Co-produced by Magnetic North and Dundee Rep, the late Tom McGrath’s enchanting drama Kora is enjoying a two-week run in the recently refurbished Bonar Hall. Inspired by a real life Coralie whom the playwright met in Dundee in the 1980s, the fictional Kora is a single mum living with her five sons in crumbling social housing in the city’s Whitfield area.
As the audience files in, it is obvious that Kora is a unique and creative interpretation of what McGrath initially intended as a gritty BBC docu-drama. The play is performed in the round, with designer Becky Minto creating an understated ‘everyman’ domestic environment, complete with dining table, armchairs, and children’s toys. This ordinary setting is also carried through in terms of audience seating – a random collection of kitchen chairs, with the walls lined in a magnolia-painted collage of real furniture: headboards and bedside cabinets, plate racks, kitchen cupboards and lamps. Everything including the kitchen sink, surely a tacit reference to the postwar social realist dramas which undoubtedly influenced McGrath.
While visually fascinating, the overall effect of such an enforced intimacy soon becomes claustrophobic, a feeling compounded by Philip Pinksy’s throbbing soundtrack of scheme life. As the drama unfolds, one quickly realises that the audience too is trapped behind the paper-thin walls of Kora’s world. This is not only theatre in the round, but also in the raw, as it becomes impossible to look away from McGrath’s characters and their endless parade of problems.
Part earth-mother and part pragmatic schemer, the character of Kora is spiritedly realised and portrayed by the talented Emily Winter. Kora is multi-dimensional; ironically, she is also stereotypical and impossible to pin down. She is smart and aspirational, yet unable to find a way out of this inhospitable environment. Director Nicholas Bone has drawn parallels between McGrath’s protagonist and Kora, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, who is lost to the Underworld. When the mythical Kora returns to the world above she brings Spring with her, and this play can be read as the narrative of the ‘real’ Kora’s journey towards clarity. The final scene sees her dressed in bright summery yellow, about to make a life-changing decision.
Anti-social behaviour on the Skarne estate is ever-present: drug use and abuse, physical assault, televisions thrown from upstairs windows. All these things are commonplace and yet a strong sense of community manages to survive. Kora is supported by some of her neighbours – the irrepressible Ina, played with great warmth by Vari Sylvester and the cynical and sometimes acerbic Julie (Irene Macdougall). Idealistic student Florence (Molly Vevers) and community architect Peter (Cameron Mowatt) persuade the scheme’s frustrated residents to form a tenants’ group to lobby for the improvement of their accommodation and surroundings.
“We’re at the bottom of the heap. State-dependent,” observes elderly gardener Dave (John Buick) at one of their meetings. This is the message at the heart of this warm and perceptive play. McGrath’s characters are powerless, and there is a sense that keeping them powerless is in the interests of the authorities. Certainly, the dastardly housing officer Richard ‘Dick’ Turpin, ably performed by Martin McBride, seems to delight in verbally tying the residents in knots.
While often light-hearted and sparklingly funny, Kora delivers a serious message. It asks questions that cannot easily be answered: about nurture, about environment, about society’s prejudices. Ultimately though, the play is about power; what happens when people are deprived of it and whether they can ever find the strength to realise their own autonomy.