In the wake of this month’s devastating fire of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, Rob Drummond’s play, ‘The Mack’ and the moral questions it examines are shockingly topical. The work delivers perspectives surrounding the fires that took place first in 2014, and were tragically repeated in 2018 at the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art.
Through the medium of three interwoven monologues, Drummond delivers the stories of a firefighter traumatized by the 2014 disaster, an art expert shaken by the more recent one, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh himself (the building’s architect and namesake) as told through extracts from letters to his wife. One central pertinent tension within the work is whether or not the culturally significant building should be rebuilt.
In spite of its unique and relevant subject matter, the play’s direction under Jack Nurse is disappointingly static. The three characters sit on high-backed chairs centre stage and move only minimally. Therefore, when they do take a stand, the motion is imbued with a symbolism that it does not perhaps warrant. Mackintosh in particular stands silently several times to examine an abstract set piece at the back of the room. This deliberate action perhaps represents a symbolic reflection on his work; however, the set piece in question, striking though it may be, bears no resemblance to Mackintosh’s design style and confuses the decision from an audience perspective.
Furthermore, at seemingly sporadic moments throughout the performance, the lights are lowered and atmospheric music composed by VanIves is played in scene changes that are neither an adequate fit for the narrative arc, nor necessary for any set movement. Although these pauses are helpful in establishing a solemn mood in the piece, their frequency counteracts this intended effect. The intent instead seems to be an attempt to insert variety within otherwise stagnant staging.
In spite of these questionable stylistic choices, the three performers of make good use of the script, breathing character into the lucidly written, thought-provoking monologues. In particular, James McAnerney does a fantastic job of creating a sympathetic, brooding character in Mackintosh through the architect’s own words. John Michie’s performance as the Fireman is similarly effective, and perhaps the most emotionally heavy of the three as he discusses struggles with mental health following his traumatic experience.
Janet Coulson as the Expert provides necessary historical perspective and raises the ethical questions that make the play so interesting and timely. The script detrimentally fluctuates between presenting Coulson’s character as a narrator who provides background and as an emotional character with a story arc in her own right, but the actress delivers an apt, likeable performance.
Not only does Drummond’s work raise awareness for a tragic current event close to home in Edinburgh, it also gives homage to to an important Scottish artist and national cultural icon. The discussions it seeks to provoke are ever more relevant now as stories of the fire at Notre Dame and the controversies surrounding the funds for its reconstruction dominate the press. Although perhaps a bit too sparing in its blocking and design, this is a thought-provoking and ultimately engaging performance.
PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre