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

Squash

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SQUASH at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.10.14.
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4 stars ****

IN A TOWER-BLOCK flat in some bleak Scottish city, Bald and his mother – known only as Ma – are eyeing the boy Bald has just grabbed outside the flats, and taken prisoner.  Their accusation is that the boy, Paul,  has stolen Bald’s precious shiny bicycle; but it’s not long before it becomes clear that the bicycle is at best a fantasy, and at worst a metaphor for something much darker, and more frightening.

Set in the kind of dystopian urban badlands where working-class white people like Bald and Ma increasingly lurk at home, nursing hostile fantasies about the “ethnics” who live around them – while middle class kids like Paul may well indulge in even more lethal forms of veiled racism – this latest short play by writer and actor Martin McCormick is a truly disturbing black tragic-comedy of grotesque and dysfunctional relationships, not only between a superbly weird and damaged Keith Fleming as Bald, and Anne Lacey as his all-consuming mother, but also in society at large.

Finn den Hertog’s Play Pie and Pint production – which moves on to the Traverse next week – races along with an impressive, unsettling intensity.  And McCormick’s writing often achieves an almost Philip-Ridley-like nightmare quality, as he conjures up image after image of a society in meltdown, clinging to tiny fragments of meaning in ever more embattled domestic spaces, while steadily succumbing to the madness of a world bereft of the idea of safe public space,  and obsessed with recurring images of violence and threat that make half-crazed prisoners of us all.

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Arches Live! 2014

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 13.10.14.
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4 stars ****

THE WORD ‘POWERS’ is all around us this month, as Scotland  debates its new post-referendum political settlement. So it’s perhaps a sign of times that the concept of power seems to underpin almost all of the shows in this second-week crop of Arches Live! productions, one of the most varied and impressive in the venue’s recent history; although for Arches’ artists, the approach to the subject is never obvious.

F K Alexander’s Recovery, for example, is not so much a show as a sustained 50-minute piece of 21st-century music and sound, performed to an audience lying on the cold floor of the Arches Playroom, on an array of cushions, under slightly magical swinging lights.  Yet the sound – a combination of electronic soundtrack and exquisite ringing bowls and gongs, played by the fairy-like Alexander and four other musicians – is so intense that it seems to lead us deep into the inner place where human beings find the strength to face up to the onrushing crises of life.  The bowls used in the show, significantly, are the same ones brought back from Tibet by NVA for their ground-breaking 2000 show The Path, at Glen Lyon; and it’s that kind of continuity that adds a strange richness to Scotland’s compact, energised creative life.

There’s sharp satire on the whole idea of purely personal empowerment in Thomas Hobbins’s entertaining and beautifully-crafted spoof motivational show, Max Powers Says; and a gradual edging towards wider societal history in Amy Conway’s beguiling interview-based piece 30:60:80 – co-created with Victoria Beesley – about Amy herself, her mother and her grandmother, all of whom celebrated big birthdays this year.  There’s Hey, I’m Alive! by the young Edinburgh-based group Creative Electric, a brief half-hour experience which explcitiy seeks to give a higher profile to the issues faced by young cystic fibrosis sufferers, but achieves its aim by delving deep into their private experience, and encasing four of its five young performer in huge plastic bubbles that evoke their powerful sense of social and physical isolation.

There’s the personal and political journeying involved in  Stephanie Eiaine Black’s hugely powerful and sorrowful fragment Dowry, which uses both visual and sensual imagery to involve each audience member in the experience of women veiled, laden in gold, and bartered away in marriage.  And in a final, breathtaking burst of explicit politics, there’s Emilia Weber and Claire Healey’s There They Carved A Space, in which two brilliant young women, standing at microphones, take a long look through text and visual imagery at the political history of space, land ownership and housing in Britain.

What emerges is a richly poetic litany of theft, and of profiteering on a common asset, from the enclosures of the 18th century to the recent story of Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games development; and a fierce, unapologetic lament for the period of the welfare state, the “truce between capital and labour”, when just for a while, spacious and striking homes were built by government for the people, and rented to them at prices that did not mortgage them for life to a system never designed to serve their best interests.

