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Rock and soul

Religion and geology are at the heart of CATHERINE CZERKAWSKA’s new play, Quartz, at the Traverse. Words: Steve Cramer

Those of you lucky enough to have seen the film Harvey will remember James Stewart’s character, Elwood P. Dowd, a harmlessly eccentric town drunk, who has chosen to drop out, accompanied by a giant rabbit whom only he can see. Defending his situation to a psychiatrist, he says: ‘l’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, and I’m happy, doctor. I finally won out over it.’ The finale of this charming film occurs when his family decide that he is, after all, quite benign and should not have to undergo a treatment which will ‘normalise’ him.

After this, in Timothy Leary’s 60$, dropping out was synonymous with tuning in, as well as turning on. These days, however, we regard people who choose to drop out as ill-tuned, rather than question our own complacent attitude to the society we live in. And so Catherine Czerkawska’s new play, Quartz, might have much to say to us.

This is the story of Michael, a man who lives the life of a beachcomber, collecting and polishing stones from the coast of his native South Ayrshire. ‘We have a character who starts the play in absolute contentment,’ Czerkawska explains. ‘He’s tried the world, and he doesn’t like it. He’s found the world in a stone, and he’s happy, living in his own place, doing no harm to anyone. But people want to drag him back into society and, with the best will in the world, they become destructive.’

'This is a play about intolerance as much as anything.’ Catherine Czerkawska

Central among these people is his mother, Teresa, whose need to impose conformity comes from love. ‘She’s a red-hot Catholic,’ explains Czerkawska, ‘a pillar of the church. She’s a good woman, but she’s difficult. She would have liked her son to be a priest, but he won’t do that. The mother and son do love each other, and most of the time have rubbed along together.’

A change in this relationship occurs through Claire, an old friend of Michael’s who reappears in the remote community of the play’s location. Newly divorced, she becomes a potential girlfriend to the play’s hermetic protagonist, a fact that raises the ire of Teresa, partially for religious reasons.

‘It’s not a play about religious bigotry specifically,’ counters Czerkawska, ‘but that does run as a theme through it. I’m from a Roman Catholic background and, when I moved from Leeds to South Ayrshire, I became aware of big differences in attitudes to religion from what I’d been used to. So religion is part of it, but this is a play about intolerance as much as anything. The religious bigotry is just another manifestation of that. When people try to make someone what they want them to be, rather than allowing them to be what they are, that’s intolerance.’

Even Michael’s potential partner is guilty of this form of transference. ‘He’s asexual, a natural celibate, and she wants more than he can actually give her,’ notes the playwright. ‘She also wants to bring him back into the world, and a conflict develops between her, the mother, and the local priest, who can see the attraction in Michael’s way of life, but is pressured into the mother’s point of view.’ Wilde’s adage that each man destroys the thing he loves most might also apply to women, in this context.

Quartz, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 4-Tue 26 Feb.

preview THEATRE

Stage whispers

Re: treading the boards

SUCH IS THE hysteria created by talk of a National Theatre in Scotland that a recent parliamentary report set up to investigate our other perpetually crisis-ridden arts institutions - Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet - has recommended the creation of a parallel theatre body. This small group of masochists has reignited a debate which has simmered for months, indeed decades, about whether we should invest public money in yet another arts monolith.

We say no. No disrespect is intended to the existing institutions, which have produced an admirable body of work while beset with difficulties not always of their own making. The fact that the Scottish Arts Council chose to address the separate underfunding issues of our national ballet and opera companies by merging the two and underfunding both simultaneously is not the point. Theatre is different from both of these mediums, reaching a more diverse audience and therefore requiring a wider range of expression than a single institution can provide.

News of a National Theatre would amount to a bonanza for suit- wearers everywhere, upping administrative costs without assuring improved aesthetic achievement. Centres of excellence create peripheries of poverty, and we can only fear for the future of the smaller companies on the Scottish theatre scene. As to the guarantees that funding to other theatres won't be affected, we only need point out that such assurances were also made about the creation of the Sydney Opera House, the English National and a host of elitist institutions around the world, before times became toughen

As for not having an expensive building to maintain . . . well, within a decade we'll probably have another vast. empty shed to fund. Let’s spend new money on new theatre, funding the young artists of our generation, and let the suits buy their own Armani ties.

The Citizen's Theatre trio of artistic directors: Now in favour of National Theatre?

3—17 Feb 2000 THE LIST 49