Oxford at Edinburgh – Swan Song, Review

Art & Lit Stage

Swan Song, a new play by Katie Ebner-Landy and Catherine Haines, is an exploration of the lives of some young artists who seem rather too bohemian to be true. Hains and Ebner-Landy show how the three artists Hector, Mala and Peter and their infinitely more practical friend Marie negotiate falling in and out of love while attempting to write and read each other’s lives. The play takes a relatively simply plotline and makes it very convoluted, the writing element in particular coming to the fore. Given that Ebner-Landy takes a role in the play as well, the theme of writing takes on a meta-dramatic level fairly quickly.
The characters of Swan Song appear to be the kind of effortlessly creative, clever, middle class bohemian types that have money without ever really doing anything – it’s worth noting that we never learn what Maria, the practical one, does for a living – but the writing does give us a chance to laugh at them when the first scenes; thought narrators, dressed like stereotype beat poets, show in the first scene the difference between what Mala and Hector think and what they manage to articulate. This distinction could be a little clearer to increase the humour, as frequently the pair come off as pretentious without any air of satire behind their actions – unless this is yet another irony being taken to the nth degree.

However, the writers clearly both have an excellent ear for dialogue and the cast are superb, bringing their occasionally insufferable characters to life so well that, once past the thirty minute mark and into the darker part of the story, it’s easy to get wrapped up in their strange, academic, artistic and unrealistic world. Amelia Sparling is stunning as Mala, by turns sly and vulnerable but never pinned down, while Patrick Edmond gives the most nuanced and interesting performance.

I’m still not sure why there were moments of animation and projection in a piece that otherwise depended on convincing and well directed performances from its onstage talent and these disjointed parts proved a bit of a let-down. Occasionally too the play decides to be obvious for no good reason; the poetry recital Mala gives at the end to straighten out the plot is unnecessary, as the plot hasn’t been that hard to follow.

Swan Song initially struck me as a self-consciously clever piece of writing. As it’s about writing it could hardly escape falling into that often problematic, pretentious category. Fortunately, it has one up on other self-consciously clever plays in that it is, at times, actually clever and more conscious than most of the tropes it is using or avoiding. It’s also rather moving and while it goes about its business in a rather convoluted way that, ironically, seems more tried and tired than a linear narrative, it is well written, well-acted and well worth seeing.