On April 1st 2020, I took what turned out to be a momentous decision as I embarked on watching/reviewing an online theatre piece for each day of that month. Enjoying the experience and locked down with little else to occupy me, I decided to keep going. Yesterday marked the 500th consecutive day I’ve been at the project. There really is no shortage of material to cover and, of course, there is more being added all the time as what has turned out to be a new and innovative art form continues to grow. True the rate of release has slowed in recent weeks as the theatre world returns to what it does best with live performance but that has provided a good opportunity to go back and pick up on some material that there just wasn’t time for originally. Bearing that in mind and the fact that things are decidedly Scotland centred for me at the moment (what with the Edinburgh Festival in full swing and finally getting round to reading last year’s Booker winner Shuggie Bain), I recalled a project by the National Theatre of Scotland that had been put to one side when it was released last summer.
Scenes For Survival is the umbrella title for a collection of “digital artworks” created in response to the pandemic. No less than 55 (though actually I counted 56, but let’s not split hairs) short pieces involving over 200 performers and creatives have been grouped together in 12 bundles. And this was one of the reasons I’d neglected to cover any of them before as where does one start? As I scrolled through the list there were a number of interesting titles that leaped out, some pieces by writers that I rate and a number of well-known performers (Douglas Henshall, Morven Christie, Mark Bonnar, Brian Cox – the actor not the scientist) which tickled the taste buds and seemed to make a way in even more tantalising. In the end I plumped for two pieces which had originally been broken down into more than one episode thus forming something a little more substantial to enjoy.
Written and performed by comedian Janey Godley, Alone takes place over four episodes, two in the summer of 2020 and then Boxing Day and Hogmanay later in the year. Godley plays Betty married for forty years to Jim who she tellingly reveals early on organises her handbag for her and, indeed, the rest of her life. He’s a man who “likes his routines” and won’t be told what to do by the government or anyone else so, hardly surprisingly, he is soon having to self-isolate in the spare room leaving Betty to give us a snapshot of her life straight to camera. The other three episodes are duologues as Betty converses online with those who should have been close to her but have been held at arm’s length because of Jim. Firstly, there’s her partially estranged son Steven (Jack Lowden) an artist who lives in London – “it’s nae a proper job” sneers Jim. Then her sister Isa (Elaine C. Smith) who reveals her long standing antipathy towards her brother in law. Finally, Martin (Joe McFadden) Steven’s partner who makes a surprise announcement.
From these relatively low key online meetings the truth about Betty’s lifelong relationship comes to the fore. The tale of coercive control that emerges highlights a serious issue though it is all played lightly enough to still be enjoyable by an excellent cast – Smith, particularly, creates a totally believable character. The real star of the show, however, is Betty’s constant companion her dachshund Bobo (played by Honey who has her own social media presence); naturally, she upstages everyone. I’m not sure if it’s intended to develop Betty’s story further as the last episode introduces a positive note of hope and release for her future so it would be good to see that come to fruition.
Rather darker in tone, the second mini-series from the project is called Out Of The Woods, written by Johnny McKnight and premiered exactly a year ago. Alan Cumming plays an unnamed father stumbling through the woods trying to locate his daughter Becka who has been spirited away by “Daddy Neil”. He is using a communication app to get directions from her but she’s still a very young child so is unable to be much help. He also gets assistance from his own mother and Ruth a fellow worker with whom he enjoys a seemingly jokey relationship though this turns sour with rather dire consequences. Cumming’s character starts out as affable enough and apparently concerned for his daughter’s safety though it soon transpires that it is he who is the real threat – especially at the end of part one when he suddenly produces a large knife with which he clearly intends to inflict some damage.
McKnight’s structure is slightly disconcerting at first as we are shown just one end of the various conversations and left to fill in the gaps, but this adds to the general air of tension and works well once the piece gathers momentum. Cumming is horribly sinister and increasingly unhinged, especially when he reaches the house and discovers what he regards as a personal betrayal. His last direct look to camera is spine tingling. With the whole thing being filmed by the actor himself on a shaky handheld device, it has some of the quality of the “found footage” in The Blair Witch project. I don’t know if the title is a direct reference to the Sondheim musical, but it certainly shares some of the same sinister quality of dark fairy tales and the violence that is often an implicit part of that tradition.
There’s obviously a lot (a lot!) more material in the Scenes For Survival project though I need to think about how to tackle it methodically; maybe the best way would be to watch one a day (randomly) which would take me nicely up to 550 days. Whatever I decide, I can’t think of a title that would have been more appropriate to engage with than this for my quincentennial day of viewing/reviewing. The whole enterprise has been rather a lifeline so far helping me to keep my sanity as the pandemic has unfolded. I hope you feel the same.
Scenes For Survival is available on the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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