Joyce McMillan online…

All my writing on theatre and general social/political issues is available online here.

Everything on the site appears in date order, below, beginning with the most recent column or review.  Most of these pieces are commissioned by, and first appear in, The Scotsman. Ultimate ownership of copyright remains with me, and is asserted here.

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© Joyce McMillan 2011

Show 6

THEATRE
Show 6
4 stars ****
Summerhall (Venue 26)

THE SECRET THEATRE season at the Lyric, Hammersmith has been making waves in London this year, as a world-class team of actors and writers surprise audiences with a different anonymous play each night, partly chosen by the audience. Here in Edinburgh though, there’s a chance to glimpse just two examples of their work, in A Series Of Increasingly Impossible Acts at Northern Stage, and this brand-new piece at Summerhall by leading British playwright Mark Ravenhill, set in a country where a super-rich elite – permantly dressed in bathing costumes and designer shades – lolls around the poolside, guarding its secrets, and keeping the impoverished masses at bay.

Things start to fall apart, though, when our privileged and drugged-up young hero – jokily played by Steven Webb, in sparkly gold disco-shorts – knocks over a poor man while driving through the favella, and is told, in an act of revelation or revenge, that his wealthy parents are not really his parents, and that he was one of the children stolen from left-wing dissidents following a military coup, and brought up by supporters of the new regime.

Show 6 is a strange, unsettling play, which takes the image of a known human rights catastrophe – the theft of children by the Argentinian military regime of 1976-83 – and weaves it into a dream-like drama of family and political neurosis that sometimes suggests all narratives are equally questionable, a theme which seems dangerously wide of the mark in this case.

The texture of the writing is intense and fascinating throughout, though, in a three-way drama where realities constantly shift, and almost every sentence is interrupted by sudden silence; and it features a terrific performance from Matti Houghton as the woman our hero calls mother, possessive, seductive, sleek with privilege, and dedicated to the idea that her boy must look to the future – perhaps because the past bears no examination at all.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 17
p. 349

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Fringe First Winners 2014 – Week 2

Here they are, our seven superb Week 2 Fringe First Winners, awarded yesterday morning at the Assembly Rooms!

The Carousel by Jennifer Tremblay Stellar Quines at Traverse Theatre
The Day Sam Died Armazem Theatre Company at New Town Theatre
The Initiate by Alexandra Wood Paines Plough at Summerhall
Lippy by Bush Moukarzel with Mark O’Halloran Dead Centre at Traverse Theatre
Object Lesson by Geoff Sobelle Aurora Nova/ Geoff Sobelle at Summerhall
Pioneer curious directive at Zoo Southside
Sanitise Melanie Jordan and Caitlin Skinner at Underbelly Cowgate

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Fringe Firsts 2014 Week 1!

OK, so here’s our sparkling first week Scotsman Fringe First list!

CUCKOOED by Mark Thomas, at the Traverse Theatre
CONFIRMATION by Chris Thorpe, at Northern Stage @ King’s Hall
MEN IN THE CITIES BY Chris Goode at the Traverse
CHEF BY Sabrina Mahfouz at the Underbelly, Cowgate
THE COLLECTOR by Henry Naylor at the Gided Balloon
SPOILING by John McCann at the Traverse

Congratulations to all these terrific winners – and on to next week!

Now’s The Hour: The First Minister’s Visit To The Scottish Youth Theatre, And The Relationship Between Politics And Art

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOW’S THE HOUR… for the Scotsman Magazine, 26.7.14. _________________________________________________________

CULTURE AND POLITICS often make uneasy bedfellows; so it was in slightly apprehensive mood that I set out, last week, to watch the First Minister pay an official visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre, at its headquarters in Glasgow’s Merchant City. The occasion was two-fold; the First Minister would see both a brief performance by the Tin Forest International Performing Company – a group of young people from across the Commonwealth taking part in this huge Glasgow 2014 community project – and an extract from the SYT’s forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show, Now’s The Hour, in which young people voting for the first time face up to Scotland’s big day of decision.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried on this occasion, either about the politics or about the art. The short Tin Forest dance piece was impressive, the First Minister was in genial form; and the extract from Now’s The Hour reduced him and almost everyone else to tears, not because the show takes any particular view on the referendum debate – it is strictly neutral – but because of the bright, achingly hopeful faces of the twelve young people in the cast, as they posted humblingly wise letters to their future selves into a giant ballot box.