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A Play, A Pie And A Pint – Moving On

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A PLAY, A PIE AND A PINT – MOVING ON   for the Scotsman Magazine, 11.10.14. ________________________________________________________

IT’S A WET Monday lunchtime on Byres Road; outside on the street, faces are dour and traffic is sluggish.  Yet downstairs in the Oran Mor nightlclub space, there’s barely a seat to be had, as a packed audience of students, theatre folk and West End regulars pick up their pies and pints, and squeeze into their seats to watch the opening performance this week’s new play, the fifth of thirteen in the current season.

It’s ten years this autumn since the Wildcat veteran David MacLennan launched the Play, Pie and Pint phenomenon, in this converted church at the heart of the West End.  And seven months after his sad death in March of this year, the theatre season he left as his legacy is powering on into the future, under the direction of Susannah Armitage, who arrived at A Play, A Pie And A Pint as MacLennan’s right-hand woman in 2008, and has now become his successor as Producer, with Sarah MacFarlane in the associate producer role.

“It’s been a really hard time in many ways,” says Armitage after the show.  “Yet the support we’ve had from our audience has just been astonishing, and we’re now regularly selling out four or five of our six lunchtime performances each week.

“In terms of how I do the job, I think I just learned so much from David about how to work as a producing team, with everyone on board for the whole creative project.  So at the moment, I tend to look after most of the forward planning, while Sarah takes care of the day-to-day process of performance and rehearsal.  And of course, we both read scripts, all the time.

“Overall, we’re in no hurry to change a formula that has worked so well; we’ll carry on staging around around 30 new plays a year including two pantos, and we also want to maintain the Wildcat tradition of staging the odd musical, and some topical pieces of agitprop and political cabaret.”   Armitage offers the current Oran Mor show – due to arrive at the Traverse next week – as an example; it’s Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters by A.J.  Taudevin, a political memory-play with songs about the legacy of Glasgow’s great 1914 rent-strike campaigner Mary Barbour.

If Armitage is intent on steering A Play A Pie And A Pint steadily through this critical year, though, there are also plenty of new initiatives on the horizon.  As well as pursuing successful existing partnerships with the Traverse Theatre and Aberdeen Performing Arts, A Play, A Pie and A Pint is about to launch a new relationship with Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff, now under the direction of former Perth Theatre boss Rachel O’Riordan.  Next spring, the season will include three new international plays from Russia and Ukraine.  And although David MacLennan launched A Play, A Pie And A Pint with a vow never to tangle with Scotland’s arts funding bodies again, before his death he helped to prepare a three-year regular funding application to Creative Scotland.

“Any funding we receive will still be a relatively small proportion of our budget, though,” says Armitage, “because basically, we are funded by our audience, which is a terrific strength.  So far as the wider Scottish theatre scene is concerned – well, it’s always possible to imagine improvements.  But I do think the scene here is now exceptional, in the number of different avenues there are for people to have new work presented and developed.  There’s so much talent out there; and we feel very supported, too, by all the many people in Scottish theatre who have offered to help in every way they can, over the last months.  And although there were times when David was ill when I felt that I just wouldn’t be able to do this without him, now that he’s gone I feel determined to carry on the good work – and really excited about everything we’re planning, for our next few seasons.”

Mrs Barbour’s Daughters at Oran Mor today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 14-18 October.

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Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters, Linwood No More

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MRS BARBOUR’S DAUGHTERS at Oran Mor,   Glasgow, and LINWOOD NO MORE at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 11.10.14.
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Mrs. Barbour’s Daughters  4 stars ****
Linwood No More    2 stars **

THE POLITICAL LANDSCAPE of Scotland may shift and quake; but the nation’s theatre community have always played a key role in reminding us where the main landmarks are, and ensuring that unsung heroes and heroines are not hidden from history.  Mary Barbour – celebrated in A.J. Taudevin’s new 50-minute play for the Play, Pie And Pint season – was one of those heroines, the woman who led the Glasgow rent strike of 1914, after tenement landlords tried to impose massive increases on the wives and families of serving soldiers; and who went on to become a city councillor, and a hugely influential campaigner for the welfare of women and children in Scotland’s cities.

