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

Under The Mulberry Tree

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on UNDER THE MULBERRY TREE at the Festival Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 7.4.14.
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3 stars ***

THE BEAUTIFUL NEW studio at the Festival Theatre is an immensely flexible space, ideal for dance, puppet theatre, and every kind of experimentation. This week, though – until Saturday – it plays host to a thoroughly conventional middle-class drama, presented by brilliant young London-based director Hannah Eidinow, and the play’s author, Timothy Jones.

Set in the 1950’s, Under The Mulberry Tree begins like a Noel Coward play, as middle-aged idler Monsieur Guillaume, at his shabby small hotel in the south of France, receives an unexpected visit from his smart Parisian sister Gilberte; things take a more emotional turn, however, when Gilberte confesses that she is pregnant, following a rash affair with a younger man undertaken in revenge for her husband’s serial infidelities. It’s not until later, though, that the play’s tragic heroine Connie appears, a desperate 40-year-old childless Englishwoman travelling in France with her cruelly undemonstrative husband; and we begin to understand how Guillaume’s handsome young companion Julian preys not only on Guillaume, but on lonely older women.

Somewhere inside Timothy Jones’s two-hour play, there lurks a potentially radical – almost Ibsenesque – critique of middle-class hypocrisy around women’s sexuality. Connie is damned to misery and barrenness because of an early extramarital affair; Julian has been sexually abused by his own mother. The style of the play, though, is so relentlessly conventional and picturesque – and so beautifully lit by Simon Wilkinson – that the effect is somehow more soothing than challenging; the medium is the message, in the end, and the old-fashioned approach chosen by this play robs the message of at least some of its force.

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A Perfect Stroke

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A PERFECT STROKE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 7.4.14.
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4 stars ***

IN AN AGE when sexual relations between teachers and student have become absolutely and rightly taboo, Johnny McKnight’s new lunchtime play for the Play, Pie and Pint season – first presented as a fragment at the Tron a couple of years ago, and due at the Traverse from tomorrow – boldly goes where few would now dare to tread, into an exploration of the undoubted sexual frisson that can arise between an attractive teacher, and a young pupil.

Over a memorable intense and perceptive 50-minutes, Anita Vettesse plays Ms Stone, a tired and possibly lonely drama teacher who inspires her pupils at the cost of her own emotional and physical exhaustion. So when 16-year-old Thomas arrives for a post-school tutorial session on how to present Romeo’s great “But soft what light from yonder window breaks.. “ soloiloquy, she perhaps sends out some dangerously mixed signals to a boy at an explosive age; she certainly seems hostile to Thomas’s loud perma-tanned girlfriend Carly, hilariously played by Dani Heron.

When the situation gets out of hand, though, and Thomas attempts a clumsy kiss, the relationship between student and teacher suddenly shifts; and a tense and frightening power-struggle develops, as Thomas threatens Ms Stone with exposure, and reveals himself as a disturbed and desperately vulnerable boy. McKnight’s script is both sharp and tender, brilliantly observed; Anita Vettesse and Scott Reid are superb in the two leading roles. And the play leaves some uncomfortable questions unanswered: about how, if we are sexual beings, we can ever completely exclude sexual feelings from the teaching situation, without lying both to our young people, and to ourselves.

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Union And The Scots Tongue

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on UNION AND THE SCOTS LANGUAGE for Scotsman Magazine, 5.4.14.
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LAST WEEK, Tim Barrow’s play huge and rowdy play Union – about the events leading up to the Act Of Union of 1707 – opened at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, to a torrent of conflicting reactions. Some critics lashed out four stars immediately, others dismissed the play with a withering two; some audience members tweeted undying enthusiasm, others warned their friends to stay away.

Amid the debate surrounding the play, though, one aspect of it that should not be neglected is its odd and ambiguous relationship with the Scots tongue. That the play is mainly written in various forms of Scots is no surprise; it’s set at a time when almost everyone in lowland Scotland spoke some form of Scots, and it explicitly aims to combine that historical awareness with today’s living Scots speech, to be heard around Edinburgh every day. And it’s also clear that Tim Barrow is determined, in some parts of the play, to suggest the range of Scots speech at the time; the sequences set in the Scottish Parliament of the day are sober and powerful, and there are some touching moments of lyricism as the hero, the young poet Allan Ramsay, brings his enthusiasm for classical myth and legend to bear on his love-affair with a Royal Mile prostitute called Grace.