So far, so good, in other words; but there’s no point in pretending that the coming referendum doesn’t raise serious questions about how arts and politics should interact, in a 21st century democracy. On the “yes” side, there’s plenty of creative excitement around the idea of possible future Scotlands; but also a sense that this is more of a time for cabaret, debate, and brilliant fragments, rather than sustained long-form work “about” the referendum. And on the “no”side, there is much concern about the future of the dense network of UK connections in areas like classical music and literary publishing; along with a genuine if as yet unjustified apprehension that in or out of the UK, Scotland’s SNP-dominated government is bound, in the end, to start favouring artists who share its political perspective.

Scotland’s current situation, in other words, throws a sharp light on the fact that in any political situation, the price of artistic freedom is eternal vigilance. If there are relatively few “big plays” about the independence debate on this year’s Fringe, that only serves to remind us that art necessarily moves to a very different rhythm from politics, often decades in advance when it comes to imagining new cultural identities and possibilities, many years behind in responding fully and deeply to sudden change.

And when it comes to protecting artists from politicians and their demands, that remains a vital task for arts funding bodies, for the media, and for artists’ themselves; all of whom need to be aware not only of explicit pressures to take political sides, but also of the more subtle pressures that pervade our PR-driven world – to join in the business of hype and image-making rather than asking tough questions, to celebrate rather than interrogate, and to be co-opted to an ethos of global marketing that presents itself as apolitical, but which can nonetheless, like any ideology, become an enemy of truth, and of real creative freedom.

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The Tin Forest, Endurance, News Just In

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TIN FOREST at the South Rotunda, Glasgow, ENDURANCE at the Arches, Glasgow, and NEWS JUST IN at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.7.14.
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The Tin Forest 4 stars ****
Endurance 3 stars ***
News Just In 2 stars **

IT BEGINS with a scene of devastation and bleakness. “There was a once a wide, windswept place, near nowhere and close to forgotten,” says the opening sentence of Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson’s much-loved children’s book The Tin Forest, “that was filled with all the things that no-one wanted.” The story goes on to tell how the old man who lives in the middle of wasteland starts to build a forest out of the junk around him, and about the magic that brings the forest to life; and it must be more than half a decade, now, since the former National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone first began to wonder whether this story might work as a metaphor for some aspects of Glasgow’s story, over the last 30 years.

So it’s strangely – almost uncannily – fitting that the NTS’s huge Tin Forest project has reached its climax in this strange and glorious week for Glasgow, with the Commonwealth Games in full swing, and the new riverside city around the main project venue at the South Rotunda glittering in tropical sunshine. The climactic “puppet theatre experience” itself – directed and designed by the NTS’s Graham McLaren – is both slightly flawed, and immensely beautiful. In groups of six or seven, the audience is led into the labyrinthine lower level of the Rotunda, where we walk through a series of scenes – all with a faint atmosphere of the late-Victorian period when the Clyde tunnel Rotundas were built – that draw us into the story of the old man, represented by a superb puppet-figure. We enter his little house with its bleak view of the wasteland, we see the workshop where he struggles to build a bird that will fly, we pass through a little series of fairground-style story-tableaux, and we reach the moment when the little house is suddenly surrounded by seething new green life.

And at that point, the show seems to run out of inspiration; instead of coming up into the main space of the rotunda to find some lush and thrilling Dear Green Place, we see a pallid projected view of the Hebrides, and the Tin Forest team of musicians – ledy by Annie Grace and Gav Prentice – singing and chatting their way through a familiar programme of Glasgow songs put together by musical director Michael John McCarthy. The music needs sharper direction, the visual imagery doesn’t match the story. Yet even with this less-than-intense conclusion, The Tin Forest remains a memorable experience, in a remarkable buiding; the last piece in the jigsaw, perhaps, for Glasgow’s long story of post-industrial regeneration.

