In his debut as joint artistic director at the Dundee Rep, Philip Howard has taken on the mammoth task of revising David Greig’s mysterious, Highland-based epic. Victoria was first performed in 2000 by the Royal Shakespeare Company; this production is its first performance in Scotland.
The play is set at three separate points of Scottish history. In the first act, set in 1936, we follow a young girl called Victoria who dreams of escaping from the stifling community of a small village whilst a middle-class English girl Margaret, finds herself struggling to find happiness with her new husband. Then the play jumps forward to 1974, as a plane crash throws the community into a flurry and an American geologist, also named Victoria, stumbles from the rubble and begins to feel a strange connection to the community she finds herself in. In the final act we are taken to 1996: now the small town is in the process of losing its mountain landscape to industrial quarries, and another wealthy young Victoria attempts to make sense of her life after the death of her grandfather.
Such a large-scale storyline requires a correspondingly sizable commitment from the audience—and at three and a half hours long, non-engagement isn’t really an option. Victoria isn’t an easy watch: it has a sprawling cast of characters that demand full attention as to how each individual connects to characters in later acts. However, the subtle hints and linkages between the acts in Greig’s script are well-expressed by strong performances that will reward those audience members who are willing to put the work in.
Howard chooses to throw everything into this production, but this choice complicates an already convoluted story. Greig’s script itself attempts to symbolize an entire century of Scottish history, so many erstwhile important moments are not given much breathing space, and get swallowed up by the pace of the thing. This inhibits our emotional involvement with the characters that Greig creates; and in this production, the distance between the audience and the events on stage was increased by the over-use of various theatrical devices. Stylish movement sequences, directed by Emily-Jane Boyle, seem wedged into the production and after a while begin to feel superfluous, while some beautiful arrangements on violin from Gavin Marwick are overused to the point of distraction.
Much more successful are the quieter moments within the production—for instance, the atmosphere of unease established between the troubled youths and the upper classes in the play’s first act. The tension between characters is dynamically performed, and Tim Mitchell’s exquisite lighting design gives an eerie, brooding quality to proceedings.
Howard certainly deserves credit for taking on such a hugely ambitious piece for his debut with the repertory ensemble; Victoria’s evocation of three different time lines within one community is technically executed with aplomb. The play comes to life when the actors are given the freedom to explore inter-character relationships, such as in the scenes between David Carlyle’s edgy Oscar and Elspeth Brodie’s strong-willed Victoria. Newcomer Caroline Deyga is also particularly impressive as the kitchen maid, Shona, and her uncomfortable scene with Lord Allan (played in a suitably sinister manner by Gavin Marshall) is a highlight of the production.
The main strength of this production lies in the character work and performances that, though impressively realised, are dwarfed by the other elements of the show. The match between Howard and the Dundee Rep cast is evidently a strong one—perhaps a smaller-scale piece would serve their collective talents a little better.