THE world premiere of Alasdair Gray’s Fleck, on the closing day of the Book Festival by a cast made up largely of writers, groans under the weight of superlatives: the most ambitious event staged at the Book Festival; the first successful performance (albeit as a rehearsed reading) of a play purportedly rejected by many theatres.
Fleck is Gray’s take on Faust, poised uneasily between comedy and tragedy, veering occasionally into satire and (perhaps not always intentionally) farce. Gray himself plays Old Nick, a twinkly, mischievous devil whom God (Aonghas MacNeacail, with a big white beard and panama hat) permits to test the brilliant Professor John Fleck (played admirably by Will Self) with offers of wealth and power.
But Fleck is too earnest and principled a man to strike a Faustian bargain, and herein lies the play’s weakness. The drama of Faust lies in the sense that his morals are negotiable, open to seduction by wealth, sex and power. Fleck accepts a wife, in a touchingly simple relationship with the guileless May (A L Kennedy), but doesn’t sell his soul. He would rather use the platform of his global consultancy to unmask his employers as the perpetrators of environmental and humanitarian disaster. The greatest tension arises afterwards, when they seek to threaten his wife and child.
At times, the verse-drama form feels archaic and it produces some contrived couplets: “The echoes of his f*rt rings in my ears/ They call it the music of the spheres.” Gray includes stage directions and descriptions of characters and set which narrator Liz Lochhead has to read, and settings change without warning from Fleck’s laboratory to a casino then a television studio.
Yet idiosyncratic and theologically muddled as it surely is, there is something quite serious at the core of Fleck: an anger at the modern world which Gray sees as having made its own Faustian bargain, the untrammelled power of corrupt industries leading to exploitation of the earth and its people. It ends with tanks firing on anti-globalisation protesters.
The most memorable moments are the unscripted ones: the withering look A L Kennedy shoots the audience when she is described as “contentedly breast-feeding their newborn baby”; the moment when Gray and MacNeacail get their lines mixed up and the entire cast teeters on the edge of corpsing. These are the moments that remind us what we’re really watching: a project held together by good will and good humour in order to stage a happening the like of which we might not see again.