Trips to faraway islands to ‘find oneself’ and ‘start over’ are abundant in fiction, from Shakespearean examples of Twelfth Night and The Tempest, to more recent plays such as Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good and Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls. But what gives tales like these an extra dimension is what choices the women have, away from the status quo…
Written by Sue Glover and directed by Polly Creed, True Name Productions’ The Straw Chair marks the play’s first run in England, following its Edinburgh premiere in 1988 and its Scottish tour in 2015. There is a familiar and timeless quality to the play, as we meet Isabel (Rori Hawthorn), a 17-year-old newlywed in 1735, accompaning her husband, Aneas Seaton (Finlay Bain) – the newly appointed minister for the island of Hirta in the Outer Hebrides.
On the first day on Hirta, Isabel meets two very different women, who along with Aneas ‘battle for her soul’. Firstly, there is Lady Rachel (Siobhan Redmond) the owner of the eponynous ‘straw chair’ (and allegedly the only chair that exists on the island). For Rachel, her stay on Hirta is nothing less than incarceration, a veritable Hell on Earth (or at least Purgatory) – away from the comforts of Edinburgh, ‘civilisation’ and her husband. But to quote Milton’s Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place and, in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.”
With this in mind, we find a very different attitude from Rachel’s maidservant Oona (Jenny Lee), a ‘native’ who finds Hirta and the remote surrounding islands a paradise. Both women offer conflicting accounts about Rachel’s predicament, leaving it to Isabel (and the audience) to fathom ‘the truth’. If The Straw Chair does anything, it asks does anyone have the monopoly on virtue, character and contentment?
The casting for The Straw Chair is spot on and contributes greatly to the immersion into 18th century Outer Hebrides. Hawthorn first came to my attention in 2018 in Jeannie at the Finborough Theatre and as Isabel, Hawthorn’s delivers another memorable performance – straddling the fine line between naivety in the ways of the world, and being emotionally intelligent and empathetic.
Redmond has fun playing with Rachel’s ‘Mrs Haversham’ vibes, although like many narratives where one person is singled out as ‘mad’ or ‘dances to the beat of a different drum’, Rachel’s unwillingness to remain silent and be ‘well-behaved’ marks her out as a contemporary ‘Cassandra’. Still, there are times where we see Rachel relishing the IDGAF vibe. After all, what else can ‘they’ do to her..?
Every bit as wilful as her ‘mistress’, what Oona lacks in formal education, she makes up for in resilience and a sanguine nature. Regardless of her status or appearence, Oona is the most satisfied with her lot in life. Through Lee’s acting, we see Oona as someone who has little in the way of guile, but is appeciative of manners and any effort to speak the local dialect (Gaelic).
As for Aneas, there is more than a little of Torvald (à la Ibsen’s A Doll’s House) in Bain’s portrayal, as much of time the minister treats Isabel like a child, forbidding her relationship with Rachel as if she is not mature enough to make her own decisions.
This leads to the crux of the play. For ‘Mrs Seaton’, she is in a double bind. While Isabel may at times have the resolve to challenge her husband ‘as a man’, when he invokes his position an ordained, ‘unchallengable man of God’, the circumstances test her resolve, judgement and convictions – in short to be her own woman, as opposed to being a dutiful daughter or wife…
© Michael Davis 2022
The Straw Chair runs at Finborough Theatre until 14th May.