, , , , , , , , , , , ,


The last that I saw of the Edinburgh writer Ben Blow, he was playing a gloriously twisted F.D.R. in the madcap alternative history “Vichy Goings On.” With his new play at Sweet Grassmarket, “Those Worrisome Sleeps,” I have to decide whether he has risen to maturity or if he is stooping to seriousness. You would hardly guess that the same writer had scripted these plays, unless you thought about it deeply and recognised the imaginative fantasy that is actually distributed amongst both.

Jay (Danielle Farrow) is a “wizard” and absolutely not a witch. A male witch is a warlock, I believe, and a wizard is no more a witch than a policeman is a traffic warden. Jay can summon automatons from the darkness that are made of light and thought and memory. They are apparently spectres, with no consciousness or feelings, and they assume the place that might be held by robots in another Fringe production. Manda (Rachel Graham) is Jay’s beloved whilst Dee (Blanca Takami Siljedahl) is an advisor and assistant. I had initially mistaken Dee for a familiar – she is calm and frisky like a charming cat – but Jay is not a witch and Dee is in fact her former apprentice. Aroll (Chris Bain), who was once betrothed to Manda, can be summoned too and he proves to be more antagonistic.

Fantasy is a whole unread library for me but “Those Worrisome Sleeps” reminds me of different literary sources. In its stately intensity it conveys the atmosphere of an engrossing short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It also bears some resemblance to F. Marion Crawford’s novel The Witch of Prague (1890), in which a witch tries to control an innocent younger woman, and force her to renounce her lover, by using hypnosis. But the proximity of the drama allows us no means of peeping past it and out into its context. It could be set in the hollow of the three hills or on the road out of Prague or in eleventh-century Edinburgh or on some alternative planet.

Happily, there is none of the stilted dialogue of Scott or Tolkien, but instead a naturalness and an agreeable informality to the script. This takes down another wall between us and the drama. Moreover, there is a broad balance of characters on stage and they are each silently vying to influence the play’s tone. Dee’s humour and Manda’s placidity both pull against the electrifying anguish of the lonely wizard. I suggest, however, that more could have been achieved with Aroll, a figure of gentle melancholy who ultimately just chides.

Many of us will connect very keenly with what the wizard is going through. If you have ever loved and lost, or experienced an intense friendship, you will sometimes wish that it could have been frozen for all time. Holograms emit no warmth, though, as this wizard will learn.

I am not sure that we ever get a realistic handle on Jay’s destructiveness. She might strike us as being too thoughtful to convincingly incinerate an entire world, even out of love. There is a brilliant scene in this play when she plucks a star out of the sky and hands it to Dee as a toy ball. Dee is aghast – she accuses Jay of stealing a world’s sun and committing an “omnicide.” That the audience laughs points to an error in the tuning of the story. Yet this scene might also confirm that the writer behind the exuberant farce of “Vichy Goings On” is still present. When that star goes out, it is as though he has winked at us.