An unflinchingly claustrophobic production with bold performances and muscular dialogue
There’s a knowing nod to Samuel Beckett in Martin Travers’ Roman Bridge, the first full production in the National Theatre of Scotland’s Reveal 2012 season. The main protagonists are a pair of ragged-trousered hobos, who cling to each other, eat, sleep, sing, argue, swap Biblical quotations and even pass around a bowler hat, which becomes a symbol of ownership and power.
But where Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon found only ‘terrible silence’ in their endless wait, Travers’ characters have a clear sense of purpose: to steer well clear of anyone with ‘the cough’, a contagious and fatal lung disease plaguing the Lanarkshire countryside. Andrew (John Kielty) is the senior partner here, compassionate and righteous but proprietary about his bridge, while hard-nosed Rab (Ryan Fletcher) obsesses over a fistful of tattered maps rescued from a fire and dreams of making his fortune in America.
Into this mismatched but symbiotic partnership comes Cath (Helen Mallon), a widowed mother with a dying baby, who has been brought to the bridge by her mentor, Craw (a bold performance from Myra McFadyen). Ravaged by experience and the cough, Craw sees in her estranged son Andrew a possible route out of hardship for her young friend.
In its single setting and real-time action, there’s an unflinching claustrophobia about Amanda Gaughan’s production that’s only intermittently leavened by mentions in the text of the world outside the confines of the bridge, the villages ravaged by plague and the new world Rab believes will bring his fortune. While the setting is ostensibly late 19th-century, Travers’ depiction of dispossessed people imbuing the very little that they have with huge symbolic importance is timeless. The three leads dynamically portray the love triangle that unfolds between Cath, Andrew and Rab. But the greatest pleasure is Travers’ muscular dialogue, at once flinty and naturalistic and richly lyrical, which marks him out as a new voice to relish in the future.
Roman Bridge is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 12 May.