The Monstrous Heart

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper

Four stars

A storm is brewing from the off in Oliver Emanuel’s searing new play, which reunites a mother and daughter for one last showdown before they’re blown apart forever. Mag is holed up in an isolated wooden shack in the Canadian outback, and has been hibernating there for some time, giving gunned-down wildlife a kind of immortality as a taxidermist. Hence the dead grizzly bear on her kitchen table.

Mags’ daughter Beth has just blown in like she’s escaped from a maximum security zoo, full of fire and thunder for some perceived hand-me-down sins neither can truly escape from. At first Mag is a cowering mouse under siege from Beth’s no-holds-barred assault. By the end, the animal mentality of both women both blazes into self-destructive life, as the law of the jungle decrees the survival of the fittest.

Emanuel’s writing is seriously off the leash here in a furious seventy-five minutes, as it attempts to dissect the old nature versus nurture debate before each woman gets in touch with the killer within. As Mag and Beth, Christine Entwisle and Charlene Boyd are forces of nature of two very different kinds. As Beth, Boyd is a volatile rocket set to explode, while Entwisle presents Mag as a more bunged-up figure. Confined inside Cecile Tremolieres’ wooden shack of a set in Gareth Nicholls’ turbo-charged production, the pair are at respective breaking points as their damaged vulnerability evolves into an instinctive rage.

There is a discipline to all this, that gives it an intensity beyond mere hysteria. This comes across in both in the writing and the performances, with each gradual reveal impressively teased out. In this respect, Emanuel’s play possesses the unhinged emotional and psychological wildness of a Sam Shepard epic. Like that particular literary outlaw, Emanuel tethers his yarn to a rigid structure and fiercely intellectual line of inquiry. Rather than neuter it, this gives the play a weight that bolsters the play’s theatricality with an untamed savagery that roars.