Wednesday, October 21, 2009

REVIEW - Confessions Of A Justified Sinner ****

Artistic director and producer Mark Thomson holds a mirror to the face of Robert Wringhim, the protagonist of his excellent adaptation of James Hogg's 19th century novel, and reveals a disturbing reflection of madness and fanaticism that shines through the past to hold unsettling relevance today. What follows is a dark, oppressive and mesmerising slab of Scottish theatre which grips throughout in a chilling portrayal of one man's relentless descent into a spiral of 'justifiable sin'.

Hogg's critically-acclaimed work is an examination of religious extremism and moral disintegration under the guise of perceived righteousness. Thomson's adaptation is powerful and current, yet faithful to the original text and without any clumsy signposting of points, leaving it to the audience to draw their own conclusions and sub-texts from the work.

Ryan Fletcher is excellent as Robert, portraying him as a social outcast with a meek, detached conviction in his adopted clergyman father's insistence that he is one of the Lord's 'elect', put on Earth to carry out God's work, with his place in heaven assured. The scenes in which he stands, facing the audience as he sings a hymn in small, reedy voice, whilst the consequences of his actions play out behind him are truly unsettling and excellently staged.

The rest of the cast also impress, with Kern Falconer in the role of Reverend Wringhim in particular standing out with a performance crackling with Calvinistic wrath as he imparts his dangerous wisdom into Robert's naive and receptive mind.

This confused state and indoctrinated upbringing soon set unstoppable events in motion, with Robert's belief that he is the 'sword of God' unwavering as he exacts vengeance on those perceived deserving of his divine justice. He is encouraged on this path by Gil-Martin, a charismatic and mysterious figure that appears only to him and who goads Robert into terrible action to the extent where his confusion as to who is his real 'lord and master' is evident.

Thomson directs Gil-Martin's character, portrayed by a conniving and snake-tongued Iain Robertson, with delicious ambiguity: is he the Devil - Robert's oft-mentioned Prince - or a manifestation of Wringhim's increasingly delirious mind? Thomson refuses to answer, a directorial decision which ensures the tale is allowed to twist in satisfyingly opaque and unanswered ways.

The stark, monolithic set is well used; evoking moonlit graveyards, portentous cliff edges, seedy Edinburgh brothels and - in those scenes with Robert and Gil-Martin - places more metaphysical. A revolving section allows for some original and effective staging, particularly in those scenes in which Gil-Martin takes on the appearance of other characters, allowing the cast to switch places without impacting the pacing of the piece. Lighting is understated but well-used, whilst a quietly discordant soundtrack pervades the production like a guilty conscience, increasing in volume and density only towards the play's satisfying climax.

With Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, Thomson successfully breathes new and surprisingly relevant life into a 19th century classic and the cast - particularly Fletcher and Falconer - inject the tale with enough power and nuance to make it a disturbingly dark and thoroughly enjoyable piece.