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

Drift

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DRIFT at Pettycur Beach, Fife, for The Scotsman, 4.7.15.
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4 stars ****

IT’S IMPORTANT TO CHOOSE a beautiful day, when the sun sparkles on the sea and sand; or perhaps a wild one, when the roar of the wind matches the storm on the soundtrack.  Either way, though, no-one who experiences it will forget this beautiful  installation show by Vision Mechanics of Leith, touring beaches in Scotland this summer, and in Norway next summer.

The show is based on the true story of Betty Mouat, a 61-year old Shetlander who in 1886 set out by boat to sell knitting in Lerwick.  A storm blew up, the crew were swept overboard; and Betty drifted alone at sea for nine days, until she and the boat washed up, battered but alive, on the coast of Norway.

In eight installations linked by an inspired soundtrack, which we hear on headphones, Drift invites us to wander for 40 minutes across the sand, experiencing aspects of Betty’s inner life during this voyage, from her strong religious faith to her love of nature, as she glimpses the Northern Lights.  The music is an exquisite Shetland song-cycle, with music by Eddie Maguire, words by playwright Judith Adams, and vocals by Gerda Stevenson, in wonderful voice; the installations range from tiny, well-documented 19th century interiors to dream-like sculptures.  And the whole show offers a rare opportunity to merge into the landscape for a while; to live inside Betty’s story, and to think of the sea, of all it has meant to us, and of how it, too, now needs our protection, and our care.

Drift at Nairn Beach until tomorrow, and on tour to Unst, Arbroath and the Island of Eigg, until 9 August.

ENDS

Elizabeth MacLennan Obituary

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ELIZABETH MACLENNAN for The Scotsman 15.6.15.
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Elizabeth MacLennan, actress, writer, and co-founder of the 7:84 Theatre Company.
Born in Glasgow, 16 March 1938.
Died in London, 23 June 2015, aged 77.

WITH THE death of Elizabeth MacLennan, who died peacefully in London this week some months after being diagnosed with leukaemia, the world of theatre and film in Scotland and across the UK loses the last member of the great family trio – Elizabeth MacLennan, her husband John McGrath, and her brother David MacLennan – who founded the 7:84 Theatre Companies in England and Scotland in the early 1970’s.  Their work with 7:84  represented the most radical, thrilling and intellectually persuasive challenge to conventional thinking about theatre – its style, context, purpose, and audience – that Britain was to see in the last decades of the 20th century, and had a transforming influence on a whole generation of theatre makers.

Elizabeth MacLennan was born in Glasgow in 1938, the only daughter and second child of the eminent obstetrician and gynaecologist Hector MacLennan, and his wife Isabel Adam, herself a leading public health doctor.  It was a privileged upbringing, despite wartime deprivations; the family lived in the West End of Glasgow, and Liz and her three brothers spent glorious summers with family in Rogart in Sutherland.  Liz attended the upmarket Laurel Bank girls’ school, in Glasgow, and at 13 won a scholarship to one of Britain’s leading girls’ boarding schools, Benenden in Kent.

It was when she arrived at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford in 1956, though, that Elizabeth MacLennan’s life really began to take shape.  She studied modern history, joined the Experimental Theatre Club, and worked with many future stars, including Dudley Moore; and then in 1958, at the beginning of her final year, she went to a workshop session that involved everyone present keeping their eyes closed throughout, and met writer and director John McGrath, three years her senior, and just out of national service.  “In the improvisation session, we did have our eyes shut,” she wrote in her autobiographical study, The Moon Belongs To Everyone.  “We seemed to communicate, however.”

After they graduated, the couple moved to London, and began to develop their careers; he worked on key 1960’s television programme including Z Cars, she studied at LAMDA, and appeared in theatres from the West End to the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, where she played Masha in Richard Eyre’s legendary 1968 production of The Three Sisters.  Liz MacLennan and John McGrath married in 1962, and their sons Finn and Danny were born in 1966 and 1968; but despite their successful and busy lives, they were increasingly influenced by the revolutionary thinking that swept Europe and the United States in the late 1960’s, and dissatisfied with the conventional patterns of production in both theatre and film.

