Ruth Rendell is undoubtedly an intriguing author and the stories she crafts are signs of an intuitive imagination concerning the murder-mystery genre. However, the theatrical adaptions of her novels on stage add yet another level of intrigue and craft which is always interesting to watch.
This is what drew me to Gallowglass from Middle Group Theatre Company, currently running at Cardiff’s New Theatre. I’ve previously seen A Judgement in Stone translated onto the New Theatre stage and I wanted to see both another Ruth Rendell story and another attempt to bring her work onto the stage. This review will be a review of the narrative as well as the purely theatrical side of this production as, in the case with most murder-mystery plays, the characters are the driving force of all action meaning that a review of the actors and production is intertwined with the narrative itself. This review may also possibly contain spoilers though I will do my best to avoid stating them point blank.
As I usually do, I’m going to start with the positives first. This production indeed is an exhibition of high quality, committed acting. It is refreshing to see that production has apparently been taken out of the rehearsal room as each actor had clearly defined their interpretation of their character and fully immersed themselves within it. There were no seams to any of their performances and, once the play had started, you were fully engaged with their personalities.
It can often be difficult to inject humour into these dark and mysterious plays. However, Dean Smith’s portrayal of Joe Herbert, a man who is pulled from jumping in front of a train by Sandor Wincanton and forced to dedicate his life to him and his schemes in return, seems to do it effortlessly. Even in highly dramatic scenes, I found myself wanting to focus on Smith simply to see Joe’s reaction to the events. I really appreciated the injection of humour which felt completely natural rather than being out of place or annoying.
Rachael Hart’s portrayal of Tilley also injected humour into tense scenes with her one-track minded goal of securing some form of financial gain. However, she was also quite intelligent in her view of the construction of the crime which was interesting in how heightened Hart’s focus was on the more stereotypical aspects of Tilley’s nature.
The sets built explicitly for the stage, often depicting the interiors of both of Wincanton’s apartments, Paul Garnett’s home and Tilley’s camper were genuinely beautiful pieces of set design. The split stage between Garnett’s house and the other locations was very well done, and the transitions as the left-hand side changed between each location were seamless. I think that this was a really intriguing take on the usually fixed nature of the house/split setting of the genre.
However, this production highlights a specific newer aspect of set design which I am certainly not a fan of. I’m really against the reliance upon screen projection as a replacement of set design. I understand and have seen, that screen projection can be made well when used more in moderation rather than a straight replacement for a piece of set design. Unfortunately, when a screen is placed in front of these built sets, this production falls into the latter category. The only time I really liked the use of the screen was when the right-hand side of a forest scene was faded out by the lighting on Garnett’s home. If this were a moderate use of the screen, then I would have liked it, but I think the reliance upon it to fill in for set design was too strong and let to awkward moments such as Garnett skipping stones away from the sea in the beach scene.
Paul Garnett (Paul Opacic) and Nina Abbott (Florence Cady) were my favourite characters within this story regarding their development and roles. My favourite lines of the play were Nina’s and I feel that she represents quite a strong female character within the genre of the play, rather than the damsel in distress.
However, the roles of both of these characters fell into one of my main issues with this play. The narrative of the play is bizarre. That’s the only word I can think to describe it. I feel that the dialogue for Sandor Wincanton was the primary cause of this as the play felt like two and a half hours of spoken exposition, five minutes of action and actual plot and then five minutes of the ending, which dumped a massive amount of information. I just wanted more from the script. I found those five minutes of dropped information at the end far more interesting than the majority of the dialogue in the whole play, but it’s quick nature just made it too confusing to take in. I wish that this was reversed as it would have made the narrative far more engaging and intriguing. Even when there were small twists in the story, the order in which they were revealed was strange as the first killed the shock factor of the second. Every action felt predictable and, when discussing the narrative with my friend afterwards, we felt that there were many different directions in which the events could have gone which would have been more interesting.
Overall, I was very disappointed with the construction of the narrative of this play, and I just wanted more from the script. I really liked watching the actors construct these characters. However, they just didn’t have much at all to work with. I’m going to give this production two stars purely for the set design and standard of the actors. However, as the narrative is so predictable, exposition-heavy and the good characters disappear for the sake of dropping information on the audience this production just wasn’t my favourite.