Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti – Lyceum Theatre

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

An Evening with Elaine C. Smith – Festival Theatre

Warm-up Act by Johnny Mac

There are a few things which capture the richness of Scottish culture, art and theatre quite like actress, comedian, and all-around character that is Elaine C. Smith. Scotland’s auntie, there’s no better way to spend an evening than in the company of an entertainer who is just that – family. From The Steamie right through to Two Doors Down, Smith has been keeping Scottish smiles going through it all, and she has no intentions of stopping.

Warming us up, the home-grown talents of Johnny Mac offer a comforting jovialness to the evening, but while his passion may lie in ‘silly’ jokes, there’s a silver tongue lashing around. There’s a timeless quality to Mac’s set, striving not to rely on easily punchable targets in politics or fame, instead, he continues a familial feel. These are the sort of gags you share with your cousins or granny when she’d clout you round the ear if you swore. His work with Smith in the panto makes him a fitting warm-up act, drawing fire at the various regions of Scotland with pantomime mirth.

The glittering main event, naturally gifted, Smith is quite at home on the stage, treating it like the front room, stopping for a chat, regaling us the odd anecdote of her career – wedging them around honest humour which provides more than simple laughter. A cosy evening, a chance not only for Smith to entertain the audience, but to express her thanks for their continuing support.

In this age of comedy, it takes a great deal for a comedian to carry off jokes which centre around the archaic notions of ‘men and women’, and yet, Smith is capable of keeping these alive. Not only this, current with insight on the changing dynamics of gender, Smith touches on her championing attitudes for woman across Scotland. Complete with a stirring rally cry for those of us in an industry where, things are never easy, especially for women, and that the illusion of being handed fame on a platter may seem tempting, but soon the meal grows cold.

Never forget – Smith has pipes. It’s no secret, star of the Susan Boyle musical I Dreamed a Dream, Smith has taken to the roles of Miss Hannigan, Betty in Fat Friends and a staple of Glasgow and Aberdeen’s pantomime history. This evening, however, any ideas of a comedic singer, with vaudeville roots are displaced as Smith delivers a tingling rendition of I Will Survive, alongside a special guest. Marvellous control, it takes a tremendous restraint to equalise tempo with an operatic performer – without straining to override the performance, Smith blends the harmonies.

Not only here for the comedy, we’re also after a right good gab. It wouldn’t be an evening with if we didn’t have a few insights into the woman behind the performances. Regrettably, rather than taking live questions from the audience, Smith is instead prompted with a selection of social media questions. The answers we receive are enlightening, enjoyable, but have an air of rehearsal. With such a wit, it’s a shame Smith isn’t able to cut loose and fire back into the crowd who no doubt have a few hidden gems among them.

Kindly, Elaine offers translations for the awfy posh folk of Edinburgh, the mark of a true Lady. It’s the smallest of punches like these, that offer a sense of playful welcoming. Smith is a Scottish woman through and through. West coast born, as one of the few Glaswegians who loves Edinburgh, Smith is a representative of Scotland. All of Scotland. No matter if you’re a Dundonian, Teuchter, Buddie, Fifer or an unfortunate Aberdonian, Elaine C. Smith is a treasure we all share.

An Evening with Elaine C. Smith was performed at The Festival Theatre, Edinburgh.