The Straw Chair is an ambitious play, examining issues of mental illness and the control of women in eighteenth century Scotland.
Written by Sue Glover and inspired by a true story, it both enthrals and entertains, drawing out a fine performance from Siobhan Redmond as Lady Rachel Grange – a woman kidnapped by her husband and left to rot on Hirta, part of the St Kilda archipelago. Lady Grange has nothing but alcohol and her attendant on the island (the Gaelic speaking Oona, played by Jenny Lee) to amuse her.
But onto the island step newly weds Isabel (Rori Hawthorn) and Christian minister Aneas (Finlay Bain), keen to convert all before him. He’s driven by his faith.
In contrast, Isabel is innocent, young and somewhat bewildered by the prospect of living on such a hostile island in the middle of the raging Atlantic Ocean. Their bed is hard, their food smells of the sea and their only chair – a straw one – is soon claimed by Lady Grange.
While Aneas, controlling, warns his wife away from Lady Grange, Isabel is drawn to her like a magnet. It’s not long before they are drinking together (with Oona in tow) and plotting Isabel’s trip to a nearby island with other women to collect eggs and kill sea birds for food. A trip that Aneas forbids her to go on.
Isabel comes out of herself as a result – she’s no longer the nervous, frightened and intimidated virgin she was when she stepped onto the island, sick as a dog.
Lady Grange is mad as a hatter, but charismatic and naughty. She encourages Isabel to express herself by lifting up her skirt to the minister.
This drinking scene between Oona, Lady Grange and Isabel, is the defining one of the play (and the most entertaining) for it ultimately triggers a shift in the relationship between Aneas and Isabel.
The constraints of the Finborough theatre enhance the production, adding to the play’s intensity and authenticity.
The sound effects (Anna Short and Maggie Apostolou) conjure up the sounds of the sea while the Gaelic songs (Rori Hawthorn) are both beautiful and somewhat haunting. The near bareness of the stage enhances the unwelcoming island that both Isabel and Lady Grange have been cast upon.
The Finborough’s reputation for originality – it only presents work if it has not been seen in the capital for at least 25 years – is enhanced by this masterful production, directed by Polly Creed.
It runs until May 14. It’s well worth a trip down to Chelsea to see it (bring your own drink because the pub downstairs is currently undergoing a refurbishment).
While Redmond is wonderful, Hawthorn, Bain and Lee all excel. Four excellent performances.
Photos by Carla-Joy-Evans