In 1971, they launched the 7:84 company in England, with a specific commitment to tour theatre into working-class communities, where the people could feel they “owned” the space, and to adopt a popular performance style  that would address audiences directly, rather than relying on traditional “fourth wall” techniques. Then in 1973, they launched 7:84 Scotland, with the ground-breaking satirical ceilidh show The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, about the history of land use and exploitation in the Highlands and Islands;  the show exploded onto the Scottish theatre scene like a bombshell of political thought and new theatrical energy, radically changing attitudes to how and where theatre should be presented, and reaching new audiences everywhere it went.

Over the next 15 years, the company went on to create dozens of touring shows, from Little Red Hen – about the life-story of a woman working-class activist – to The Baby And The Bathwater, about the politics of Guatemala.  In 1979, Liz MacLennan gave birth to the couple’s third child, Kate, now a theatre producer; and in 1982 they moved their  base from London to a flat in Great King Street, Edinburgh, which became a great hub of family and political life, always full of friends from a vast network of international comrades and connections.

It was also in 1982 that McGrath and MacLennan joined forces with the fledgling Mayfest, in Glasgow, to stage their historic Clydebuilt Season, which set out to restore to public memory a series of  largely forgotten plays from the popular Scottish working-class drama of the mid-20th century.  The season ended with a remarkable production, by Giles Havergal, of Ena Lamont Stewart’s great tenement tragedy Men Should Weep, in which MacLennan gave a memorable performance as the heroine, Maggie Morrison.  If the Clydebuilt Season marked a high point of 7:84’s achievement, though, the company faced difficult times in the 1980’s; and in 1988, McGrath was forced by the Scottish Arts Council to resign the artistic directorship of 7:84 Scotland, and to return mainly to the world of film and television.

MacLennan, meanwhile, continued to write, to perform, and to raise her family.   Her autobiographical history of 7:84, The Moon Belongs to Everyone, was published in 1990, and she also wrote children’s books, and a recent collection of poetry, The Fish That Winked.  In the last decade of McGrath’s life, the couple worked together on three major monologues which Liz MacLennan performed, including McGrath’s final play, Hyperlynx.

After McGrath’s death in 2002, Liz MacLennan moved back to London, and began to spend several months of each year in Greece; she also cherished her growing tribe of grandchildren, whose company she adored.  Even in her Seventies, she remained a sparkling presence, of woman of great energy and beauty who loved to contribute to discussion and debate about life, politics and theatre. At a 7:84 reunion in the National Library of Scotland, in 2013, she whisked out of her bag the very pop-up book she had been reading to her young sons, when she and McGrath conceived the idea of using a giant pop-up book as the set for The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil; and last November, she appeared in the memorial performance for her brother David, at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow.

Elizabeth MacLennan’s life mixed privilege, passion, creative energy and radical politics in a rare and thrilling combination.  At its heart, though, stood her mighty partnership with McGrath, and her love for the family that surrounded them; along with the truth that that partnership was not only a marriage, but a hugely creative meeting of minds between political comrades and intellectual partners, who went on reading, learning, arguing, campaigning, and making theatre together, right to the end.   Elizabeth MacLennan is survived by her brothers Robert and Kenneth, by her three children Finn, Danny and Kate, and by her seven much-loved grandchildren; and after a funeral in London next month, her ashes will be buried at her beloved Rogart, beside those of John McGrath.

ENDS ENDS

Fergus Linehan, And A New Relationship Between Scottish Theatre And the EIF

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A NEW RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCOTTISH THEATRE AND THE EDINBURGH INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL for Scotsman Magazine, 27.6.15. _____________________________________________________

WHEN UNTITLED PROJECTS’ brilliantly satirical show Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner first opened at the Tramway in Glasgow, just two years ago, a particularly amused and admiring crowd could be seen gathering around one of the glass cases in the magnificently detailed exhibition that accompanies the show.  Untitled’s show, it should be explained, offers a unique perspective on James Hogg’s great 1824 novel The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner; not so much a stage version of the story, as a two-hour lecture – with film and exhibition – about the supposed trials of a 1980’s Scottish director  called Paul Bright, who (according to director Stewart Laing and his team) once made an ill-fated attempt to film a six-part version of Hogg’s story, in locations across Scotland from Traquair House to Arthur’s Seat.

