Aug 25 2015 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩     The unstageable, staged

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Sun 23 – Mon 31 Aug 2015

A world of hugely entertaining possibilities is on display in Lanark. The co-production between the Citizens Theatre and the International Festival has all of the excitement and weight of a capital-letter Theatre Event.

Much of the attraction of the source remains; much is also lost, but that is one of the drawbacks of staging a text that is so influential, so loved, and so defiantly resistant to adaptation.

Sandy Grierson and Jessica Hardwick. Photo Eoin Carey

Sandy Grierson and Jessica Hardwick. Photo Eoin Carey

Writer David Greig is reunited with his Suspect Culture colleagues, director Graham Eatough and composer Nick Powell, in an adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s novel, the bona fide Scottish classic combining of the dystopian story of Lanark in the dying city of Unthank and the more realistic, semi-autobiographical tale of young artist Duncan Thaw in mid-20th century Glasgow.

There is a generation for whom it is The Book, whose combination of postmodernism and Scottish magic realism is expressed in an apparently limitless imagination regarding both form and content. Its impact on subsequent Scottish life and culture is incalculable and not just limited to the literary world.

So any adaptation is fraught with dangers, not least because so much of the original’s playful use of the specific form of the novel cannot easily be translated into other forms. That doesn’t seem to stop people, as a previous adaptation by Alastair Cording and TAG played the Festival 20 years ago.

Memory suggests that version was more austere than the current one, but that may simply be because nothing compares to the book’s imaginative riot. Suffice it to say that there is still a nagging doubt that it might actually be unstageable, although this version comes as close to pulling it off as can be imagined.

meta-theatrical devices

Michael Winterbottom’s Cock And Bull Story, with its film-within-a-film, provided probably the only sane way of adapting Tristram Shandy, a similarly imaginatively unfettered tale, redolent with the possibilities of fiction and life, whose influence on Lanark is so great it is noticeably missing from the later book’s notorious Index of Plagiarisms. Similarly, the final act of Greig’s version, with its tricksy meta-theatrical devices and breaking of the fourth wall, is the perfect way to mirror the book’s formal experiments.

Sandy Grierson, George Drennan and Andy Clark. Photo: Eoin Carey

Sandy Grierson, George Drennan and Andy Clark. Photo: Eoin Carey

This is at once furthest from the original’s words and truest to its feel. The third act also has the most energy and brio, often mirroring the work of companies like Communicado – a feeling reinforced by the presence onstage of that company’s co-founder, Gerry Mulgrew, whose parade of authority figures includes an obvious portrait of Gray himself, complete with trademark cackle.

What goes before does not all have the same drive, in a production whose immense length does tell at times. The opening act – which, as anyone familiar with the book will not be surprised to hear, is Act Two – is just too long and too reverential to the source, severely lacking in energy as a result.

The middle act – Act One, naturally – has far more pace and works much better. It is also noticeable that the  ‘Thaw’ sections, the most realistic of the book get a self-consciously dramatic, almost expressionistic style, while some of the early dystopian parts seem much more straightforwardly, almost pedestrianly, staged.

The rest of Eatough’s direction has a great deal of verve and imagination, with clever use made of Simon Wainwright’s projection to replicate some of the features of the book. Laura Hopkins’s design is endlessly inventive, Nick Powell’s sound design and music adds another level and EJ Boyle’s movement direction is particularly strong in Thaw’s tale.

Where the earlier adaptation bafflingly used different actors for Lanark and Thaw, here the impressive Sandy Grierson plays both roles, making it clear they are the same person. The character is more of an anti-hero, being cold, buttoned-up and self-dramatising, but Grierson makes him clearly human, because of rather than despite his faults.

Helen McKay, Camrie Palmer, Andy Clark, Ewan Sommers, Paul Thomas Hickey, Louise Ludgate. Photo: Eoin Carey

Helen McKay, Camrie Palmer, Andy Clark, Ewan Sommers, Paul Thomas Hickey, Louise Ludgate. Photo: Eoin Carey

In a strong ensemble who all take on a variety of roles, Paul Thomas Hickey’s smoothly amoral political operator Sludden and Jessica Hardwick’s conflicted Rima stand out. But it is the ensemble together who impress, especially working together as the Oracle that tells Lanark of his past.

Greig and Eatough have nearly pulled off the impossible here, but it is short of a complete triumph. Anyone viewing this who is unfamiliar with the original will probably imagine the book to be overlong, overdense and oversentimental. Which it really isn’t, with the themes and metaphors of the original being handled much more lightly and self-mockingly.

To be fair, the creators of this version seem aware of this and even draw attention to it at one point. But, as a wise writer once said, to have an objection anticipated is no reason for failing to raise it.

Running time 3 hours 55 minutes including 2 intervals
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH3 9AX
Sunday 23 – Monday 31 August 2015
Daily at 7.00 pm (except Sun 23 6.00 pm, Wed 16 and Mon 31 no performance); Matinees Tues 25, Thurs 27, Sat 29, Mon 31 at 1.00 pm
Part of the Edinburgh International Festival
Details and tickets at at:

Citizens Theatre, Glasgow.
Thursday 3 – Saturday 19 September 2015.
Details and booking at:

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