Beware of a play that winds toward its ending with lines like: “Now we’ve both told the truth. Now we’ve judged each other right enough. For if I’ve failed at least I tried.” Sharman Macdonald’s The Brave—written in 1988 and receiving its American premiere by the Goldthread Theater Company—is chock-full of such clunky plot cranking. The action is built around two estranged sisters rehashing old recriminations, a corpse they must dispose of, a couple of layabout men who latch onto the sisters for no discernible reason, and an onlooker who watches them steadily without much comment. Macdonald, a highly regarded playwright in her native Scotland (best known here as author of the film The Winter Guest), stokes her melodrama as if she’s shoveling coal: the play is tedious, repetitive, and made of common stuff.
But there’s another, far more interesting play gasping for air beneath The Brave‘s tired formulas. That one involves socialist Algeria (where the play is set, in 1986), England’s exploitation of Scotland, terrorism on behalf of Scottish miners, and misogynous violence. Rare among contemporary playwrights, Macdonald draws characters with real stakes in the political worlds they
inhabit. But the issues that both complicate and animate their lives are reduced to polemics in The Brave
because Macdonald labors so strenuously to fit them into a conventional form. Petty personal conflicts drive the plot—the ways in which the sisters slighted each other as children, for instance, overwhelm the weightier questions. Ferlie, a woman taking
a break from her stuffy middle-class family life in Scotland, comes to visit her sister, Susan, who fled to Algeria after participating in terrorist attacks against the Thatcher regime, and the two quickly start bickering. It’s hard to tell which Ferlie considers worse: that Susan wasn’t affectionate enough or that she planted bombs.
Almost immediately after arriving at a beachside hotel, Ferlie kills a local man who, she says, attempted to rape her. The sisters are joined in their efforts to stash the body by two hard-drinking Scottish exiles, pushed out of their homeland by unemployment—a theme upon which one of them expounds bitterly. Not to be outdone, the Algerian bartender at the hotel waxes about the glories of socialism and functions, too, as a handy device through which the downtrodden Scotsmen can display their own willingness to oppress others. And all the men in the play try to hit on Ferlie.
How she responds is crucial to one’s general understanding of the play and its questions about whether violence is ever appropriate, not least because Macdonald doesn’t reveal whether the man Ferlie killed was really trying to rape her. Director Dave Mowers erases the ambiguity by miscasting Kimberly Anne Ryan. Instead of drawing out the conflict Ferlie expresses between her deeply ingrained obligation to be polite and pleasant all the time, and her inchoate sense of being stifled by the demands of feminine decorum, Mowers turns Ferlie into a ditzy sexpot. Hips constantly awiggle, breasts always thrust forward, her voice flying up into a shrill nasal register where she frequently giggles or utters a singsong “oooooooooh,” this Ferlie seems to be in perpetual audition for a job in a peep show. Sorta kills Macdonald’s critique of sexism.
The rest of the cast struggles valiantly against ponderous pacing, fussy staging, and the needless imposition of Scottish or French accents. None of them wins.