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The Pearlfisher
Phil Howard's last play as artistic director of the Traverse Theatre is watchable but often feels like an exercise in cliché
Monday, 05 November, 2007 | 01:53
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Pearlfisher
Credit: Richard Campbell

It is 1948, and at a young age village-girl Jess flees the prying eyes of society to join a travelling pearlfisher named Ali.

She embarks for a life on the road after bearing a child fathered by her jealous lover, Roderick, who she unintentionally kills. The action subsequently skips forward to 2007, picking up the trail of Jess’ granddaughter Jessie and following her struggle to survive on a modern caravan site with her feckless partner Alec. Through the two female characters, The Pearlfisher reveals how a grandmother’s actions affected the future of her descendents and examines what it means to be a traveller and an outcast.

Philip Howard’s parting production as director of the Traverse theatre is a meditation on the concept of Scotland, past and present, but remains an attempt at a romanctic epic about the perseverance of mankind and the human – in particular, the Scottish – spirit.

While the story itself – presented through a haze of gauze as a half-remembered, fuzzy folk-tale – is touching, it never reaches the depth of insight or fullness of character that might be expected from such a partnership. Elspeth Brodie as both Jess and Jessie is instantly engaging, however some of the other characters appear to exist solely as demonstrative devices of various Scottish ways of life, or more general representatives of 'the outsider,' examples of which being the horse-trader and fellow traveller in the first act or the Iranian political refugee in the second. They distract from a narrative which could be allowed much more flux.

Iain F MacLeod’s often clumsy script gives the play a disjointed feel, which is not helped by alienating staging decisions: while the turfed stage complete with river provides an emotive setting for the action, the placement of the offstage characters around the stage and the occasional spotlighting suggests a Talking Heads mode of performance which is entirely inapplicable. Although moving in places, The Pearlfisher suffers from a lack of depth that makes it feel more like an exploration of cliché rather than the intended exercise in storytelling.

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