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

New Beginning For The Byre?

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NEW BEGINNING FOR THE BYRE? for the  Scotsman Magazine, 13.9.14. _________________________________________________________

IT WAS A JUST A brief piece of news, flitting past on my laptop screen; it said that director Gordon Barr and his Glasgow-based Bard In the Botanics company had just been commissioned to present Jack And The Beanstalk, as the 2014 Christmas panto at the Byre Theatre in St. Andrews. As casual updates go, though, this one could hardly have been more welcome; in that it signalled the return of one of Scotland’s best-loved theatre venues, dark since its operating company slid into bankruptcy in January of last year, and now about to reopen, following the signing in mid-August of a new deal between Fife Council and the University of St. Andrews.

Under the deal, the University leases the theatre from the council for the peppercorn rent of £300 a year, and becomes wholly responsible for its operation as a year-round arts venue.  This week, the University announced that it has appointed its much-admired Director of Music, Michael Downes, as artistic director of the Byre, and the building’s current acting manager, Stephen Sinclair, as general manager.  And it falls to Downes and Sinclair – who have already worked together on music events at the Byre – to begin the implementation of what is now a hugely ambitious plan for the theatre, detailing its responsibilities to the cultural life of Fife and Scotland, its huge role in supporting community arts activity in St Andrews, its hopes for  developing new partnerships with professional theatre in Scotland, and its entirely new function as the operating base for the University’s Music Centre, and as teaching space for several university departments.

Whether all of this can be achieved remains an open question.  Fife Council and Creative Scotland would not, after all, have been so eager to sign over this beautiful public building – built with more than £4 million of Lottery grants and public donations, just over a decade ago – if it had not been for the inconvenient truth that it has been costing at least £250,000 a year to run; some wise investment from the University may help it to start generating more income in future, but the initial willingness to invest has to be there.

For all that, though, the new agreement between the University and Fife – radically altered and reworked over the last six months – offers a basis on which the Byre can begin to re-establish its place in Scotland’s cultural life.  Lorne Boswell of Equity, the actors’ union – which was at first highly critical of the plan for a university takeover – believes that the new agreement offers a much wider vision of the Byre’s future, and describes himself as cautiously optimistic.

For St Andrews, of course, this change represents another decisive shift in the balance between town and gown; and there are those of us who may sigh, a little, to think of the time, back in the 1930’s, when a few St Andrews citizens took the initiative, and created a theatre for themselves, in an old cowshed off Abbey Street.

As Lorne Boswell points out, though, with a cash-strapped Fife Council and a hesitant Creative Scotland unwilling to take responsibility for the Byre’s future,  at the crucial moment the University was the only game in town.  The provisions of the Lottery grant, which specify that the Byre should be run as a theatre, apply  for another 12 years; the new deal for the theatre’s future can be reviewed after 3 years, and Equity and others will be monitoring closely to see that the terms of the agreement are met.  So now, it only remains for everyone who cares about theatre in Scotland to wish Michael Downes and his team well in bringing our most beautiful small theatre back to life.  It’s  a huge task, but a thrilling one; and I – among many others – will be there to make a wish, when the lights go up on Jack And The Beanstalk, this Christmas time.

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A Terrible Beauty

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on  A TERRIBLE BEAUTY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 13.9.14.
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4 stars ****

THE YEAR IS 1922, and Michael Collins, the commander of the National Army of the new Irish Free State, is at war with his former comrades in the Irish nationalist movement, who have decided to turn against the independence treaty signed between the British Government and the new Free State leaders.  As one of the men who negotiated the treaty, Collins is in the firing line; and his old comrade Eamon De Valera is playing a deep game, allowing others to dirty their hands with the business of setting up a viable state, while waiting to inherit the power that he eventually held for more than 50 years, until his death in the 1970’s.

This is the context of Ian Pattison’s powerful new 50-minute play for the Play, Pie And Pint season, which covers a day in the life of Collins and a young Scottish volunteer, McPeak, who finds himself making notes on a vital negotiation between Collins and De Valera’s representative, a sleazy character called Crowley.  John Kielty turns in a totally compelling performance as one of the most brilliant and charismatic leaders of Irish nationalism, suffering from a heavy cold and a kidney infection, but full of wit and energy, only gradually realising just how weak his position has become.  And with powerful support from Gavin Wright as young McPeak and a terrifying George Docherty as Crowley, Liz Carruthers’s production emerges as a terrific miniature play for today; full of resonances that will resound with huge force, if Scotland finds itself, after next week, sitting down to negotiate terms for the birth of an independent nation.

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Not About Heroes (2014)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOT ABOUT HEROES at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 13.9.14.
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4 stars ****

AS I WALKED through Craiglockhart  House – now part of Napier University – on my way to Monday’s opening performance of Not About Heroes, I glanced through a door, and saw a young man in First World War uniform leaning over a table.  It was only one of the actors from this new touring production of Stephen MacDonald’s beautiful 1982 play, re-staged to mark the centenary of 1914.  Yet it was also like briefly seeing a ghost, in that place where officers suffering from “shell shock” were sent during 1914-18, and where the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met and formed a passionate friendship, before Owen was sent back to the front where he died.

In some ways, MacDonald’s play now seems a slightly old-fashioned piece, not least in the kind of relationship it portrays – full of tempestuous heightened emotion, but forbidden any physical expression beyond the odd manly pat on the shoulder.   There’s no denying the power and beauty of the writing, though, as Sassoon – in Craiglockhart only to silence his fierce opposition to the war – helps the young Owen to find his voice, and the greatest happiness of his short life.  This Feelgood Theatre production is well served by heartfelt performances from Simon Jenkins and Alasdair Craig, and by some beautiful accompanying music; and as this production continues its tour round places of significance in Owen’s life – including the town in France where he spent his last night – it should act as a powerful reminder of the carnage of war, and of the generation of doomed youth who, in dying, touched so many poets’ lips to song.

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Sunset Song

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SUNSET SONG at the Concert Hall, Perth, for The Scotsman 13.9.14.
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4 stars ****

AFTER AN Edinburgh Festival that featured at least two superb shows – from Moscow and Hamburg – commemorating the trauma of the Great War that began in 1914, now here comes another, strong enough to bear comparison with them in vision and depth, but rooted in the soil of Scotland, and in the great writing of Lewis Grassic Gibbon.  First published in 1932, Sunset Song famously tells the story of young Chris Guthrie, the daughter of a tenant farmer in the Mearns of north-east Scotland; a girl who is bright enough to hope for a university education, but whose life takes another path after the complex and tragic deaths of her parents, and her marriage, at New Year 2014, to a handsome young ploughman, Ewan Tavendale.

The greatness of Grassic Gibbon’s novel lies not only in its superb account of how the 1914-18 war brought an end to an ancient way of life on the land, but also in its clear-eyed assessment of the harshness of that way of life, and the bitter cruelty of some aspects of the religious and patriarchal culture into which young Chris was born.  And all of this is brought to the stage with impressive lyricism and feeling in Julie Ellen’s new production for the Beacon Arts Centre and young touring company Sell A Door, which opened at Perth Concert Hall this week before a comprehensive tour of Scotland.

Set on an open stage which evokes the landscape of the Guthrie’s farm, Blawearie, Ellen’s production features a range of fine performances, from a bright, vulnerable yet steel-strong Rebecca Elise as Chris, a dark and troubled Alan McHugh as John Guthrie, a wonderfully moving Clare Waugh as Chris’s mother, Jean, and Sandy Nelson as Long Rob Of The Mill, a steady point in Chris’s turbulent life.  What’s most striking about the production, though, is the  quietly powerful, eloquent flow of movement across the stage, as all the great ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries – patriotism, socialism, individual freedom – begin to surge through the Mearns, changing lives, destroying a whole generation of young men. And Julie Ellen and her ten-strong company can take pride in a powerfully-staged show which does full justice to one of the greatest of all Scottish novels; and also leaves 21st century audiences with plenty to think about, in terms of war and peace, community and freedom, and the right of women to determine their own fate, amid all the winds of social change.

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The Forces Behind The “No” Campaign May Win Next Week’s Referendum Vote: But Their Power Is Brittle And Discredited, And Huge Issues Of Democracy And Legitimacy Will Remain Unresolved – Column 12.9.14.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 12.9.14
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THE FINAL WEEK of the referendum campaign; and predictably, the big guns of the Union swivel on their axes, and point firmly at the “Yes” campaign that has been animating and transforming Scottish politics over the last two years.  That the guns are big is not in doubt.  They include the whole might of the city of London, which is said to have briefly knocked billions off the value of Scottish-based companies overnight, after the publication of last weekend’s opinion poll showing the “Yes” camp inching ahead.  They include various business leaders, from companies like the Royal Bank Of Scotland, John Lewis, and BP.

And of course, they include the UK’s three main political parties, now panicking at the thought of “losing” Scotland, and dispatching their leaders north of the Border to beg, cajole, and persuade.  Their talk  of risk, and of cataclysmic disruption, is frightening stuff, without a doubt.  And there’s no question that as the referendum debate comes down to the wire, many voters – perhaps a majority – will opt for what looks like the safer option of “no change”.

Look more deeply into the detail of the referendum campaign, though, and it soon become clear just why, in the end, a narrow “no” vote next Thursday will resolve little or nothing in the politics of these islands.  That the forces rolled out to defend the Union this week still have massive power is not in doubt; but the problem is that in almost every case, their power is increasingly seen as brittle, discredited, and out of touch with the people.

So – at one end of this rogues’ gallery – there are the Westminster party leaders, who clearly have both a right and a duty to take part in the debate, as elected representatives of the British people.  The Prime Minister is the best of them, when it comes to arguing for the Union; he sounds genuinely upset at the idea of Scotland’s departure, and avoids scaremongering in favour of love-bombing.

Even David Cameron, though, seems unable to grasp the fundamental insult entailed in Westminster’s bizarre decision to start talking about “devolution max” and federalism just ten days before the referendum, when the Union parties have had three full  years to put a credible plan on the table, and indeed onto the ballot paper.  The Prime Minister talks about the ties that bind the Union, in other words, but heads a government and a parliament that barely seems to register Scotland’s existence, except at those rare moments when we threaten the Union with imminent extinction; and to say that this is no way to run a mature and functioning democracy is to understate the case.

The truth is that over the last generation, Westminster has become increasingly unrepresentative of anyone except a narrow caste of career politicians, has become steadily more dependent on funding by wealthy individuals and corporations, has – as a consequence – largely ceased to offer a real political choice between neoliberal orthodoxy and other approaches to creating a good society, and has been found guilty of spectacular levels of greed and corruption in relation to its own expenses system.  None of these problems will be dispelled by the outcome of next week’s referendum; and if they are not dealt with, then discontent with Westminster can only continue to increase, in every nation and region that remains part of the United Kingdom.

And then, heaven help us, we have the voices of major commerce and industry, many of them part of that staggeringly ill-managed financial sector which brought to us all the cataclysmic financial crash of 2008.  Now of course, the fact that a previous management of the Royal Bank of Scotland displayed ineptitude and greed on a world-beating scale does not mean that we should ignore the words of the current Chief Executive.

However, even if he had said that he intended to move all of RBS’s head office activities away from Scotland – and in fact he said nothing of the sort – there are questions to be asked about how far we should allow our decisions on Scotland’s future to be shaped by the representatives of what is essentially a failed financial system, now propped up only by taxpayer subsidy taken out of our own pockets.  And not only are those structures still in place, six years on, but they are still seeking to impose their failed ideology on ever-larger swathes of the planet.  The next scheme, courtesy of global corporate lobbying, is the so-called TTIP, or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, an imminent EU/US deal which will effectively forbid governments from running public services, and force them – regardless of the views of voters –  to open up all services, including the NHS, for commercial exploitation.

And this is the paradox at the heart of the referendum debate, as we reach its final hours. On one hand, we are told of what are clearly real economic risks associated with independence.  Yet on the other, we cannot help but be aware that those risks are often being imposed, and even engineered, by corporations and structures whose power needs to be challenged – thoroughly, bravely and soon – if democracy is to have any chance of surviving and thriving in the 21st century.  To vote “yes” next Thursday – in the spirit of the remarkable grassroots campaign for re-empowerment that has swept Scotland over the last year –  is to throw down that challenge, and to accept the consequences, whatever they may be.

Even a “no” vote, though, will only briefly deflect the huge issues of democracy and legitimacy that have brought us to this political moment.  Today, the people who gave us the 2008 crash are still with us, still promoting ever more grotesque levels of inequality, still buying up our political representatives, stll skewing our public debate towards the demands of the hyper-rich.  And over the next decade – whether  or not they get the result they want, next Thursday – these questions of legitimacy will return to haunt our new elites, again and again.  For as the Scottish referendum campaign has shown, their narrow priorities no longer even begin to match the rich, varied, complex and convivial aspirations of the people; and sooner or later, at Westminster, Holyrood or both, that truth will out.

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The Glass Menagerie

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GLASS MENAGERIE at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 8.9.14.
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4 stars ****

IF LOVE IS THE answer, it’s one that men often fail to hear, until it is much too late.  The genius of Tennessee Williams’s great youthful  memory-play The Glass Menagerie – which opened in New York in 1944, propelling him to overnight fame – is that it captures with exquisite clarity the moment, back in the hungry late 1930’s, when our young hero Tom Wingfield  decides that his love for his fragile, vulnerable sister Laura is no longer enough to keep him in the cramped St. Louis apartment he shares with her, and with his dramatic, demanding mother, Amanda, a former southern belle now living in sadly reduced circumstances.

Tom’s decision to leave evolves from possibility to certainty over a few months, during which his mother’s efforts to secure a future for Laura become ever more frantic, culminating in the visit of the much-longed-for “gentleman caller”, a colleague of Tom’s from the grim shoe warehouse where he works.  In the end, though, nothing can shift the heavy sense of failure and ill luck that hangs about both mother and daughter; for all her heroic energy, Amanda has no power to give her daughter a better life, and the spark of love between Laura and the gentleman caller is snuffed out, almost before it can begin to flicker.

All of this is captured with a rare and beautiful precision in Jemima Levick’s new production for Dundee Rep, which benefits from three magnificent central performances from Robbie Jack as Tom, Millie Turner as Laura, and the great Irene Macdougall as a robust, creative and passionately maternal Amanda.  The production is particularly brilliant in using a scruffy old microphone, and projected typewritten text, to capture Tom’s complex double role in the drama, as character and writer-observer; its most worrying aspect is the evidence of Dundee’s increasing tendency to “big set disease”, as designer Alex Lowde creates a heavily-built double stage, surrounded by pierced screen walls and a huge sliding shutter, that often evokes the Wingfields’ shabby back-lane apartment less well than a bare stage with a glitter-ball might do.

At the heart of this production, though, there are three performances worth travelling miles to see.  And they are supported by a splendid cameo from Thomas Cotran as the gentleman caller who cannot replace the love that Tom is about to remove from Laura’s life – a love abandoned that nonetheless continues to haunt him, down all the long years.

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