Elsewhere, though – and for most of the play’s 3-hour length – Barrow and the Lyceum company fall headlong into the old, old trap of suggesting that Scots is good for nothing but “flyting and fighting” – that is, that it is in its nature a crude street language with special qualities of “earthiness” and “realism”, mainly associated with obscene abuse, drunken aggressiveness, toxic hyper-masculinity, and a notable ugliness of voice.

Now any student of language will tell you that these qualities are not inherent in any language. They are, in fact, a perfect stereotypical list of the qualities routinely associated with languages which have lost political power, and have therefore gradually lost their perceived ability to deal with the “higher things” of life – philosophy, love, spiritual or political aspiration, and become dismissed as languages of the gutter, to be left behind in the quest for refinement and social advancement. Even today, most Scots still believe that the Scots tongue, the Scots voice, is simply an incorrect form of standard English; the impressive history of the language, and the heights of poetry and philosophy to which it once soared, are largely unknown, although the discovery of them remains immensely empowering to those Scots lucky enough to maek the journey.

What is sad about this, though, is that there was a moment – back in the 1980’s – when a new generation of writers and theatre-makers seemed to be on the verge of a major reinvention of Scots speech for new times. They were not the first; one of the funniest , most perceptve and most loving plays ever written about the Scots tongue, for example, is Robert McLellan’s 1948 play The Flouers O’ Edinburgh, recently republished by Luath Press in a new edition of McLellan’s collected works. In the 1980’s, though – as director Charlies Nowosielski explored the rich lyrical and erotic power of the Border Ballads in Scottish theatre, and Liz Lochhead, in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, reinvented a sparkling, sensuos and poetic Scots with a strong and often seductive female voice – it seems as though Scots speech in the theatre was finally breaking the “flyting and fighting” cliche, and reacquiring a range and richness it perhaps had not seen for several centuries.

Well, times move on; and in the ever-more globalised culture of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the dominance of standard English and American voices only increased, in Scottish theatre as elsehwere; the lurid brilliance of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was unforgettable, but only reinforced the image of the Scottish voice as a rogue male one, speaking from the gutter. Perhaps it’s time, though, for another effort to break the bonds of the rough, street-fighting cliche when it comes to the Scottish voice in theatre. Actors who tend to equate Scots speech with shouting and aggression would find the shift to a wider range liberating; writers would find it full of strange and exciting possibilities, both in historical drama and elsewhere. For people in Scotland to make self-respecting decisions about their future, after all, they need to know that their distinctive voice contains within it a whole range of possible human expression, and not just a capacity for vivid cursing and whoring. And that brings us back to the point where Union begins, with good intentions of showing an entire nation on the cusp of change, but with a fatal tendency to lapse – under pressure – into the cliche of an entire nation forever down the pub, shouting the odds, throwing punches, and swearing a blue streak, far into the Edinburgh night.

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The Secret Life Of Suitcases

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE SECRET LIFE OF SUITCASES at the Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, for The Scotsman 5.4.14.
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4 stars ****

IMAGINE THAT YOU lived in a universe run by benign, hairy quarks, cheery particles who occasionally send a suitcase full of fun and happiness to people who don’t know how to enjoy themselves. That’s the universe conjured up in this latest touring show for children around 5-7 by writer Lewis Hetherington and puppet artist Ailie Cohen; and although the idea may seem far-fetched, the show itself is completely delightful.

So Ailie Cohen and her fellow-performer Nick Conte appear at first in brown suits, as they conjure up the life of their puppet hero Larry, a man who works in an old-fashioned office, is always very busy, and never has time for any fun. One day, though, Larry finds a small suitcase by his desk; and when he opens it, he finds himself on a journey that takes him through countryside and across seas – Cohen and Conte pull on coloured t-shirts to provide an appropriate backdrop – until he finds himself somewhere in hyperspace, where he meets the quarks.

