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

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.

ENDS ENDS

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.

ENDS ENDS

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.

ENDS ENDS

Henry IV and Henry V

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HENRY IV and HENRY V at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.7.14.
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Henry IV  4 stars ****
Henry V  3  stars ***

NIGHT FALLS on the Kibble Palace; and against its interior backdrop of elegant pillars and palm trees, a slim young man undergoes his necessary transition from hard-drinking Eastcheap hellraiser to warrior, monarch, and representative of God on earth.

Shakespeare’s twin Henry IV plays – now condensed into a single, intense two-and-a-half-hour evening by Bard In The Botanics director Gordon Barr – and their sequel Henry V, presented outside in the gardens in an ambitious three-hour production by Jennifer Dick, are perhaps the greatest dramas ever-written about nation-building and leadership in a pre-democratic age.  Written some fifty years after Sir David Lindsay’s great Satire Of The Three Estates, Shakespeare’s plays contain none of Lindsay’s soul-searching about the place of the common people in the nation’s counsels.

Yet elsewhere, their concerns are strikingly similar.  Both playwrights imagine a young monarch led astray by sensual pleasures, who has to find his way back to virtue; and in Gordon Barr’s ingenious and impressive three-handed version, the story of young Prince Hal’s emergence as king is told through a tight focus on the relationship between Hal and his two father-figures, the tormented and conscience-stricken King Henry IV – who usurped the crown from Richard II – and the Eastcheap drunkard and blowhard, the immensely fat Sir John Falstaff.  Barr’s version benefits from a fine, beautifully spoken performance from James Ronan as Hal, and a deeply moving and brilliantly insightful double turn from Kirk Bage as both Henry IV and Falstaff, two contrasting yet somehow entwined aspects of the English psyche; and they receive impressive support from Tom Duncan as all the other characters, including Hal’s great rival and alter ego, the young Northumbrian Harry Hotspur. 

Jennifer Dick’s staging of Henry V, by contrast, is both more ambitious and more diffuse, a huge pageant of a show in which members of the main company are joined by almost a dozen additional actors from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland to create a spectacular large-scale staging of Shakespeare’s great battle-cry of a play, about Henry V’s great victory over France at Agincourt.  Dick’s central idea – linked to the current commemorations of 1914 – is to frame the performance of Henry V as part of a speech day at a Glasgow school in 1915; so the makeshift mediaeval costumes often slip away, to reveal the nurses’ capes and khaki uniforms of those who marched away in 1914.

What emerges is an evening of tremendously vivid images and set-pieces, punctuated by a near-full-length performance of Shakespeare’s text that often seems ovewhelmed both by the sher weight of the speeches, and by the strange patriotic mixture of exhilaration and revulsion with which this play views the savagery of war.  The show boasts a passionate, unruly Hal in Daniel Campbell, though, and a gorgeous Princess Catherine in Amandine Vincent.  And there are moments – notably the long two minutes’ silence in which the cast mourn the dead of Agincourt – that burn in the memory; and touch the very essence of this mighty and terrible national pageant of a play.

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 2 August. 

ENDS ENDS                            

Children’s Theatre Matters

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHILDREN’S THEATRE – MOVING ON, ASKING NEW QUESTIONS for Scotsman Magazine, 19.7.14.  _______________________________________________________

IN THE GARDEN at East Kilbride Arts Centre, there’s a little open-air theatre arena scooped out of a grassy slope; and on a sunny Saturday lunchtime, there’s a bright old-fashioned ice-cream van parked in the performance space.  The chimes strike up, three performers in stripey waistcoats and straw boaters start to talk about ice-cream, and the happy times associated with it; and before long, we’re all drawn into The Pokey Hat, the latest show by up-and-coming chldren’s theatre company Grinagog, based in Glasgow, and now on tour across Scotland.

