The Clearing

Theatre review by Judith Proctor

Isn't it wonderful to be married to a man who understands my occasional desire to dash off to the other end of the country to go and see Gareth Thomas on stage?

Courtesy of Richard looking after the children, a handful of air miles and accomodation offered by Julia's aunt, I made my way from Dorset to Edinburgh... I made it to Edinburgh airport, was met by the aunt (who turned out to be a lovely person) and we met up with Julia a little later. We'd been planning to explore Edinburgh, but Julia had hurt her neck, so we postponed that until Sunday.

The play itself was perfomed at the Royal Lyceum theatre and was very interesting. It focuses on Robert Preston (an Englishman) and his Irish wife, Maddy. They live in Ireland at the time of Cromwell. A passionate and deeply devoted couple, they provide a strong contrast with Solomon and Susaneh Winter. Solomon, played by Gareth Thomas, is an older, quieter Englishman who has lived in Ireland for a large part of his life. His wife seems soulless and domineering; their relationship far less meaningful than that of Robert and Maddy. Yet as time passes, we come to understand that Susaneh is far more human than she seems and that her love for her husband is no less than Maddy's.

The play starts with the birth of Maddy and Robert's son, Ralph. It's a time of happiness and rejoicing, but that isn't to last for long. As Cromwell's new laws are revealed, it becomes apparent that everyone is under threat. Thirty years ago, Solomon fought for the king. That is enough to make him lose his land under the laws Cromwell is now introducing. Robert has married an Irish girl - that makes him suspect in spite of being a Protestant and a friend of Sir Charles Sturman - Cromwell's man on the spot.

Those who lose their land will be transplanted to Connaught, a region seen as poor and full of dangers. Even worse things befall others as ordinary Catholics are siezed and sold as indentured servants in the West Indies.

Maddy's dearest friend is Killaine Farrell, her foster sister. Fosterage was an old Irish tradition and the women are very close. When Killaine is in danger, Maddy's loyalty is suddenly split between her husband and her friend.

The strains start to show on everyone and some terrible choices have to be made.

The final resolution of all the events is certainly dramatic, but I won't spoil the story by giving away the ending here. Let's just say that it provoked lots of discussion in the bar afterwards and Julia and I were still debating the characters' actions a day later. We're not quite sure that we agree with the playwright, but it was certainly thought-provoking.

The set got mixed reactions too. I didn't like it - it looks rather like a timber stockade and the centre area is indoors or outdoors depending on the particular scene. Jo (one of the Scottish fans) liked it a lot though. Julia (who has Irish blood) says that the stockade represents the 'Pale' - the border fence between the different parts of Ireland at that time. (hence the phrase 'beyond the pale')

The acting was of a high standard with particular honours going to the Veronica Leer as Maddy. She was required to cover a wide range of emotions and was always believable. The weakest member of the cast was Helen Lomax as Killaine. I wasn't always convinced by her and felt that she might not have been the right person for the part. I got the impression from the play that Cullane was supposed to be a rather magical, mystical sort of person and she came across as far too earthy. I might be wrong though.

Gareth was good and got a reasonable amount of stage time. He even appears in a nightgown at one point. This wasn't nearly such a challenging part as Danforth in 'The Crucible' though. (His portrayal of Danforth is something that will stay with me for a long time.) He has a long pony-tail to match the style of the period. Solomon is actually criticised during the play for his long hair and his beard.

Like most of the cast, Gareth was involved in the songs that are part of the play. There's a carol (which Gareth says was recorded beforehand) and a sea shanty (Haul away Joe) which is sung live.

Susaneh is played by Janette Foggo. I thought she looked familiar and upon checking I found that she's been in several other plays with Gareth, including 'The Crucible', 'Rebecca' and 'Jekyll and Hyde'.

Judith, Gareth and James Waters After the play, Julia, myself and a group of Scottish fans went to the theatre bar where we'd arranged to meet Gareth. Gareth ruined his reputation as a heavy drinker by drinking only diet coke. (he was driving afterwards) He's been working very hard for the last couple of weeks, working in Peebles recording the Hamlet video (he's playing Claudius and said he'd really enjoyed getting his teeth into a Shakespearean villain) during the day and then travelling to Glasgow to do the play in the evening. The recording is finished now. I'll have to look out for it when it becomes available.

There was a brief moment of panic when it was reported that one of the cast's car had been clamped. It cost 125 pounds to get it released! Luckily, Gareth's car turned out to be okay. The cast had a whip round to pay the fine. As Gareth said, that's theatre for you. 125 quid is half a week's wage for an actor. Makes you think.

Would I recommend 'The Clearing'? Yes. It's hard hitting. To quote Gareth: 'it starts bleak and gets bleaker', but there are moments of humour and it involves you. The end of the first act got a loud gasp from the audience. It draws you in and makes you care about these people and what happens to them. That's the mark of a good play. The name of the play has two meanings. It's about the clearance of the Catholic Irish by Cromwell, but it's also the about the clearing in the forest where the final scene is played to its conclusion.

Edinburgh itself is also worth a trip. Some beautiful buildings, both old and new. The Royal Lyceum has an absolutely lovely interior, all plasterwork and gold paint. We took some time on Sunday to go and see the National Gallery (it's free to get in) and ended up skipping lunch so that we could see as much as possible before I had to leave for the airport. There's some absolutely wonderful art there and we only saw a fraction of what there was.

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Last updated on 20th of November 1999.