Swindle and Death
Byre Theatre, St Andrews, Thu 19 & Fri 20 Jun, then touring until Sat 28 Jun
Great drama usually boils down to a battle between the rational and the irrational. It is the buttoned-up Pentheus fighting with the anarchic Dionysus. It is the authority of Claudius set against the madness of Hamlet. It’s the staid old generation in conflict with the angry young man.
Or, in playwright Peter Arnott’s vision, it is the pedantry of the Scottish Arts Council versus the free spirit of the theatre. Where the funding body wants to bring order, regulation and ‘best practice’, the artist strives for freedom, chaos and disruption. The bureaucrat finds solace in health-and-safety regulations, gender-equality targets and educational outreach programmes. The theatre-maker cares only for beauty and truth.
Even to bring order in the form of a review, Arnott would argue, is to tame the wild beast of imagination, killing the joy and missing the point. But tame it I must and, whatever the eccentric energy behind Swindle and Death, it is a comedy that doesn’t do justice to its ideas. The weakness is not in Arnott’s vision of a theatre industry forced to absorb the values of the funders – an argument that deserves to be heard – but in his failure to turn the conflict between art and bureaucracy into convincing drama.
The idea of the play, performed with heroic zest by the Mull Theatre company, is that an antiquated group of travelling players under the management of Eric Death and Brian Swindle has survived beneath the radar of state support or arts-page patronage for centuries, a situation intolerable to the control freaks at the SAC. When a young arts officer goes under cover as an actor with a view to bringing the company into line, she discovers to her cost why this is one company that, like art itself, never dies a death.
If you can accept the convoluted silliness of the Hammer House of Horror plotline, you’ll be harder pressed to tolerate the undigested passages from other plays and the tired old in-jokes about hammy acting. So many theatrical clichés not only diminish the comedy, but deny the political argument its force.