David Harrower’s play A Slow Air aims to evoke the feeling of an old song, one that a bar full of drunks will sing in the wee hours. To do that he puts us in the moment when the song becomes meaningful: that smoky local (you know the one) late night, after the bad feelings have come up and been spit out like bile, after the accusations and recriminations, the years of disappointment and confusion, after watching your dreams modified into hopes, and even those hopes contracted to a desire to be left alone.
The eighty minute story is narrated in two alternating monologues between Athol and Morna, a brother and sister originally from Edinburgh, one iteration — not the last — of a family of working class Scots. Morna and Athol haven’t spoken in more than a decade. Their theme song is a mashup of Pulp’s “Common People” and The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment.” Though, to be fair, Athol’s official song is “Don’t You Forget About Me” by The Simple Minds. Why? Because they’re Scottish, of course. Athol tells us Morna was a traitor to the Scottish people for naming her son Joshua after the U2 album.
For these Scots, life slides out of view as you dance, and drink, and screw. Joshua grew up fatherless because Morna won’t settle for the kind of man who wants to stick around. She despised her parents for their smallness, but her youthful rebellion turned into garden variety, poor white slack. Before she turned 19 she was a Scottish separatist; soon after she had Joshua, a string of boyfriends, and a job cleaning the houses of posh Edinburgh society. Now that she’s in her mid 40s she tells us she still has it — her attitude, her fine arse. “Still, still, still” she says, showing that eternal youth without growth is worse than death.
Comparatively Athol has done well for himself. He’s an independent subcontractor who commands a crew of a dozen men. He successfully raised kids in a little house in a suburb of Glasgow, and he no longer has to work with his hands. His life is almost a vindication of Thatcher, just like The Simple Minds are a vindication of big hair and neon jellies. But that nostalgic picture is tempered by working class atavism (or recidivism?): his little house is “death’s waiting room,” and Archie Swan, Athol’s fellow tiling apprentice, is a real estate mogul who personifies the widening gulf between rich and poor in the post Reagan-Thatcher era.
World-historical events — in this case the 2007 bombing of the Glasgow international airport — happen in close proximity to Athol and Morna, but the bombing’s high significance flies entirely over the heads of common people — despite the fact that Athol lived down the street from Bilal Abdullah, one of the bombers. Joshua (who in a different time and place might have been a member of the Trench Coat Mafia) is fascinated by this fact and insists on breaking into the house where Abdullah’s family lived with Athol in tow. Athol is reluctant at first to break and enter a crime scene (even though the house has been empty for a long while), but he grasps what Joshua (and he, and Morna) hope to find there: some clue that will give their life significance.
It has been pointed out elsewhere that Mr. Harrower’s play constructs its themes organically and unobtrusively. That is to say, it is well written for its chosen realist mode. But let it be noted that “realism” very often relies on sentimentality, coincidence, and a vague feeling that significance inheres in everyday objects and experiences. Minimalism is all too often outsourcing the artist’s job to the audience. (I think that’s why so many amateur photographers like to take extreme close ups of dilapidated junk.) Harrower’s play makes a somewhat different argument, one that artists (like playwrights) love: “reality” isn’t in the facts or events that constitute “the world”; rather, reality is the art that we make out of the world. Reality is the slow air, the song heard and shared, that makes a world we inhabit together. The play shows the moral power of art — of song — because the characters themselves, deeply flawed as they are, striking out in blindness, the product of their limited perspective, rise out of their dissenting, petty selves when they hear the music. It lifts them and binds them to each other — again — as they were in the beginning when they still trailed clouds of glory.
The beauty of A Slow Air is Harrower’s success in capturing in an eighty minute drama what a great song captures in one hundred and eighty seconds. You will leave the theater humming its tune.
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