One of Bright’s struggles, we are led to understand, involves his status as the Scottish artist invited to occupy that year’s “graveyard slot” in the Edinburgh International Festival  programme – the one traditionally allocated to a Scottish company which is asked to present a completely new and untested piece of work, alongside the cream of well-established international theatre.  So in the exhibition, we find a reproduction of an Edinburgh International Festival programme of the 1980’s, historically perfect in typeface and format, showing the details of Bright’s doomed production.

So it’s particularly satisfying to note that in August this year, Paul Bright’s Confessions Of A Justified Sinner wiil become one of the first shows to mark a brand new relationship between Scottish theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival, when alongside the gorgeous show for children and young peple Dragon – a spectacular wordless drama about the inner life of a young boy struggling to deal with the death of his mother, created jointly in 2013 by young Scottish compant Vox Motus, the National Theatre Of Scotland, and Tianjin People’s Arts Theatre of China – it becomes one of two already well-estabished and critically-acclaimed Scottish productions to appear in this year’s Festival, in a move that signals a subtle but important change in the Festival’s approach to Scottish theatre, since incoming director Fergus Linehan took over from Jonathan Mills last September.

With hindsight, it’s difficult to say why previous Festival directors adhered so strictly to the rule that all Scottish work should be new work; but as the first EIF director for two decades to come from a strong theatre background, Fergus Linehan seems to have been quick to sense the widespread feeling that it was a system that placed Scottish companies at a disadvantage, and produced a memorable series of supposed  festival “flops” – including the National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia in 2010, and Grid Iron’s underrated Leaving Planet Earth in 2013.

It’s also clear that Linehan, who was director of the Dublin International Theatre Festival while still in his twenties, has relatively few inhibitions about the idea that it should be one of the Edinburgh Festival’s roles to showcase the best of Scottish work.  “It’s something we’re delighted to do,” he says. “And in fact, given the success of the Made In Scotland programme on the Fringe, we’d like to do more in future, if possible, to help present an even wider range of Scottish work to an international audience.”  And although these gentle shifts in policy are – and should be – of secondary importance to festival-goers booking their tickets this summer, it’s also true that in the long term, they may have a profound impact both on the Edinburgh Festival, and on the Scottish cultural landscape around it; as the relationship between them shifts and matures into something that looks, every year, a little less like a token inclusion of some Scottish work in a festival with bigger fish to fry, and a little more like a true creative partnership of equals.

Paul Bright’s confessions Of A Justified Sinner at the Queen’s Hall, 19-22 August; Dragon at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 14-15 August.

ENDS ENDS

Moby Dick, Or The Whale

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MOBY DICK, OR THE WHALE for The Scotsman, 27.6.15.
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4 stars ****

THIS YEAR’S Classic Cuts season at Oran Mor seems a quiet affair; perhaps the absence of familiar Shakespearean titles is keeping the crowds at bay, as the Play, Pie and Pint company works through a repertoire of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sophocles, Melville and Racine.

There’s some fascinating work on display, though, as writers and actors sail into previously unexplored territory.  Last week, the veteran Scottish actor Benny Young appeared with Game Of Thrones star Daniel Portman in his own adaptation of Sophocles’ story of Philoctetes, the warrior who chooses a lonely and stinking exile rather than compromise with political power games.  And this week, the writer J.C. Marshall offers an extraordinarily powerful account, in a series of non-chronological scenes, of the obsession at the heart of Herman Melville’s great novel Moby Dick, as a magnificent Meg Fraser – playing mad Captain Ahab – limps and prowls around a tank containing a single golden fish, revealing Ahab’s crazed conviction that the great whale he hunts is a thing of malice, that must be destroyed.