The message about making time for the magic of life is simple; yet it seems to strike a chord with a generation of children brought up in a long-hours culture that places huge pressure on family life. And with the help of attractive lighting by Andrew Gannon, and sound by Niroshini Thambar, Larry’s story is presented here with a warmth and inventiveness that wins the rapt attention of its young audience, for a thoughtful, funny and rewarding 45 minutes.

The Secret Life Of Suitcases in Benbecula today, Skye, Mull and Inverness next week, and on tour until 10 May.

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The Best Of Village Pub Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BEST OF VILLAGE PUB THEATRE at the Traverse Theatre, for The Scotsman 5.4.14.
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4 stars ****

IT STARTED a couple of years ago in the back room of the Village Pub in South Fort Street, which is still its home; the formula was simple – a consortium of six writers, a handful of excellent Edinburgh-based actors, one aspiring young director, and plenty of gorgeous home-made cakes. Once a month or so, in Leith, the Village Pub Theatre presents an evening of short ten-minute plays, some written by that core group of writers, others by newcomers and guests; and sometime last year, they also spawned the idea of the tiny 140-character “twitter play”, which has now matured into fine 21st century artworks like David Greig’s online Yes No Plays.

This week, though, the Village Pub Theatre has been attempting something entirely new, in the form of a week-long residency at the Traverse Theatre. The residency is set to end tonight with a celebration party, plenty of cakes, four new short plays by writers including Morna Pearson and Sylvia Dow, and a brisk half hour of the company’s best twitter plays; but the company have spent the week – in their intimate, three-sided “Traverse Three” studio created on the stage of Traverse One – trying their hand at a series of longer one-hour plays-in-progress.

So there’s been an extended version of Louise E. Knowles’s comedy radio horror-movie Listeners Beware, daft but entertaining; and a full-length reworking of Sophie Good’s monologue End Of The Line, in which a woman dreams of being Edinburgh’s first-ever tram passenger. And on Thursday night, there was a passionate performance and discussion of Colin Bell’s play for four men, Samson, about ideas of successful masculinity, and how they relate to a hidden culture of abuse.

The undoubted gem of the week, though, was Monday’s opening play, a gorgeous surreal romantic comedy by Catherine Grosvenor called The Happest Day Of Brendan Smillie’s Life, about a vulnerable bloke called Brendan (a superb Ben Clifford) his over-protective and bullying brother (Paul Cunningham, in terrific form), and a path to true love that runs through some strange byways, until it finds its destination in lovely, ditsy wedding-planner Jenny, played by Jenny Hulse with such light-touch comic perfection that the audience could only roar their approval.

There are questions to be asked, of course, about what this emerging drama of small works, brilliant fragments and script-in-hand performance means; the aesthetic of Village Pub Theatre, steered by director Caitlin Skinner and writer and co-founder James Ley, comes close to suggesting that fully staged productions are hardly necessary any more, to enable audiences to experience the buzz of live theatre created before their eyes; the revel in the power of their own imaginations to conjure up sets, settings and action. Whatever the future holds for Caitlin Skinner and the VPT collective, though, for the moment they’re creating a brand new vortex of powerful theatrical activity in Edinburgh; everyone in the city who enjoys the raw energy of theatre should sample it, and remember to leave plenty of room for cake.

At the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, untl tonight.

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Uneasy And Tasteless: Why The Blowdown Of The Red Road Flats Should Not Be Made A Commonwealth Games Spectacle – Column 4.4.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 4.4.14.
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FIRST, LET’S CONCEDE the good intentions of everyone involved, in the mighty rammy that is likely to follow the announcement that Glasgow is to stage the explosive demolition of five of its notorious Red Road tower blocks as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, on 23 July. Back in 1990, after all – when Glasgow enjoyed its famous year as European City Of Culture – the city won friends and admirers across the world for the candour with which it exposed its post-industrial wounds, and tried to create something beautiful and truthful out of the inevitable sadness of the decline of its great heavy industries. Iconic buildings like the old St. Rollox railway works at Springburn, the Tramway at Albert Drive, the Harland and Wolff engine shed at Govan, and the Arches beneath Central Station, all sprang to life as performance and exhibition spaces; and some of them went on to become permanent features of the city’s cultural landscape.

