Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti

Mar 4 2020 | By More

★★☆☆☆    Flat

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Fri 28 Feb – Sat 21 Mar 2020
Review by Hugh Simpson

Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti at the Lyceum is full of energy and has no shortage of comic potential. However, the end result is puzzlingly uninvolving.

Brecht’s epic comedy of a landowner who is full of bonhomie and generosity when drunk, but tight-fisted and vindictive during brief periods of sobriety, has been adapted by Denise Mina for the Lyceum, the Citizens and DOT Theatre of Istanbul. The most notable change from the original sees the title role swapping genders as a vehicle for Elaine C. Smith.

Elaine C Smith and Steven McNicoll. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

The setting has been changed to a Scotland that is apparently at once the 1950s and the present day, with many of the smaller roles now being female – Mrs Puntila’s long-suffering chauffeur Matti (the redoubtable Steven McNicoll) being one exception.

Making Puntila female does remove some aspects of Puntila’s predatory persona that could be distinctly troubling to a modern audience. As for how well it works as a conceit, it is difficult to tell.

This is partly down to Mina’s adaptation, which constantly strains after laughs that fail to arrive and partly down to Murat Daltaban’s direction, which suffers from an excess of ideas that have not been thought through successfully. Largely, however, it is due to Smith’s performance, which is troublingly one-note and never truly engages.

a great deal of humour

There are occasions when Smith and McNicoll wring a great deal of humour out of the script, but there are an equal number of times where situations and lines that are clearly intended to be funny are met with a worrying silence.

Steven McNicoll, Joanne McGuinness, Elaine C Smith, Richard Conlon. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Much of this is down to the direction, which is neither the outright farce many modern versions of Puntila settle for, nor the commedia dell’arte- derived style Brecht suggested. The result has little in the way of comic momentum, exemplified by the sauna scene between Matti and Puntila’s daughter Eva (Joanne McGuinness) that has surprisingly little impact.

That McGuinness’s performance is so peculiarly mannered is surely not her fault, rather the result of the odd directorial choices that run through the whole production. The style of performance is, as Brecht intended, exaggerated rather than realistic, but it is oddly tentative when it needs to be full-throated.

There are several things that needed further consideration, not least the songs and rhymes that introduce each scene, that are rendered incomprehensible by a combination of faulty sound balance and chorus vocals that are lacking cohesion.

evocative and clever

The music (courtesy of Oguz Kaplangi) is otherwise evocative and clever, which could also be said of Tom Piper’s set, combining a gutted stage with scaffolding, barbed wire and beasts’ heads. There is undoubtedly a great deal of invention here, from comic tableaux to invisible badminton, with the cast displaying considerable versatility.

Steven McNicoll, Natalie Arle-Toyne, Rebecca Banatvala, Beth Marshall, Chloe-Ann Tylor. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Natalie Arle-Toyne, Beth Marshall, Rebecca Banatvala and Chloe-Ann Tylor show real tenacity in their various roles, and it is at their hands that a section about the entitlement of wealth, charity and food banks gives the production its only genuinely contemporary bite.

Richard Conlon, meanwhile, gives Eva’s chinless fiancé a twisty comic presence that is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the more leaden-footed moments.

alienation effects

The way that Brecht’s alienation effects are crossed with a distinctly variety-tinged breaking of the fourth wall shows how much better this could have been. Similarly, the feel of the production, with definite echoes of the politically-informed theatrical tradition of Wildcat or 7:84 is more Scottish than the setting, which never really settles down.

The second half is considerably better than the first, which shows that as the run goes on it might warm up. But for the moment it is distinctly undercooked.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Friday 28 February – Saturday 21 March 2020
Tue – Sat 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.00 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

The cast of Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic


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