It’s good to report, though, that Taudevin’s play is no simple act of hagiography, but a complex reflection on family history, in which 87-year-old Mary – named after Mrs. Barbour – reflects on a life shaped by he own bitter reaction against the family radical tradition, represented by her older sister Grace.  Cared for by Grace’s robust daughter Joan, who cheerfully tolerates her abuse, Mary revisits the 1930, the 1940’s and the 1950’s; and although she wants only to hear the easy-listening tunes on her battered radio, Grace’s voice brings another kind of song back to her troubled mind, songs of struggle and liberation which finally swell into a magnificent choral conclusion.

Mary’s stubborn bitterness perhaps persists too far into the drama; the play needs to seem more like a journey, less like a sudden volte-face. Yet the powerful texture of Taudevin’s writing supports a fine trio of performances from Anna Hepburn as Mary, Gail Watson as Grace, and Libby McArthur as both Joan and Mrs. Barbour; and lunchtime audiences at the Traverse next week can look forward to a thought-provoking piece of radical history, with an added chance to join in the final chorus of Bella Ciao.

Paul Coulter’s Linwood No More, playing briefly at the Tron, is a 45-minute monologue built around another vital piece of Scottish working-class history – the short, sad story of the huge Linwood car plant which opened with such high hopes in 1963, and closed with the loss of more than 13,000 jobs just 18 years later.  The sole character in Coulter’s play is one of the victims of that closure, now a down-and-out glimpsed on a Glasgow park bench 19 year on, at the turn of the millennium.

Coulter’s text is too brief to achieve much depth, and too straightfoward in its intention to do much more than state what should be obvious – that people end up on the streets not because they are different from the rest of us, but because they are the same, and often just unlucky in the fierce combination of disasters with which they have to deal.  Yet Vincent Friell delivers a heartfelt and very moving performance, in a show that serves to remind us of the profound human tragedy behind the phrase “Linwood no more”, which the Proclaimers went on to write into our cultural history.

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A Letter To Lord Smith Of Kelvin, Inviting Him To Challenge The Impossible Brief Given To His Devolution Commission – Column 10.10.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 10.10.14.
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THE SMITH COMMISSION, set up in the aftermath of the independence referendum to consider proposals for enhanced devolution to Scotland, is now seeking views from organisations, institutions and individuals across Scotland, about how it should proceed.   Here is my submission to Lord Smith of Kelvin, the Chair of the Commission, in the form of a letter.

Dear Lord Smith,

First of all, may I express my appreciation of your willingness to take on the role of Chairing this Commission, at such an unprecedented moment in Scotland’s history.  The divisions highlighted by the referendum run deep, and there are profound feelings of shock,  anger and alienation on both sides of the divide – often as deep, I note, on the winning side as on the losing one.   As a veteran of the 1990’s Constitutional Convention process which gave rise to Scotland’s present devolution settlement, I am also acutely aware of the complexities surrounding the whole question of Scottish self-government within the UK, and of the levels of goodwill which are necessary to make such arrangements work, inevitably imperfect and asymmetrical as they are – goodwill which may currently be in short supply, on both sides of the debate.

I am conscious, too, of the prolonged ten-year process through which the Constitutional Convention developed its proposals, and, above all, of the extent to which that self-organised   process spread far beyond political parties, into community groups and women’s organisations, religious organisations, trade unions, green groups, and many others.  In the light of this history, I think it is fair to say that the hurried reintroduction of enhanced devolution proposals into the referendum debate, in the last fortnight of a two-year campaign, showed little respect for the complexity of the issues, or for Scotland’s tradition of civic debate on these matters.

And that lack of respect, finally, is no more than another example of the general Westminster “deafness” to Scotland’s political discourse which also includes the continuing  failure to grasp that Scottish discontents with current UK government  are not entirely, or even mainly, constitutional.  The broadly-based “yes” movement which emerged during the referendum campaign, written off by the the Deputy Prime Minister this week as a UKIP-style movement based on xenophobia and bigotry, was in fact – as you will be well aware – largely a centre-left campaign preoccupied with issues of peace, democracy, economic and social justice, sustainable development, and local empowerment.  These are goals which are also shared by many who voted “no”; and I would predict a short life for any devolution settlement which does not help the Scottish Government to address many of  these issues, and  to explore genuine alternatives to current UK policy.