In a city full of Games-related cultural events, meanwhile, the Arches’ show Endurance stands out for the sheer strength of its raw and heartfelt commitment to its subject. Created by The Women’s Creative Company and A Moment’s Peace, the show brings together a comunity company of 17 women performer-researchers, who bring us the history of women’s participation in the Commonwealth Games. In a sense, this 80-minute show feels both too long for the single powerful message it conveys about negative and sexist attitudes to women in sport, and too short to tell us the full story of the many fascinating and impressive women it mentions. Yet the energy, poise, passion and occasional anger of the women is unforgettable; and deeply impressive.

Later in the evening at the Arches, a huge and glittering team of writers and performers are involved in the creation of News Just In, a show which aims to provide a freshly-written satirical perspective on the whole business of Glasgow 2014 every night from now until 2 August. The show is played out on the sparking green-and purple set of an angst-ridden Scottish current affairs television show called Tartan Tonight, and features some impressively lurid design by Lisa Sangster, as well as a potentiaily riveting pair of lead performances from Jordan Young and Julie Brown as the show’s two daggers-drawn presenters.

What we mainly learned from the opening News Just In show, though, is that none of this matters if you don’t have a real satirical writer on the strength. As principal writer for the first episode, all the exceptionally gifted Johnny McKnight seemed able to serve up was a few tired jokes about the television industry, larded with a strain of unfunny obscenity that made me gasp at its sheer ugly pointlessness. News Just In will be a better show on other nights, of course. Yet satire is a special skill; and with vital political jokery like Lady Alba’s Bad Romance circulating on the internet, Scottish theatre needs to raise its satirical game well above this level, and fast.

Shows seen on 24 August, 24 August and 22 August.

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Kitsch, Tat And True Creative Talent: Mixed Messages From The Common Wealth Games Opening Ceremony Run Deeper Than Yes-No Debate – Column 25.7.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.6.14.
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TO PITLOCHRY, on Wednesday afternoon, to see a new production of Stephen Greenhorn’s play Passing Places, about two young neds from Motherwell on the run from their native central belt, gradually learning – on the long road to Thurso – to recognise the many different faces of the country they call home. Greenhorn’s play contains a brilliant passage in which one of the boys, Alex, is invited by a new-age woman he meets along the way to describe the West Highland scenery as”beautiful”; but he just can’t do it. “It’s not,” he says, “a word in my language.”

And I thought of young Alex again, on Wednesday night, as I watched the strange, funny, tangled, contradictory, embarrassing, touching and thriling thing that was the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; for although the word “beautiful” is probably now heard more often in Scotland than it was 20 years ago, the ceremony suggested that Scotland’s relationship with the thing itself – beauty – is still a complicated work-in-progress. It took exactly two hours and ten minutes for something unambiguously beautiful to appear at Parkhead on Wednesday night; and to judge by the buzz on social media, I wasn’t the only one to notice something shift and intensify in the air around Celtic Park and across Scotland, at the moment just after 11 o’clock when Nicola Benedetti appeared on stage, and began to play an inspired and exquisite violin arrangement of the Bonnie, Bonnie Banks Of Loch Lomond.

Before that, there had been the long, joyful, noisy parade of the nations, complete with wee scottie-dogs in team jackets, wild cheering, and huge light-shows sweeping across the stadium’s giant screen. And in the first hour of the ceremony, there was that mind-blowing Glasgow explosion of wild cultural self-mockery, open-hearted welcome, sheer generosity of spirit, and eye-popping visual garishness, that left mouths agape across the planet with its combination of shouting celebrities, dancing Tunnocks Tea Cakes, miniaturised scale models of the Forth Bridge and the Finnieston Crane, and hundreds of ordinary Glaswegians – old and young, fat and slim, black and white – bopping and twirling around the stadium in dazzling playschool colours, in a pattern of simple but tightly-choreographed movement.

