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.

Still No Idea – Traverse Theatre

Written by Lisa Hammond, Rachel Spence & Lee Simpson

Directed by Lee Simpson

Writer and performer Lisa Hammond joins fellow creator Rachael Spence in looking to unravel a key issue facing the industry today. While attempts to increase representation and diversity deserve praise, what happens when we seek to change the world… and nothing changes?

The duo’s performance is invigorating and marvellously energetic, as their attempts to establish some semblance of what sort of show to create often sees them boxed into the same corners over and over. In asking the public what sort of show the two of them would appear in, it’s humorous to hear about Hammond’s ‘cheeky face’ and watch as Spence launches into imaginative situations the public toss to her, even if they do run longer than necessary.

Affairs, spy dramas, haunted houses and, well, then there’s Hammond. It appears, without malice, that there just isn’t room for her in these stories. Here, the production takes a pointed turn towards becoming an openly honest piece on disabled performers. It tackles day-to-day invisibility of disability, or a hypersensitivity which is somehow worse. 

As Spence leads an outlandish game of public charades, Hammond tackles ‘inclusion porn’, plucking comments from interviews, twisting what the public isn’t saying into a tangible and emotive stance. Both performers have fierce stage presence, Hammond especially has a projection and timing to hold the court with ease.

When the names of those fatally affected by benefit cuts, the DWP’s statistics of those found ‘fit for work’ scroll by, the laughter dies away. These are names of individuals who found it difficult to cope; Hammond, Spence and Lee Simpson’s script becomes brutal, yet requires no fabrication, simply the facts.

Balancing this heartache with a welcoming, family-like presence, Hammond and Spence are delightful to watch. Still No Idea is a fascinating interrogation of the creative process. But more than this, it’s a precise arrow into mainstream media attitudes towards not only those with disabilities, but towards single mothers and other marketable ‘sob stories’.

It leaves its audience with the message that if the world won’t respond to our attempts to change it, we’ll just have to make our own narratives.

Review originally published for The Skinny: https://www.theskinny.co.uk/theatre/shows/reviews/still-no-idea-traverse-theatre-edinburgh

Photo credit – Camila Greenwell

The Stornoway Way – The Studio, Festival Theatre

Written by Kevin MacNeil

Directed by Matthew Zajac

Touring Scotland, tickets available from Dog Star Theatre: http://www.dogstartheatre.co.uk/the-stornoway-way.html

Endlessly lyrical, Kevin MacNeil’s take on his best-selling novel lends itself to the musical format well. With each song have originality in composition, with a few notable exceptions standing out as clear favourites. To hear Gaelic sung in a natural form, with new arrangements, is a fitting match for the production. Encouraging a rejuvenation with a language by infusing it’s archaic, island tones with fresh lyricism. Naomi Stiratt, Chloe Ann-Tyler and Rachel Kennedy’s vocals, particularly in Gaelic, are a staunch reason for The Stornoway Way’s moderate success.

Awash with colourful characters, we first open on the cold, brisk blue Isle of Lewis. With a drink rich community, everyday life centres on the pursuits of merriment, ‘chicken’, and a further chaser to follow the first one. Chicken, a term for Famous Grouse Whiskey, is a lifeblood for the islanders. It’s a warming agent, a talking point for communities, and as the inhabitants gather to sing, talk life and, well, you guessed it – drink, it feels as though The Stornoway Way takes from Local Hero on its opening up of the outer Hebrides and Isles of Scotland. In reality, it plunges focus onto a singular, not very likeable, but roguishly charming hero – Roman.

Dreamer, romanticist, narcissist, and all around, a bit of an arse. Roman is the guy many would envy, charismatic with his deliberately misleading Gaelic, terrific vocals courtesy of gender-bending cast member Stirrat, but his reliance on a liquid crutch is one all too familiar. Forever patient, friend Eilidh is understandable in her frustrations with helping Roman achieve his dream by travelling to Edinburgh to record an album, only to be abandoned in return.

Maintaining a focus on Roman’s downward spiral into depression, fuelled by his love of the dram, the stage adaptation also attempts to divert a small amount of attention away. Aiming to secure further character development, as well as shoehorn in additional songs, it’s a double-edged premise. For the occasional character, such as Eva, it brings biting commentary and gripping drama, which was sorely lacking. Unfortunately, other character decisions fail to add much, eking into the length of the show which stretches itself excessively.

Roman’s characterisation fails in one key element, and it has nothing to do with performer Stiratt, who garners all she can. The issue is that the character’s motivations, while identifiable in people we encounter in day to day lives, are weak. The isolation of an island community isn’t built enough to offer a reason to extend sympathy. Psychologically, the darkening clouds surround Roman, hastening his toxic masculinity, but it isn’t until his argument with Eva where we get a sense of the self-obsessive, self-destructive manipulation he is capable of. Both Stiratt and Ann-Tyler are giving out a tremendous amount more than the script offers. Building to the keenest performance with Ann-Tyler’s broken, tired strumming’s of the guitar, lamenting her good intentions.

Its dramaturgy fails to fully capture its intention, shifting focus to the big city for a fish out of water narrative, it leaves behind an island setting – wonderfully designed, built as an aetherial, solitary space. Multi-purpose, lit wonderfully, its use as various locations is inventive, shifting from Edinburgh pub, Island chapel or ocean waves. Setting for the final scene, a remnant of what the entire production should have shifted towards, an amalgam of desperation, yet freedom is a touching moment.

Shifting to the stage, The Stornoway Way’s attempts at meta-commentary on theatrical tropes are a welcome addition, but one too many waters the joke. It reduces the narrative to contextualisation, bordering on panto territory, explaining far beyond what is required. It so desperately, valiantly wants to illustrate the dangers of alcohol’s seductive appeal, that it disconnects from the story to pursue this venture. Scatterings of investible songs, with some powerful performances, make MacNeil’s stage adaptation a venture worthy of pursuing, no doubt improving with time.