So with those caveats in mind, I would suggest the following priorities for the Commission.  The first concerns the top-down nature of the Commission’s structure, with two representatives each from the political parties who currently sit in Holyrood, but no formal representation from other parts of Scottish society.  The Commission has made an excellent start in seeking views from the widest possible range of organisations an individuals.  You are likely to find, though, that the parties ranged round the table – three of the five in serious decline in Scotland, the others wholly committed to independence – are often poor guides to the real priorities of citizens across Scotland; and this may require you either to think laterally about reforming your own structure, or to play very hard ball indeed with political parties who seem to be consulting their own interests – for example, on the devolution of a very restricted range of tax powers – rather than seeking to devise an improved system of government for Scotland as a whole.

Secondly, for the above reasons, you may feel that you are unable to take full account of views across Scottish society within the timescale available.  I realise that the demand that you establish heads of agreement by 30 November, with details of proposed legislation to be published by 25 January, is written into your basic remit.  If you find, though, that this timescale does not allow for full consultation across Scottish society about such a major set of changes, then you might perhaps consider making it clear that in your view, powers devolved in such haste are not likely to be devolved well.  Of course, by saying so, you might be prising the current Westminster party leaders off a hook of their own devising, in a manner they hardly deserve; but the long-term good governance of Scotland is more important than the transient pleasure of watching the current generation of political leaders struggling to meet their Vow.

And finally – well, you may wish to say nothing at all about the governance of England, which lies beyond your remit.  Yet since the Prime Minister himself has raised the question of “English votes for English laws”, you might wish to point out that our asymmetrical Union can only survive if the largest nation generally accepts that special arrangements for the smaller nations are necessary, in order to counterbalance the general dominance of Engish votes and MP’s, and to bind the smaller nations into the Union by will rather than compulsion.

Once the language of aroused English nationalism enters the fray, on the other hand – and the English polity begins to demand “equal rights” with Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland, regardless of its massively greater electoral strength – then the Union is effectively over, however long it takes to dissolve.  And if David Cameron is too young, or too unschooled in British statecraft, to realise that, then it’s perhaps time for someone to remind him of it; someone whom he might respect, for taking on an exceptionally difficult job at his request.

In that job, meanwhile, I wish you well.  And I also wish you the courage and breadth of vision you and your Commissioners will need, if you are to look beyond the sharp immmediate passions of this unique year in Scottish public life, towards those underlying goals that are always the very stuff of progressive politics – the real empowerment of the people, and the building of institutions that help both to meet their deepest needs, and to fulfil their most deeply-held hopes.

Yours with best wishes,

Joyce McMillan.

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Tomorrow

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TOMORROW at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 6.10.14.
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4 stars ****

ON A dark stage like a landscape of dream or nightmare, three gowned figures stand at a bench, putting final touches to what look like a series of death-masks. They smooth, they brush, they blow glittering clouds of dust through the air ; then one by one, the young actors approach, to carry away these haunting masks of their aged future selves.  Then we see an old man shuffling across a snowy landscape, a vigorous young man pausing to help, and unable to shake him off; the heart and soul of this new show from Glasgow’s internationally-acclaimed Vanishing Point company lies in the truth that the two men are the same, the man called George, the young husband and father now trapped inside the body of an aged, confused and helpless man.

Already seen in Brighton and Brazil, this latest show  by Vanishing Point’s Matthew Lenton marks his boldest experiment yet in shaping theatre that leaves behind the demands of narrative, to become a kind of 75-minute sculpture in space and time, full of haunting images and surging sound.  In the home where George now lives, we meet the staff who care for him, the other residents, the children they once were, strolling and playing through the space.  As drama, the show is perhaps stating the obvious – that old age is a slow shipwreck for all of us, and that we should perhaps be allowed to leave at a time of our own choosing.  As a beautifully-made cry of grief, empathy and rage, though, this show is unforgettable; and it draws from all of Lenton’s team – including his company of eight actors – a level of artistry that leaves audiences almost breathless, and often moved to tears.

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