So 24 years on, it must have been tempting to imagine that the demolition of the Red Road flats – to be performed live during the opening ceremony, and beamed to giant screens in the main stadium at Celtic Park and across the city – might strike a similar chord across the world. Glasgow is not the only city, after all, that has found itself demolishing huge multi-storey housing developments of roughly similar vintage to Red Road, which was completed in 1969; and there’s no doubt that their demolition could, at least in theory, mark a stage in the process of the urban rebirth so ardently conjured up in the Commonwealth Games press release.

Yet somehow, the idea of embracing this demolition as part of the Commonwealth Games celebrations seems as uneasy and tasteless as it is bold. The embrace of old and disused industrial spaces during 1990 was essentially an act of creative reinvention, and of imaginative tribute to the past; the spaces themselves were often beautiful, with a terrific melancholy grandeur, and the work created there was often breathtakingly powerful.

The demolition of Red Road, by contrast, is an act of outright destruction, and a highly ambiguous one. The flats may have been notorious, in all the ways immortalised in Andrea Arnold’s 2006 film Red Road; their design and construction was certainly part of the long decline of paternalistic municipal socialism, a shameful triumph of theory, ideology and influence over grass-roots demoracy and common sense.

Yet for all that, it seems both problematic and strange to ask people to stand and cheer the destruction of such a large area of social housing, at a time when the nation is in desperate need of cheap, affordable homes; and difficult to trust that the same Council which built the flats in the first place, and its offshoot housing company GHA, will automatically replace the flats with something better. Over the years, the Red Road flats have provided homes for thousands; in the last 20 years, they have become widely known for their role – although not always a happy one – in housing refugees and asylum-seekers from all over the world.

Even at best, in other words, the moment of their demolition will be a time for thought and for sadness, as well as for determination to build a better future. And if that is true for all of us, then we can barely begin to imagine the complex and often private feelings of those who have lived there, as they see the flats fall at last. Will they feel like cheering, or accepting an invitation to attend a special live screening on Glasgow Green? Some will; but I suspect many will feel angry and despairing, at the sight of the complex stuff of their lives being turned into a global spectacle, and an opportunistic piece of performance art.

And even if the people of the Red Road area are persuaded to play their allotted role in the demolition spectacle, it still represents an astonishingly high risk, in terms of Glasgow’s image-making, and the global image of Scotland as a whole. Of course, the intention is to focus on the idea of regeneration. The central image, though, will be of a city blowing itself up under the watching eyes of the world, because of past errors of judgment which have contributed to the creation of what will look, after the demolition, like an urban wasteland; and to say that this image could prove a disastrous one, for Glasgow and for Scotland, is to understate the case, as well as to underplay the possible impact of such a pssible international debacle on this autumn’s referendum.

So if this strange decision is irreversible – and I guess it may be, since it bears the imprimatur of the Commonwealth Games organising committee, Glasgow City Council, and the Scottish Government minister responsible, Shona Robison – then it’s to be hoped that everyone involved is already working on limiting those possible negative impacts, and on providing a creative context that will fully express the intended meaning of the image. This will be a desperately difficult task. Unlike the founding of the NHS, famously conjured up in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, the demolition of the Red Road flats cannot respectably be presented as a matter for straightforward celebration; and complexity is notoriously difficult to convey in the form of large-scale public spectacle.

Meanwhile, yesterday on twitter, the playwright David Greig tried to express his own unease with the idea of the public demolition. “The flats contain in their concrete bones the dream of a very particular Scottish post war municipal patriarchal socialism,” he wrote, “part Le Corbusier, part Chicago, part Moscow… they were designed with the best of intent, but the dream, and the buildings, failed.” That’s the kind of writing that might begin to make sense of this bizarre, high-risk gesture; perhaps the organisers should call in the nation’s leading bards, without delay. In the meantime, though, it looks as if we may be landed with a Commonwealth Games opening ceremony that – like Red Road itself – was designed with the best of intent; but that involves a misjudgment whose damaging consequences echo painfully down the years, gradually becoming part of the trauma they were once supposed to heal.

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