Daphne, or Hellfire

Writer: Isla Cowan

Director: Avigail Tlalim

Some might find familiarity in the tale of Apollo & Daphne, at the very least, a spark of recognition could occur with the idea of a young woman, a nymph, surrendering her flesh into bark, transforming into a tree to avoid Apollo’s amorous assault. Daphne, Or Hellfire is a new script from Isla Cowan, a rising Scottish playwright who aims to raise Daphne from the folly of mythology, instilling her with a core of feminism and tie the myth into our blindness towards climate change.

A young couple, hopelessly romantic, disgustingly so, Daphne has her career, as well as a passion for ecological studies, landscaping and promoting our ignorance of climate change. Apollo, dashing as ever, is a young marketing guru, who just so happens to be working with a housing development. A twisted parable for the 21st century, Cowan drags Daphne and Apollo from a world of Gods, acropolises and Ambrosia, into a realm of capitalism, property and rice-pudding.

We’ll say this, while other productions dance around the subject of our planets violation at the hands of everyday capitalism, Cowan’s work takes no interest in a soft approach. It’s a refreshingly volatile piece, which has intention behind the writing. There is no sugar coating or skirting the issue – Daphne, Or Hellfire is an impactful production which refuses to bow to ease of access, keeping its source material close to the vein of the story, while wrapping it in a powerful eco-feminist coating. In doing so, cracks occur in the overall neatness of the show.

An issue lies with Apollo’s depiction. Taking from his inspiration, Apollo is meant to come across as brash, boastful and encapsulating everyday attitudes surrounding the environment and waste. When in reality, Patrick Errington’s Apollo is just too damned nice. He comes across as borderline boastful, but all too mortal. Enabling a connection with the audience, who can sympathise with Apollo’s protestations at recycling, rejected gifts and pursuing a career, Errington is too human, too easy to understand with and at times, places Daphne as the frustrating of the two.

A powerhouse on stage, Cowan’s conviction in her performance is as strong as her writing. It takes time for a presence to build, but this is in line with the character as Daphne emerges from the shadow of her partner and father’s constant pressure. By the finale, Cowan’s physicality, seething with a suppressed, is impressive, intimidating and demonstrates her performance capability along with her writing. Daphne is no more a nymph of legend, she is a woman. Proud, determined but most importantly – human.

How fitting, that in the original mythos, it is an arrow of lead which begins Daphne’s downfall from fierce nymph, and here it is the lead-laden air we breathe in which Daphne chooses her form to be at one with the earth. Cowan’s writing is at most impressive here, subverting the narrative she adapts it from, taking Daphne’s cry for help and morphing it into the empowerment of femininity, tying it to her relationship with the earth. If anything, it’s painful to realise that a portion of the script is perhaps too sharp for a general audience, who most likely miss out on the nuances of these portions of the script.

Here, is both the heel and strength of Daphne, or Hellfire. It’s a masterful piece of poetic writing from a new playwright, which leans heavily on ambitions, risks alienating an audience. Cowan is a playwright that any in Scotland would do well to keep an eye too, channelling her very own hellfire to scorch the earth, her passion evident, her aggression tightened into her pen.

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol – The Royal Lyceum

Adapted and Directed by Tony Cownie

From the novel by Charles Dickens

Instilling our most cherished festive tale, with the façade of our fair city, should be a winning combination which sits alongside holly and ivy, wine and mistletoe or the Queen’s Speech and a power nap. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol places Ebenezer Scrooge, the original curmudgeon, on the cold, cobbled streets of Edinburgh, where he may bump into a few familiar faces. In recent years The Royal Lyceum has taken us to Neverland, to Wonderland and even into Narnia, but nothing feels quite as right as being on your doorstep.

The script, largely, perhaps too large, remains unchanged. With the inclusion of Greyfriars’ Bobby providing wonderfully inventive puppetry and a few gags to boot, the story of A Christmas Carol has been stuck onto the streets of Edinburgh. Crawford Logan is, an approachable Scrooge. Miserable as ever, there’s a distinct lack of animosity, as the performance is rich and has conviction, he’s an absolute fit for an Edinburgh Scrooge, but there’s a needed edge to Logan’s characterisation. We find it difficult to buy into his postulations of the workhouse, decreasing the surplus populations and the stories darker moments. Herein is the key issue you may find, Tony Cownie’s adaptation is just too sweet to stomach. 

An overlying view of the production’s intention, and one’s taste with dictate your enjoyment of An Edinburgh’s Christmas Carol. The calibre of the Lyceum’s Christmas productions is of tremendous standard, which subverts the usual paradigms we view with a text. Whether this is Peter Pan from the perspective of Wendy, or Alice in Wonderland, emphasising the macabre outlook, the psychosis of the drama and the absurdity. An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, by extension, is rather safe. There is nothing wholly offensive to the production, it is by and large an entertaining, festive production which warms the heart which beats beneath the chortling chest – but substantially removes itself from Dicken’s, or even Auld Reekie’s haunted past.