In fact, the audience Grinagog has attracted today contains relatively few young children; there are a dozen cheerful-looking teenagers, and a posse of older ladies from a local care home, hugely appreciative of the show’s gentle way with happy memories.  The sheer confidence and poise of the short show, though, makes it a fine piece of entertainment for any audience.  And it confirms Grinagog’s increasingly important place in a Scottish children’s theatre scene that has developed by leaps and bounds over the last two decades, under the international influence of Edinburgh’s Imaginate Festival; so that today, Scottish-based companies and artists like Catherine Wheels, Vanishing Point, Wee Stories, Andy Manley, and inspired puppet artist Shona Reppe, have whole global networks of their own, and back-catalogues of world-class work for children and young people, including Manley and Reppe’s terrific installation piece Huff, which is set to reappear at the Traverse during this year’s Edinburgh Festival. 

With growing confidence, though, comes a whole new set of questions about the status and role of children’s theatre; and this week there were two powerful blasts of the trumpet from south of the border, where children’s companies have been undergoing a similar evolution.  David Wood, the veteran adaptor  of children’s stories for the stage, told the Guardian that children’s theatre was simply “the most important theatre”, because of its role in stimulating imagination, and its absolute obligation to produce work of the highest quality; there’s no right to fail in children’s theatre, he argues, since one bad show can drive young theatregoers away for ever.  And Purni Morell, artistic director of London’s legendary Unicorn Theatre, gave an interview to the website A Younger Theatre, arguing for children’s theatre that is seen as important in its own right, and not as a “training opportunity”; children, she argues, should be entertained and enthralled in the now, and not treated as people who are just preparing to be something else.

And although it’s possible to argue with parts of both statements, it’s thrilling to hear two leading practitioners of children’s theatre begin to challenge some of the patronising and instrumentalising attitudes that often emerge in discussions about the funding of children’s theatre.  In his feisty interview, Wood is particularly scathing about the idea that children’s theatre matters because “it builds audiences for the future”, an inward-looking theatre-industry argument that he sees as irrelevant; Morell is clearly exasperated by the idea of children’s theatre as a form of social do-gooding, providing useful education and information for  a group who have special needs when it comes to theatrical entertainment. 

It’s not true, of course, that children’s theatre is “the most important”; if serious theatre has a close historical connection with the very fact of citizenship, and the complex decisions citizenship entails, then it probably functions most powerfully with audiences who are old enough to take on those adult  responsibilities in full.  Yet children’s theatre is a vital part of our creative life, and one to which the British – as Purni Morrell forcefully argues – have long had an attitude that ranges from the forgetful to the patronising.  And if makers of theatre for children are willing to lead the charge against the reductive idea that theatre should exist mainly as a social service to the young, vulnerable or marginalised, then the vast majority of those who care for the future of theatre in these islands will be backing them, every inch of the way.

ENDS ENDS       

Yellow Valley

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JOYCE MCMILLAN  on YELLOW VALLEY at Rutherglen Town Hall, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 19.7.14.
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3 stars ***

IT’S A HOT AND STEAMY summer afternoon at Rutherglen Town Hall; just the right atmosphere, in fact, for this latest show from the Edinburgh-based company Starcatchers, who specialise in theatre for the under-5’s.  Co-created by director Xana Marwick  and musician-performers Drew Wright and Dougie Hudson, Yellow Valley tells the story of a little African girl called Kendiwe, and her quest to find out what exactly is happening at a special place along the winding river, where another voice repeats every word she shouts out.   Neither the cow nor the goat can help, and neither can her pet dog; and in the end it takes granny Choo-Choo to sort everything it out.

As narratives go, it’s a little on the thin side, even for an audience of 2-3 year olds; a slightly meatier tale, more briskly told, might have exerted a tighter grip on the attention of the tiny tots lolling and squirming on cushions on the floor.  What Yellow Valley has by the truckload, though, is gorgeous sound and music, delivered by Wright and Hudson on a fascinating range of acoustic instruments, from guitar to traditional West African balon.  The story may be sketchy, in other words, but the performance is delightful; and at the end, at least half of the tots got up and danced with a will, having the time of their lives.

Seen on 18 July, on tour in Glasgow until 3 August.

ENDS ENDS