The Promise at 59E59–Exorcising Demons of the Past– Theatre Review

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Often, plays based on trues stories fill in the gaps– and omit the mystery that makes the story so compelling.  

Such is the case with Douglas Maxwell’s new play The Promise, which appears at 59E59 Theatres as part of Scotland Week (it was one of the first events in Scotland Week (in New York, it’s also called Tartan Week).  The play is a one-woman show about a Scottish substitute teacher, Maggie Brodie, living in England.  Maggie is forced to exorcise her own demons when she’s confronted with the actual exorcism of a 6-year old Somali girl who is an elective mute.  The exorcisim, she is told, could be integrated in Halloween studies.  The framework is based on a true story.

Miss Brodie vehemently, and even violently, objects (ironically, though, the production itself has a Halloween-like feel, complete with spooky music by Karen MacIver,  classroom closet doors that open and shut by themselves, set by Lisa Sangster, and shadowy lighting from Dave Shea).  Her name evokes that of Miss Jean Brodie from Muriel Spark’s brilliant novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (and the film of the same name).  Maggie, fiercely played by Joanna Tope as a flawed, bold older woman, knows the reference but has never read the book.  She also has a powerful thirst for alcohol. 

Maggie is a wonderful creation and for much of the play she fascinates.  Tope dares to be unlikeable and crude, as she tells us about meetings with a headmaster she despises (who also happens to be Scottish), and imitates  English community leaders.  Still, this story that takes on some multicultural issues would be better served with at least one more voice.  Maggie, we will quickly learn, is not a reliable narrator OR witness.   On the podcast this week,  I asked director Johnny McKnight (who is also one of the founders of Random Accomplice, from Glasgow, which usually produces devised work) why he thought the show represented Scotland, on the podcast– and I liked his answers.  Warning– spoilers (and bawdy talk) after the jump…

 I liked his answers so much that I wish I liked the play more.  Johnny told me that the show represents a side of Scotland that is different from the stereotype–  it does.  He also explained that the play addresses the Scottish habit of stoicism, of not talking about the past, so that people are haunted by their own ghosts.  Unfortunately, the degree to which Maggie does not deal with her past is not entirely convincing.  She harbors resentment towards a cruel father, who spoiled her and banished her sister to a convent school.  She can’t get over a feeling of guilt about that sister.  These memories were powerful– and would have been much more so without the explanation we get about why.  In real life, there’s often no “why.”

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

Maggie bonds with Rosie immediately, and eventually the two share a little scene in the girls’ room (Rosie is represented by animated projections by Tim Reid, which add a sense of the spooky to the play).  Rosie even talks, we’re told.   In the bathroom, Rosie stands on the toilet seat and lifts her skirts, and Maggie sees the marks of the demon on her.

I assumed Rosie had been molested, and didn’t understand why Maggie began ruminating on all the men she’d slept with and wondering whether any of them had been circumcised.
There are a couple of problems with this.  First, there is no way a woman wouldn’t know if a man were circumcised or not.  NO way. (here’s a picture of a circumcised penis, and here’s an uncircumcised penis; it’s not subtle!)  Even if we accept that Maggie’s blocked a lot of things out of her memory with alcohol and effort, this observation feels forced.

Secondly, male and female circumcision (yes, this is why Maggie’s mind goes there) share nothing in common but the word.  Scottish critics and audiences may not  believe this, nor the character of Maggie, but a New York audience  mostly will (it’s still the norm here) and find the analogy at best silly, at worst,  offensive.  Even if you believe the controversial idea that some male sensitivity is lost due to circumcision– it STILL is not even remotely comparable to the misnamed “female circumcision,”  more properly known as Female Genital Mutilation or clitoridectomy.  And to throw that in without comment is both annoying and disappointing (there’s also a sightline issue as Maggie appears to be looking at Rosie from behind, but never mind).   

Far more problematic is the eventual revelation that Maggie had been molested by her father, and still blames herself for it.  She may still feel tainted, but the degree to which she blames herself is incompatible with even a rudimentary class in child psychology.  It’s also unnecessary.  Families are mysterious, and often cruel, and unfair.  The revelation also “explains” Maggie in a way that diminishes her.  Why can’t she be an oversexed middle-aged alcoholic, like many a male character? Why does there have to be a “reason?”

On top of that,  the play’s melodramatic climax depends on Maggie making use of the sexuality in a way that Tope, because she’s do damn good, sells as chilling.  But when you think about it, it’s ridiculous.  Let’s just say, there’s another mutilation coming.  It’s all less bleeding heart then bleeding, um, you know.    Maggie’s description of how a woman experiences her sexuality sounded to me very very much like a man projecting his experiences of female sexuality onto a female character.  There’s a weird vertigo as we hear Maggie describe herself in terms of the male gaze.  What’s missing is Maggie, herself. 

SPOILER OVER SPOILER OVER SPOILER OVER SPOILER OVER 

The show has toured Scotland already, and as you might expect for a show the government is promoting, has received very strong reviews there.  McKnight’s direction is clear and strong.  And despite my reservations I am glad I saw the play–  the writing is often very strong.   Tope’s performance sears itself on the memory, and though much of the plot and backstory did not convince me, Maxwell’s attempt to dramatize the dangers of even having a backstory and not dealing with it,  in a swiftly changing world, is worthwhile.   

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