A Word with Dr Johnson

October 30, 2015 | By | 1 Reply More

★★★☆☆     Articulate

Traverse Theatre: Tue 27 – Sat 31 Oct 2015
Review by Thom Dibdin

Words wrap around and claw away at the heart of this week’s excellent Play Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre at the Traverse, the last in the current season.

Words define us, giving shape to our opinions. So that those who define our words have great hold over us; their definitions of our language shape our thoughts.

Mark McDonnell. Photo: Leslie Black

Mark McDonnell. Photo: Leslie Black

Which makes James Runcie’s A Word with Dr Johnson one of the most fascinating and enlightening productions at the Traverse for a while, covering as it does the nine years of the life of Samuel Johnson during which his Dictionary of the English Language was written.

It’s a slight production in many ways, directed with the lightest of touches by Marilyn Imrie. A domestic drama, almost, as Mark McDonnell’s likeable, humane but driven Samuel Johnson, balances his work on the dictionary with trying – and failing – to fend adequately for his ailing wife, Tetty.

With Gerda Stevenson at her articulate, delicately-observed best as Tetty – and robustly vibrant in a variety of trouser roles – there is a touching sense of the uxorious to their relationship. There is nothing needy about her Tetty, though, as she articulates the understanding relationship of a woman of formidable intellect with a man over a decade her junior.

Whatever Johnson’s belief in his own commitment to Tetty, in reality it is little more than skin deep, despite her inspirational status. He is constantly peeling an orange on stage – the smell cuts through the whole production – and takes the peel home to her for her health. This, it feels, is the gesture to commitment, a token of support.

a ball of a time

That sense of a gesture rather than concrete support stretches to the dictionary, too, notably in the aid given to him in its creation by a core of hardworking, well-read Scots.

Runcie has a ball of a time with the language of the piece in this regard. While Johnson is creating the dictionary from the quotes of his favourite authors – Shakespeare, Dryden and Milton – Simon Donaldson, Alasdair MacRae and Stevenson’s Scottish copyists are interjecting in the full articulacy of the Scots language – none of which is destined to appear in the finished book.

The language pours out like music. And MacRae has created a score and series of musical arrangements which help make this feel like a full bodied work. Gerda Stevenson, in particular, uses it to haunting effect as Tetty. MacRae and Donaldson have a more rambunctious approach, as is fitting to their characters.

The accompaniment is performed live during this run at the Traverse by John Kielty – joining the company to take over from MacRae when he damaged an arm. A slightly overcrowded feel to the stage gives away that this was created for four, not five, performers. Although you would not know for any other reason.

Marilyn Imrie seems to be on a historical bent at the moment. She directed The Fair Intellectual Club which is soon to be adapted into a six part show for Radio 4. And it is her ability to celebrate and explore moments of creation which marks both productions out.

This has no moment of great revelation, it is in its illumination that its strength lies. The exploration of how a dictionary was created, a language defined and course charted for all our thoughts, is illuminated with the presence of the woman by whom Johnson was, himself, defined.

Running time 55 mins (no interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Tuesday 27 – Saturday 31 October 2015
Daily: 1.00 pm; also Friday at 7.00 pm

Details and tickets from: http://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event-detail/685/ppp-a-word-with-dr-johnson.aspx

ENDS

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