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Atman, at the Finborough Theatre

Tuesday, 8 November, 2011

Iain Findlay Macleod’s one-act drama of ideas

Lucy Griffiths

On Sundays and Mondays, west London’s hugely respected Finborough Theatre hosts new and rediscovered theatre writing, giving each production six performances, each of which has to use the set of its main production at the time. Ian Findlay Macleod’s Atman is the latest of these productions, a fifty-minute two-hander with Lucy Griffiths and Matthew Spencer.

Atman is a word from the Indian sub-continent, pregnant with meaning and difficult to translate in any meaningful way. Perhaps ‘world soul’ might sum it up best, especially as used here, where small actions can have potentially huge effects.

We’re in mysterious surroundings. Some kind of analyst (B, Matthew Spencer) is having a session with some kind of patient (A, Lucy Griffiths). There are some familiar landmarks which are referred to (a university, a library where A works), but the library houses every book that has ever been written, and has aspirations to house every book that could have been written, as well, references that put us well into Jorge Luis Borges territory, and which take a lot of effort to pull off convincingly. It’s clear from all this that there are big themes being referred to here, not least of which is the idea of God, issues around the need to create and control (whether human or divine) and there’s a sub-Faustian bargain thrown into the mix too.

The fact that both of the protagonists are barefoot, (even though the analyst wears a suit) seems to imply something else is going on too – a kind of elemental power struggle perhaps? – though that may be stretching things a touch.

So, the production has big ambitions, and both of the actors work hard to have us understand the nature of the problems being posed. Both are very capable, but in the end, the story emerges from their quite static dialogues, and the characters give us little to cling on to, let alone have sympathy – or any other strong feelings – for. Director Jacqui Honess-Martin has tried to add movement and a sense of the characters changing positions (as indeed they do throughout the play) but those efforts seem separate rather than integral somehow.

The play was originally performed in Scots Gaelic, so this is a translation. It is nicely done, but fairly dense in terms of ideas, and finally the air of mystery can’t quite overcome the necessarily sketchy logic inherent in the plot.

Cast: A – Lucy Griffiths, B – Matthew Spencer

Writer: Iain Findlay Macleod, Director: Jacqui Honess-Martin, Designer: Kate Lane, Movement: Shona Morris, Sound: Tim Middleton, Stage Manager: Carla Batten

(c) michael spring

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