For first and foremost, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. And in quite the turn-about, it is neither the haunting apparition of Christmas Future, nor the nostalgic pains of Past which are the memorable performances, but rather the often-overlooked Ghost of Christmas Present, or rather ingeniously, The Ghost of Christmas Nouadays. Steven McNicoll is the quintessential being of mirthful jolly, with his red sack and ginger beard, Nouadays is the epitome of a Scottish Christmas. McNichol’s presence brings a needed vitality to the spirit realm, following an unmemorable Ghost of Langsyne, and the grim prospects of the Ghost of Ayont from Eva Traynor and Taqi Nazeer.

The ingenuity for this Spectre, Ayont, a headless drummer boy is colossal in imagination, though also in size. As his rhythmic beats echo into the night, this is the section of the tale we sadists enjoy. The warnings Scrooge endures, the fate which may befall the selfish man as he realises the suffering he has caused and the path to redemption. The prevalent issue of tone direction is at its most evident here, where the production still cannot grasp the haunting of Dicken’s classic with Cownie’s direction. As Scrooge, in what should be his final moments of crushing realisation against the sombre beat of a headless drummer, sits jarringly lost among uneven humour and awkward delivery.

This humour, which strays into Pantomime territory at times, dips from over-the-top, obvious and into misplaced. Choice gags, which should be hitting the rafters, fall short at the audiences’ feet as a few timing issues pervade. In tune with every ounce of the humour, running away with the loudest, most significant deliveries is Grant O’Rourke. His performance is distinctive, even against the choruses onstage. The moments are short but considerably steady in appearances. His chemistry with the puppets is fluid, responding to Edie Edmundson’s puppetry naturally and with exceptional effect.

Tiny Tim, as tiny, as can be, is a scale rod-puppet along with Bobby the dug, the very same of Greyfriars’ Kirkyard fame. Cownie has spliced Bobby rather well with the story, a sprinkling of flavour rather than a forceful injection of a narrative. It’s a connection with the community, and the craft of the puppets matches the technical levels of stage design.

What we have is a decent production, akin to those gifts we receive from aunts and uncles; pleasant, harmless, but fails to live up to expectations. Now, these are not the words of a Scrooge. The implication is that such tremendous talent, innovative design-work and ideas seem to have been watered down. It’s frustrating, given Tony Cownie’s strikingly sensational works with The Belle’s Stratagem and Thon Man Molière that An Edinburgh Christmas Carol fails to hit the right notes, there seems to have been pulled punches out of worry from Edinburgh’s most dreadful force – middle-class parents. 

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol runs at The Royal Lyecum until January 4th 2020. Tickets available here:

Photo Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

The Belle's Stratagem – The Royal Lyceum

Written by Hannah Cowley

Adaptated and directed by Tony Cowie

Originally conceived in the late seventeen hundreds, Hannah Cowley’s The Belle Stratagem is a sublime comedy of manners. Taking every pre- and ill-conceived notion one may have about a woman and giving it a good slap across the chops. Adapted for the Royal Lyceum we are no longer in Drury Lane London, but in New Town Georgian Edinburgh, and all the better for it.

Divided by two primary stories of love, Stratagem has a varied cast of unique players. Our first is of a young well-to-do lassie (Angela Hardie), fallen madly in love with her returning betrothed. His tastes, however, have been spoiled by those most wretched of temptresses: European Women. If she cannot claim his love, she will claim his passionate hatred. Our other tale is that of newly married Lady Touchwood, whose snivelling pathetic husband is terrified of her discovering city life. Stitched together through similar circles, both women become entangled in strategies to open the eyes of the men around them. 

The beauty of Stratagem is found in its humour. An equal split between the onstage talent, and the witty adaptation of Tony Cownie. Any who were lucky enough to view a Lyceum’s previous production Thon Man Moliere know of Cownie’s ability to draw the best from his cast. This production’s comedy is derived from so many layers it’s exceptional: physical, lyrical, cultural and moving from outrageously farcical to incredulously subtle. O’Rourke, McNicoll and Nicola Roy thieving the best lines of the night. It is so accessible due to this. Many see a period comedy, written by and about women at the Lyceum as potentially middle class or too clever. This couldn’t be further from the truth; The Belle’s Stratagem is theatre crafted for everyone.

The entire male cast, particularly Richard Conlon, Grant O’Rourke and Steven McNicoll, play at least one character with a whiff of misogyny to them. Yet, we still roar at their performances. This is a mark of irrefutable skill. An ever-present issue, long outstaying its welcome is both the subject of constant ridicule but still highlighted. Stratagem never slams anything into the audiences’ face, instead, it seeks to entertain, providing insight. Its feminine resistance is represented in all forms and across generations. It’s cutting, subversive, and jovial.

There’s something about the Scottish angle which just works for The Belle’s Stratagem. The multitude of dialects heightens the delivery, particularly from Pauline Knowles and Roy. The decision to localise it is genius, never feeling like a cheap ploy even when references are dropped without subtlety. There are enough for locals, tourists and especially history buffs.

The Lyceum brands itself with; ‘Theatre Made in Edinburgh‘, with good reason. The undeniable savvy of creators in this city is something to boast about. It has been over two hundred years and The Belle’s Stratagem is still relevant. Its indirect commentary on the folly of men and the social placement of woman is still needed. One day productions such as this will no longer be written, for all the right reasons. For now, we have pieces like this to laugh, share and enjoy.

Review originally published for Reviews Hub: https://www.thereviewshub.com/the-belles-stratagem-royal-lyceum-theatre-edinburgh/