tue 18/06/2024

Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh review - a maze of ideas | reviews, news & interviews

Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh review - a maze of ideas

Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh review - a maze of ideas

The Scottish independence referendum is just one of the strands that Peter Arnott attempts to weave together in an unconvincing Chekhovian drama

An impressive nine-strong cast in Peter Arnott's ambitious reflection on family, politics and Scottish independenceFraser Brand

The title of Peter Arnott’s new play – a co-production with the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and now partway into a ten-day run at Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre – might conjure a painterly image of contented friends and family in an idyllic rural setting.

There’s plenty that meets that description in Arnott’s plotline. Ageing politics academic Rennie (a nicely self-satisfied John Michie) has invited a gaggle of his remaining brood, plus a couple of judiciously selected ex-students and their current companions, to his country retreat in Perthshire – a setting that’s stunning evoked in the picture postcard-like backdrop to designer Jessica Worrall’s tidy set. So far so idyllic. But naturally, Chekhov-style (a writer Arnott explicitly doffs his cap to in his own programme introduction), it’s all a set-up for a big announcement.

That big reveal – saying what it is would spoil the surprise – and its fallout would conventionally form the centrepiece of the play’s second half, following on from the lengthy exposition before the interval that essentially introduces Arnott’s characters and their precarious relationships. It’s telling, however, that Rennie’s news struggles for attention in among Arnott’s twisted tapestry of competing themes. There’s the family maintaining surface decorum while struggling to hold itself together following a death two decades previously. There are the joys and the pressures of high-level academic life – and the temptations of populist punditry (embodied by the swaggering pronouncements about the death of the liberal world order from former beloved student Charlie, played with evident relish by Matthew Trevanion). And then there’s the Scottish independence referendum: it’s in the lead-up to the September 2014 vote that Arnott’s events take place.

Though to be frank – despite a few brief discussions, and a kind of vague vision from wide-eyed nationalist Kath (played with grit by Patricia Panther), new partner of Rennie’s needy ex-student Frank (a simpering Keith Macpherson) – questions of independence barely get a look in. Unless, that is, Arnott’s whole set-up is some kind of state-of-the-nation metaphor, with his well-heeled but complacent family, apparently strong and confident but riven with unresolved issues, standing in for the country as a whole. It’s unlikely, though, and while Arnott’s text overflows with examples of choices and decisions, paths taken and others left behind, he stops short of signposting them back to the big question facing the nation.

If Group Portrait in a Summer Landscape is a bit of a dense web of ideas, all worthy of consideration, but delivered rather impenetrably, their setting in Arnott’s country dinner party is vividly evoked, if not always entirely convincingly. There are unanswered questions, for example, about past relationships and lingering grudges. And to offer so little critique or subversion of the comfortably bourgeois milieu itself (especially when loudmouth commentator Charlie would provide the ideal mouthpiece) seems like a missed opportunity.

Director David Greig does a fine job at delineating Arnott’s characters, slipping nimbly between the play’s brief, sometimes cinematic-style scenes. His nine-strong cast is impressive, and the mostly mute Will (Robbie Scott) makes especially poignant contributions, though his noisy flashbacks only serve to re-emphasise something we’d gathered early on. Pippa Murphy’s eclectic sound design, too, captures the slippery nature of the play’s ideas well. But it’s never a good sign when you emerge from the theatre surprised at how early it still is: Group Portrait seems to last quite a bit longer than its actual running time. It’s something of a maze of ideas and plotlines that it’s quite a challenge to navigate, with a clutch of characters who are rarely sympathetic or compelling enough to make that tricky traversal seem particularly attractive.

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