Directed by Gareth Nicholls, this Moby Dick is a superb  ensemble piece, with Robert Jack and Harry Ward offering fine support in the roles of Ishmael the narrator, and his friend Queequeg.  And the show benefits from a truly brilliant use of music and sound, as the cast punctuate the story with sea shanties and jagged string melodies, and the Captain stares into the whispering deep, in search of the creature he must annihilate, at any cost.

Moby Dick at Oran Mor today, and at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, 7-11 July.   Philoctetes at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, 27 June-4 July.

ENDS ENDS

Under The Pressure Of The SNP Surge, Is Britain’s Monarchy Finally Losing The Impartiality On Which Its Long-Term Future Depends? – Column 26.6.15.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.6.15.
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YOU MAY love the SNP, or hate them; or you may, like me, rate them as a genuine would-be social-democratic party, who often talk a much better game than they play.

It would surely take a heart of stone, though – or one made of  unusually timid and obsequious stuff – not to derive a certain satisfaction from the sheer panic the SNP’s recent success has caused in the upper reaches of Britain’s supposedly unflappable establishment.  From the pre-referendum panic that led to the ill-considered Smith Commission proposals, to a torrent of cartoons featuring blue-faced warriors descending on Westminster, there’s been no end to the entertainment; we’ve had retired generals thundering about a breach in Britain’s defences, the Sun portraying the first minister as a scantily-clad Miley Cyrus figure on a wrecking-ball, and elder statesmen testily demanding that the SNP should stop winning elections, for fear of turning Scotland into a “one-party state”.

There’s no sign of establishment panic more revealing, though, than the extent to which the SNP’s rapid rise has jolted the the British monarchy out of its usual stance of strict impartiality, and into a series of actions widely interpreted as signalling strong opposition to Scottish independence.  Of course, only those already opposed to independence would have instantly assumed that the Queen’s remark, last September, that people should “think very carefully” before voting, put her in the No camp; 1.5 million Scots “thought very carefully”, and then voted Yes.  The SNP may also have believed that the monarchy was relatively untroubled by the possibility of independence; it had, after all, presided serenely over the independence of many other dominions and territories, and had been strongly reassured by the SNP under Alex Salmond that the Queen would continue to be Scotland’s head of state, whatever the outcome.

Now, though, it seems that that there was serious unease at the Palace, what with the Queen’s “intervention”, and the news of her “purring” after hearing the result.  And this week – as the Queen travelled to Berlin to breach the strict impartiality rule again, this time by highlighting the importance of unity in Europe –  the royal household apparently embarked on an attempt to stir up indignation, via various newspapers, about the Scottish government’s alleged intention to withhold some £1.5 million of funding from the monarchy, after taking control of Scotland’s Crown Estates under the Smith proposals.

The story – which was not a new one, and had already been tried out late last year – turned out to be false, and was being denied within 24 hours by everyone from HM Treasury to the Keeper of the Privy Purse.  By that time, though, the lie was half-way round the world, while truth was still slipping into its designer heels; and the Times newspaper, no less, had published an extraordinarily intemperate leader, thundering about “insurrection” on the part of a rebellious and vindictive Scottish Government.

All of which raises some interesting questions about the likely future of the British monarchy, in the aftermath of these small but noticeable departures from the old impartiality rule.  There was an opportunity, after all, around the time of last year’s referendum, for the monarchy to a play a useful stabilising role at at a tense moment in the nation’s history.  The truth about national independence, in the 21st century world, is that it makes far less difference than many people imagine, given the degree of economic interdependence that binds us to our neighbours; and a monarchy scrupulously impartial in that independence debate could have helped symbolise those inevitable continuities, in uncertain times.

Now, though, it seems that either the monarch herself, or some of those around her, have effectively blown that chance, and decided to side with a none-too-appealing British establishment against those seeking change.  Of course there wll be those who say that this was only to be expected; that the British monarchy has always been a profundly conservative force, effectively blocking radical change.

