The St. Andrews Institute conducts experiments on spiders. But the experimental subjects have other things to worry about. A Hawk Wasp, the natural predator of the spider, has infiltrated the institute as a counsellor and the Lady with The Red Hourglass on her chest – The Black Widow- is starting to get her appetite back.
Walt Disney built an empire by imposing human characteristics on cute animals but he didn’t go as far as writer/ performer Alan Bissett. The arachnids have complete personalities – hopes, fears and beliefs. The House Spider is only too aware that, compared to his fellow inmates, his origins are humble and, in Bissett’s natural Scot brogue, he attempts to retain some dignity by recounting how an ancestor inspired Robert The Bruce.
Comic relief is provided by the neurotic Woody Allen style Recluse Spider who frets about his thousands of children. The Tarantula is a strutting macho creature boasting he is what you imagine when you think of a spider. He manages to combine a God complex with a death wish recounting how tribes worship him and want to consume and absorb his virility. The Black Widow is a charming sociopath from the Deep South purring out her memories of past conquests and, ambiguously, leaving us unsure if she is repentant or celebratory. But Bissett gives her such a magnetic personality you can’t help but think it might be worth the consequences to try her favours.
The deceptively relaxed mood set by director Sacha Kyle becomes increasingly uneasy as scuttling noises fill the theatre. Rather than limit the performer to a single style, Kyle has Bissett switch from a crouching animalistic stance to a regal human lady depending on the character; but the technique suits the play so well there is no feeling of inconsistency. The director and performer create a growing claustrophobia as the limited options open to the inmates become clear.
Bissett is an excellent actor siding into convincing accents and developing vivid personalities. But his main success is the subtle development of the plot so that it gradually becomes clear that The Red Hourglass is an engrossing play, complete with twist ending, rather than just a series of amusing monologues.
Spiders are creatures that generate phobias in many people but it is well worth feeling your skin crawl a bit to watch a play as good as The Red Hourglass.