THE STRAW CHAIR
by Sue Glover
Directed by Polly Creed
Finborough Theatre – until 14 May 2022
It has taken some 34 years for Sue Glover’s strange but rather wonderful treatment of the legend of Lady Rachel Grange to reach London, having premiered in Edinburgh in the late 1980s. In fact it is a tale so strange that it could only be true, although Glover filters the real woman’s story through the fictional figures of a rigidly devout priest and his spirited, questioning young wife, newly arrived on the remote Outer Hebridean island to which Lady Rachel has been unwillingly banished by her hypocritical Jacobite-sympathising husband.
With it’s historical setting and heightened language, there are times when Glover’s script feels like a rediscovered gem from much further back than the 1980s (the actual Lady Grange died in 1745), although it’s overarching themes of powerful men silencing female voices and assuming government over what women do with their own bodies could not feel more grimly relevant than it does in this of all weeks. So then, The Straw Chair is as much a howl of outrage as it is a historical drama, and, in Polly Creed’s haunting, impressively accomplished staging, suffused with ethereally lovely Gaelic folk music, it’s an uncommonly eloquent and tragic howl.
Leading the company is Siobhan Redmond as the Lady herself in a glorious humdinger of a performance. She suggests a dancing, glancing bawdy wit as well as a deep vein of loneliness and melancholy; when she talks about the brutal way she has been treated, it’s with an understandable fury and an equally understandable wash of self-pity, especially when she’s in her cups (the real Rachel had a love of the bottle and a penchant for turning up, pre-banishment, drunk and disorderly at her husband’s Royal Mile dwelling). Redmond brilliantly captures every nuance of this compelling, wayward, wronged woman, born out of her time. She’s both victim and aggressor, by turns imperious then desperate, elegant yet wild, and Redmond etches her firmly, searingly on the memory.
Equally fine is Rori Hawthorn as Isabel, the painfully inexperienced wife who undergoes something of a physical, spiritual and moral transformation in the inclement surroundings of this barely habitable island. Intense and watchful, it’s a beautifully realised, emotionally intelligent performance. If Finlay Bain initially reads as a little too young and uncomplicated opposite her, he gains gravitas and conviction as he too undergoes something of a sea change in attitude. Jenny Lee delivers lovely supporting work as Lady Rachel’s garrulous companion.
Alex Marker’s sparse set, in tandem with the atmospheric lighting and sound designs (Jonathan Chan and Anna Short respectively), do wonders in transforming the Finborough’s tiny space into the remote, sea-blasted environment of St Kilda, where there are more puffins than people. The technical elements are aided immeasurably by Glover’s knottily verbose, quasi-poetic text, and the other worldly vocals of Hawthorn who also serves as music director.
It takes the script a while to find it’s dramatic momentum, not really until deep into the second half, but it’s never less than entirely watchable. The final image – of Lady Grange standing defiant, as she reads aloud a letter requesting rescue, that she hopes will get smuggled off an island she herself will never escape – is an unsettling one that lingers long in the mind afterwards. It’s a wonderful thing that Glover, Creed and team are keeping her memory alive in this captivating production. That her story still feels so horribly relevant is less of a cause for celebration.