That some aspects of this sequence worked bette than others almost goes without saying. The generosity of the ceremony’s fund-raising link-up with UNICEF was inspired, and made space for some serious information about the problems faced by children in many parts of the Commonwealth. The celebs – live and filmed – by and large performed well, with John Barrowman striking a blow for gay rights across the Commonwealth by planting a kiss full on the lips of a young male dancer, Ewan MacGregor fronting the UNICEF appeal in fine style, and Billy Connolly remembering the great moment when Nelson Mandela came to Glasgow to receive the Freedom Of The City; although the heavy dependence on expat celebrities like Rod Stewart to headline the event suggested that Scotland’s cultural cringe may still be alive and well in some quarters. And the idea of including ordinary citizens in the ceremony often worked well; there were moments, both in the stadium and on film, that did capture a sense that “people make Glasgow,” that this is a city of and for ordinary people, not smooth and well-groomed elites.

Yet until that moment when Nicola Benedetti finally appeared on stage – raising the game, intensifying the effort, aspiring to something a little beyond open-hearted fun – the ceremony strkingly lacked beauty, or indeed any sense of stillness and grace; it looked busy, energetic, slightly frenzied, and – in its palette of sound and imagery – often quite Disneyfied and child-like, a wide-eyed mix of nursery colours, cute cultural icons, and lovable little dogs. Speaking to a Commonwealth-related business conference in Glasgow on Tuesday, the First Minister promised a games free of explicit politics around the current referendum campaign; and it’s easy to guess how well any explicit yes-no campaigning would have gone down with the crowd at Parkhead on Wednesday night.

Yet the ceremony itself came as a sharp reminder of how closely culture and politics are entwined, and how every cultural representation we create of ourselves – as nations, as cities, as men or women, or as members of this or that minority or interest-group – carries profound political messages about who we think we are, and who we would like to be. What Wednesday’s opening ceremony said to the world was that Glasgow – and Scotland – is a place with a sense of humour, that knows how not to take itself too seriously; that it’s a tolerant place, a warm-hearted place, and a place plugged into the tropes and images global popular culture, like everywhere else.

It also, though, risked making Glasgow look – quite wrongly – like a place with no discrimination and no taste, desperately vulnerable to any heavily-marketed tat that global culture-makers may choose to throw at it. And it wasn’t untl the final half-hour of the ceremony- when Nicola played, and Billy Connolly spoke, and the wonderful South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza sang a sweet and powerful version of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye – that we began to glimpse the real creative strength behind the big smiles and fluorescent colours, the sheer weight of creative endeavour that has helped to change and deepen Scotland’s collective life over the last two generations, and the popular passion for great art presented with unsurpassed skill that has made Glasgow such a vital centre both for the visual arts, and the home of almost all of Scotland’s great performing companies, from Scottish Opera and the RSNO to the National Of Theatre Of Scotland.

It is impossible, in other words, entirely to disentangle politics from art; art speaks to communities of people about themselves and their shared life, and politics reflects that same life in different ways. If artists are to fulfil their true creative role, though, they have to be free to pursue what is difficult, and complex, and grown-up, and beautiful, in their art-form; they have to be free to change and silence people with their work, and to create new points of balance and joy never imagined before.

And as the opening ceremony so vividly demonstrated, for both better and worse, the main danger stalking our culture in the west now has less to do with politicians demanding support for specific policies; and more to do with pervasive and often patronising marketing-led assumptions that associate popular culture with the obvious, the crass, the childish and the garish. In the Glasgow I know, the tradition has always been subtly different from that; it’s about a city of rebellious thinkers and discerning amateurs, which has always insisted that the best is for everyone, whether it’s the Mahabharata at the Tramway, or Pavarotti singing at the SECC, or the magnificent musicianship of Nicola Benedetti. On Wednesday night, the messages were memorably mixed, sometimes even confusing. Yet they were complex enough to allow for hope that Glasgow will continue to change and flourish, not least by never giving up on the demanding quest for the beauty that is truth, and that finally sets everyone free.

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