On the day that the National Theatre announced a UK tour for its production that doesn’t visit Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, it seems fitting that Scottish theatre plants a robust standard here in England, in this hauntingly evocative production at the Finborough Theatre.
The Straw Chair tells the tale of Isabel (Rori Hawthorn), who in 1735 is newly married to a minister, and finds herself sent with her husband as a missionary to the remote island of St Kilda. In her bleak new home, devoid of the comforts of an Edinburgh lifestyle and now under her husband’s control, she must adjust to a foreign and seemingly primitive society. Isabel meets an extraordinary woman, Rachel (Siobhan Redmond), who claims to have been abducted and sent to the island as punishment by her husband, for whom she is a difficult inconvenience. Her character is based on a true story.
In this treeless island landscape, the eponymous straw chair is a symbol of resourcefulness and determined reinvention, just like its owner. Historically, these chairs are created from scraps of driftwood and straw woven to create a protective shield. The straw chair that Rachel repeatedly places centre stage is battered and broken, as is she; the highest-born on the island, yet the most oppressed and abused. Nevertheless, she resolutely asserts her validity with whatever dignity she can muster, even as the effort is breaking her. Redmond’s performance is utterly magnificent, displaying every emotion from burning rage to madness to childlike sadness. Although she is deeply flawed and damaged, you can’t help but admire Rachel’s resilience and the fierce encouragement she offers Isabel to empower herself by sharing in this fire.
Hawthorn is endearing as the young, naïve wife, boldly seizing the opportunity to change her old world as she opens up to a new one. Along with Jenny Lee as local woman Oona, we see these three quite disparate women – who all have their lives in some way decided for them by men – empowered by coming together in disobedience. The playful scene involving their drunken candidness is particularly entertaining.
Alex Marker’s set design is functional – relatively barren, like the world Isabel finds herself coming to terms with – but the staging is made rich through understated, evocative lighting from Jonathan Chan and Anna Short’s expressive sound design. Together they introduce subtle reference to the profound beauty within the island community and its culture. The cast’s haunting singing is entirely captivating and complemented by the strangely unfamiliar but intensely musical spoken Gaelic language in the script. Lee is delightful as Gaelic Oona, impressively giving voice to the values of the outlying community using its authentic tongue; hers is a flawless yet appropriately modest performance. Oona “is only a native” to Rachel, but she clearly demonstrates pragmatic ways of living that challenge conventional ideas of civilisation, and disrupt Isabel’s worldview with an enchanting mystique.
Playwright Sue Glover cleverly interweaves an intricate tartan, coloured with themes that illuminate how society persists in suppressing women; ideas of liberty, Christian morality, civilisation, isolation, and strength through female bonding. It would be easy to dismiss the story as a bleak barrage against a patriarchal conspiracy, but it really is more than that. Just as the women find their own strengths in each other, the minister’s (Finlay Bain) recognition of himself as part of the plan gives further hope that it’s possible for anyone to question their own role in such a toxic cycle and take moves to stop it. Additionally, it is a remarkable celebration of side-lined cultures and the value of simple humanity.
This is a beautifully crafted piece of work telling a fascinating story about power play and self-value. It is enriched by impassioned performance and beautiful music. As the dramatic experience crashes over you like the cold waves on St Kilda, there is much to learn about the present from the resonances of the past.
Written by: Sue Glover
Directed by: Polly Creed
Set Design by: Alex Marker
Costume Design by: Carla Joy Evans
Lighting Design by: Jonathan Chan
Sound Design by: Anna Short
Musical Direction by: Rori Hawthorn
Produced by: True Name Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
The Straw Chair plays at Finborough Theatre until 14 May. Further information and bookings here.