and, while powerful, merely skin deep.
And this is precisely where Brecht’s original text understood the exaggeration, the utmost extreme, of farcical nonsense. The satire has two attacks – a precise scalpel, or a blundering hammer. Uncomfortably alienating, Mina’s adaptation attempts to spin the plates, making peculiar decisions across the board. Principally, the script adaptations have merit, especially with Scot’s language, but characterisation falls flat, Joanne McGuiness never managing more than a furrowed brow of confusion, until a burst of aggression toward the Act 2 closing.
It all comes too late, as the satire dies, the partygoers are shuffling to their feet, booking taxis and hunting for the nearest chippy. They’re done, ready to go home, and the brutally biting political commentary hits, but not nearly as viscerally as it ought. Stood, a self-proclaimed owner of the Scottish lands, boozed up and arrogant, Puntilla rides through the groaning feast below, Flower of Scotland blaring, a symbol of the aristocracy who preach the beauty of the land they violate. That line, on how charity isn’t an excuse to ignore basic rights, is perhaps one of the sincerest and accurate sentences theatre will utter this year, and while you may forget much of this production, do not forget these examples of Mina’s conceptual ability.
It is here, atop the moving staircase, where Tom piper’s design work once again elevates a production, this time keeping it from rock bottom. Reflecting the comedy of profession era, noted in the large dog masks as the production opens, Piper’s design is stripped back. A bare-bones set, relying on the raw metal and woodwork to communicate purpose, this is a skeleton of a stage where the cast are its muscle – and the gym was sorely needed. It feels vast, hollow, ravaged, which should (the operative word here) be symbolic of the promises made by Puntila, but it just feels empty.
A fizz without bubbles, a gin without lime, Mrs Puntilla and Her Man Matti has vision, intent and talent, which are put to squander. Dull satire damages an entire production, one which bolsters such incredible statements and diverse talent. Mina’s adaptation has teeth, razor blades protruding from the gums, but these are brandished, rather than used. Instead, a gentle gnawing around thick, juicy satire on social class is left unscathed, and lacking humour.
Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatred until March 21st. Tickets are available from: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/mrs-puntila-and-her-man-matti
Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic