Review: Mrs Puntila and Her Man Matti (Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh)

Denise Mina adapts the classic Bertolt Brecht text for the Edinburgh venue this month

Elaine C Smith in Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti
Elaine C Smith in Mrs Puntila and her Man Matti
© Mihaela Bodlovic

Brecht wrote Mr Puntila and his Man Matti during his wartime exile in Finland, but Denise Mina's new adaptation for the Edinburgh Lyceum sets the action in contemporary Scotland and makes Puntila a lady, played by Scottish star Elaine C Smith. In some ways she's a take on the classic Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, because when she's drunk she's affable, generous and everyone's pal; but when she's sober she's a mean, tyrannical monster who squeezes the life out of anyone around her.

The trouble with this sermonising play, however, is that that's kind of it. What little plot the play has is basically an exploration of those two sides of Mrs Puntila's character and any 'action' is rendered not only superfluous but inconsequential. Scenes in the hotel, labour exchange or country house come and go to little effect, and the story seems to travel in a circle rather than develop anywhere in particular. Of course, that's mostly the fault of Brecht, who uses the play as a vehicle to evangelise for his Communist beliefs, using Puntila's interactions with her workers to stage the eternal class conflict between the proles and the bosses.

Does it have to be so desperately tedious, though? Watching Brecht today, his class politics feel very dated, and there was nothing in this adaptation that makes the ideology speak any more deeply. Indeed, in many ways Mina's adaptation compounds the problem. There's nothing about the play that's particularly Scottish, save a fondness for alcohol, and the script falls into every trap that Brecht sets for it. It's clumsy, flabby and painfully right-on in places, with some utterly unnecessary references to Brexit that get badly in the way. It points out the obvious, it breaks the fourth wall rather too gleefully for its own good, and it's unnecessarily sweary in the cheap way comedians do when their jokes aren't funny. It's meant to be a comedy, but I didn't laugh once.

And that script is like a prison for the lead actor. Smith is a force of nature when let off the leash, but the improvisatory vim that makes her so fun to watch in the panto is completely absent in a performance that swings between two lazy stereotypes. Neither Murat Daltaban's predictable direction nor Tom Piper's sparse sets add much. There's some compensation from Steven McNicoll's humane Matti, and Oğuz
Kaplangı's music provides some atmosphere, but they're the only redeeming features in an evening that's preachy, portentous and much too long.

The second half is a digressive tale of the oppressive rich and the desperate poor. And the final sequence is an emotive paean to the natural beauty of Scotland, something which should stir the blood of any Caledonian, but by the time it drags itself over the finish line I am too bored to care.