A Slow Air
Tron Theatre Company
There has perhaps never been a play whose title manages so perfectly to capture the tone and feel of the piece as A Slow Air; but don’t be fooled, slow it may be, boring it is not.
Harrower’s latest play arrives at The Tricycle almost exactly a year after its first performance at Glasgow’s consistently strong Tron Theatre and fresh from a four-week run in New York as part of a season of Scottish plays, bringing with it a quiet confidence in the sheer strength of the writing on display.
A Slow Air sees estranged brother and sister Athol (Lewis Howden) and Morna (Susan Vidler), giving their account of the events leading up to and including their first meeting in fourteen years. Born in Edinburgh, the siblings had been out of contact with each other until Morna’s son, approaching his 21st birthday and missing the uncle with whom he used to have such fun, decides to seek him out.
Delivered with confidence through two interwoven monologues, the story is drip-fed to the audience, brilliantly balancing character and narrative. The two sides of the sibling feud reveal themselves in their own time, never feeling rushed, incidental details begin over time, to create on the stage two real people. Harrower’s storytelling never feels like heavy-handed exposition but rather the work of a playwright of great skill.
It would be easy to underestimate just how good the writing in A Slow Air is, given the level of perfectly understated precision on display. Harrower himself says that he is not interested in writing a "state of the nation" play, citing in the programme that "some people are very good at that, I’m not". He may, however, be selling himself short.
Here is a story that never feels untrue, never tests the audience’s ability to stick with the reality of the relationship being depicted on stage and never seems to concern itself with overtly political finger pointing whilst managing very much to be a play about Scotland. Unlike Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love currently playing at the Royal Court, Harrower never resorts to blatant statements about the state of the world around them coming out of the mouths of the characters on the stage; here they simply exist and their lives contain everything that needs to be said, even references to the old, ‘Separatist’ SNP pass so quickly that they serve simply to add more texture to the lives on the stage.
A sense of distance crops up again and again; the Glasgow-Edinburgh divide that now separates the brother and sister stands as a geographical metaphor for a country, within which the people perhaps feel the old Scotland is slipping away from them. Athol bemoans the unfriendly nature of his new neighbours upon moving to Glasgow, whilst Morna questions what the old lion seated on his haunches atop Arthur’s Seat has to be proud of any more. Even the characters on the stage are distanced from one another. When the two stories being told do finally meet, they never address each other; there is always a distance between them, in every way.
Jessica Brettle’s design works well, providing an unfussy space for the story to take centre stage but with a nice nod to Athol’s past career as a floor tiler and his obsession with the floors he walks upon throughout his life. Harrower's own direction, perhaps unsurprisingly, allows the text to do the talking. Both Howden and Vidler give assured and nuanced performances. Vidler’s single mother is strong, but also fragile. It is clear that she has raised a talented son, whilst not perhaps always knowing how. Howden is excellent, giving Athol a warmth of character that fits perfectly with his story, both could be watched for hours.
A Slow Air is never outlandish, or even very surprising; what it is though is gentle and thought-provoking theatre. It serves to examine and questions the world in which Athol and Morna live in a much more richly successful way than many of the plays that seem to hold that as their central aim, whilst being about real, interesting and flawed people.
Reviewer: Alisdair Hinton