Robin/ Red/ Breast: Maxine Peake mesmerises in this audacious take on a 1970s TV horror

Maxine Peake in Robin/ Red/ Breast
Maxine Peake in Robin/ Red/ Breast - Tristram Kenton

Robin/Red/Breast – a Factory International production starring the acclaimed actor Maxine Peake – is an innovative, hour-long stage adaptation of John Griffith Bowen’s 1970 horror drama Robin Redbreast. Bowen’s piece (which was written for the BBC television series Play for Today) tells the tale of Norah, a TV script editor who has moved down from London to the rural south-west of England.

In some ways foreshadowing Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror film The Wicker Man, Bowen’s tale plays upon British urbanites’ fears of their rural compatriots. In particular, it draws upon the terrified perception of an enduring paganism and, more particularly, of rituals connected with fertility and human sacrifice.

In this version, written by Daisy Johnson and directed by Sarah Frankcom, Peake (who plays Norah, assisted by a mainly unspeaking, supporting cast) performs inside the skeleton of her character’s rural cottage. Ushered on-stage by a young, all-female, splendidly uniformed marching band, she performs the play’s opening act entirely silently.

The original broadcast of Bowen’s play was disrupted in parts of England by a strike-induced power cut. This production also has moments of blackout, but they are entirely intentional (functioning, as they do, as signs to audience members to don and remove the headphones they have been given when they enter the auditorium).

The audio devices are used to relay the protagonist’s internal monologue. In this sense, the piece is reminiscent (in form, if not in content) of Samuel Beckett’s made-for-television play Eh Joe. In Beckett’s play we watch the silent Joe respond facially and physically to the imagined voice of his reproachful former lover. In Robin/Red/Breast Peake’s character moves wordlessly, responding to the thoughts in her own head.

Horror: Maxine Peake in Robin/ Red/ Breast
Horror: Maxine Peake in Robin/ Red/ Breast - Tristram Kenton

As she alights on characters, often unnamed (such as “the woman who comes to clean” and “the man I once loved”), the story takes on a consciously disquieting indeterminacy. Theatregoers who seek absolute narrative clarity will be disappointed.

The growing unease of Peake’s character is compounded by the assaults on her cottage by forces of nature, both fauna and flora. As our protagonist succumbs to the hostility of her rural environment, her erotic life and, crucially, her fertility, seem beyond her own control.

Peake’s performance is mesmerising. The actor responds with visible emotion to thoughts that are – in Johnson’s remarkable script – pungent, visceral and elemental.

When the piece shifts from recorded to live speech, the play segues between elliptical storytelling and an interpolated section in which Peake (surrounded by the group of young, female musician-performers) takes on the various roles of women who bear witness regarding such matters as termination of pregnancy, trauma in childbirth and postnatal depression.

This adaptation makes explicit connections between Bowen’s referencing of pagan fertility rituals and contemporary matters of female control, or otherwise, over their own reproduction. It will be remembered for that, and also for Peake’s resonating performance.

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