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Lanark (Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh)

David Greig's adaptation of Alasdair Gray's "Life in Four Books" is a 'must-see triumph'

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Sandy Grierson in Lanark
© Eoin Carey

It's so rare to have a crazy, surreal political epic on the British stage - think Neil Oram's The Warp suffused with Kafka and Pirandello - that, for all its deficiencies in performance, David Greig's adaptation in three acts of Alasdair Gray's "Life in Four Books" - Lanark, said Anthony Burgess, is the greatest Scottish novel since Walter Scott - is a must-see triumph.

Lanark (a rather too uncharismatic Sandy Grierson) acquires his name from a train ticket. He can't remember his identity as Glaswegian artist Duncan Thaw (ie, Gray himself) until reminded of it in the middle act, which is recounted by an Oracle.

Here we follow his childhood in a tenement block, at school, in the countryside, failing with girls. Thrown out of art school, he paints murals in a church which is then demolished. He is rejected by a prostitute because of his scabby skin, the onset of "dragonhide."

This fairly conventional narrative, conveyed in an adept nine-strong ensemble that includes Gerry Mulgrew, Paul Thomas Hickey and Jessica Hardwick as Lanark's girlfriend Rima, is the sandwich filling between the jazzier, hallucinatory bread slices of Graham Eatough's production.

Lanark is an alien refugee in his own city of Unthank (Glasgow), literally a place where the sun don't shine, the industry is collapsing, the rents rising and the council-run Q 39 project building bomb shelters to attract more investment in destructive weaponry.

Lanark's incipient bestiality results in his hospitalisation where, in recovery, he is automatically diagnosed as a doctor, tending to lizards and salamanders. He is reunited with Rima, now a dragon woman, whom he saves. They end up dossing in the Unthank cathedral, where Lanark is dubbed the new provost of the city as it's systematically swallowed by the Institute.

Laura Hopkins's design of moving frames creates the right variety of space to be imbued with the lighting and video projections of Nigel Edwards and Simon Wainwright. Nick Powell's terrific jazz score references the film Birdman, Kraftwerk, Philip Glass and a raw urban rave style.

And Lanark does indeed soar like a Birdman, though Grierson looks terribly relieved to be on the ground again. Greig introduces a theatrical fall-out between Lanark and the novelist, breaking down the fourth wall as a further task in Lanark's evolution to despair and insisting on a beautiful reconciliation with his son by Rima, Alexander, whom he accompanies on an emotionally significant walking trip on Ben Rua. The whole four-hour show is as hypnotic as it is strange and refreshingly unusual.

Lanark is at the Royal Lyceum until 31 August, then at the Glasgow Citizens 3-19 September.