‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!’ wrote Robert Burns in his famous poem To A Louse, apparently inspired by seeing the insect roaming over the hat and hair of a young lady sat in front of him one Sunday in church. Much quoted, less understood, the poem’s a prime example of Burns‘ understanding of human nature and his imposition of that onto the animal kingdom. Author and performer Alan Bissett, however, has gone one step further with his new set of monologues; in The Red Hourglass, he’s not just observing the non-human creatures in some scientific experiment (the audience are repeatedly reminded that they are in that role), he IS them.
Initially sat on his haunches on a chair — hunched, head down, features lost under a black hoodie — Bissett is an immediately disturbing presence on stage, even before that mischievous yet hard-eyed smile encapsulates his first character, a Scottish house spider who acts as our introduction to the arachnid worldview. Skillfully, Bissett pulls his audience in with humour, not least his take on that almost-mythical encounter between Robert the Bruce and a determined spider. Yet this arachnid gadge’s ‘Gothic sensibility’ is as much a lure as anything else: spiders and flies are in an acceptable predator/prey dynamic — we’re left in no doubt that humans are the arrogant bullies who, despite being outnumbered by spiders by 1,000 to one, still think they’re in a position to dictate terms.
With the simplest of costume and accent changes, Bissett successfully inhabits a succession of creatures under the scientific spotlight. These include a nervous, Scorpion-fearing Italian-American Trap spider worried about his wife and 3,000 kids. Then there’s a macho Venezuelan Tarantula, full of the spirit of South American revolution, whose hatred of Hawk Wasps has spread to war on all insects. And finally, the titular character, the Black Widow Spider with her red hourglass marking, is presented as a guilt-ridden, self-disgusted Southern Belle who believes she deserves to be in a place where she can hurt no one. But she still has her eight eyes on that Tarantula — well, she just can’t help herself...
Although each of these monologues can potentially stand on its own, weaved through them is a subtle narrative arc that effectively builds to a conclusion that pulls no punches about Bissett’s view of nature — human or arachnid. Excellently written and performed, this is definitely a work that holds you in its web — and a worthy successor to Bissett’s previous hit, The Moira Monologues.