Yet history suggests that the truth is more complicated.  It was during the reign of the Queen’s much-loved father George VI, for example, that an elected British government presided over a complete centre-left revolution in the British state, nationalising everything from power companies to the rail network, and setting up the NHS; those who think that that was not a genuinely radical moment should watch Ken Loach’s great film The Spirit of 45, and think again.

If the monarchy has lost its grip on the business of appearing impartial, in other words, then it may now be at the top of a very slippery slope; and one from which the famously opinionated Prince Charles is unlikely to rescue it, when he ascends the throne.  In any modern democracy, from Norway to the Netherlands, the right of a hereditary monarchy to represent the nation is strictly conditional on its adherence to constitutional norms, and on its determination, formally at least, to treat all citizens as equals.

So it’s perhaps not surprising, for example, that there was a genuine small rebeliion this week in Portobello, when children at a local primary school were taken out of class to celebrate a visit by Camilla, Countess of Rothesay, and encouraged to treat the event as a special occasion.  Some argued that encouraging young children to defer to a woman who has done nothing except marry the heir to the throne was inappropriate, in the 21st century; others suggested that the protesters should “lighten up”, and view the whole event as harmless summer fun.

What’s clear, though, is that while a royal family may be generally welcome as a series of figureheads representing the whole nation, it rapidly becomes much more controversial when it is perceived as representing a particular opinion or interest-group.  As students of recent European history know, hereditary monarchy, within strict constitutional limits, has a surprisingly positive record as a backdrop to some of the world’s most effective and highly-developed democracies.   Knowing those limits, though, is the essence of the job; and there are many signs that in the midst of the establishment panic over the SNP, Britain’s monarchy – generally so well run, throughout a reign that is about to become the longest in British history – may finally have begun to lose its way.

ENDS ENDS

The Best Of Times, The Worst Of Times: Scottish Theatre Funding And “The Cuts”

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES – MIXED FEELINGS AT THIS YEAR’S CATS CELEBRATIONS for Scotsman Magazine, 20.6.15. _____________________________________________________

THERE WAS a strange atmosphere of mixed emotions, as the Scottish theatre community gathered at the Tron Theatre last weekend to celebrate the annual Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland (CATS).  As ever, there was plenty of thrilling work to celebrate, as Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre picked up an armful awards for one of the most exciting seasons ever produced there; yet there was also an undercurrent of sadness and anxiety, following the recent closure of the Arches – until last week, one of the key powerhouses of Scottish theatre.

There was also a sense of insecurity and threat among many other companies at the Tron, including the Lyceum itself, hit by a 17% grant cut in last autumn’s Creative Scotland funding round; This year, in other words, it feels as though Scottish theatre is at a dangerous corner, with a cold rhetoric of enforced economies and imminent cuts sending a chill across the landscape; and yet this is a sector which has not, overall, suffered any major central government cuts in recent years, and which is – in real terms – almost twice as well funded as it was in the 1990’s.

So what is the reason for this widespread pessimism about the future, amid what seems to be relative plenty?  Essentially, it seems the problem is four-fold.  First, the culture of inevitable austerity has taken such a fierce grip on the UK public sector that  language and management culture reflect those negative assumptions, even when money is not in fact being cut.  In a fiery speech at the CATS ceremony, the Lyceum’s outgoing artistic director, Mark Thomson, argued that Scottish theatre-makers should rebel against this pervasive assumption that cuts are inevitable.  And if the Scottish Government has done a remarkable job in maintaining cultural funding in tough times, then that achievement surely deserves recognition, rather than a general caving-in to the goomy language of austerity.

There are, though, also some structural reasons why relatively generous cultural funding in Scotland is perhaps not making the impact it should.  First, there is a widespread feeling that given 21st century management structures, it’s always the new armies of salaried administrators and managers have first call on arts funds, rather than the artists themselves; this is a serious perceived imbalance, which needs to be investigated.  Secondly, Creative Scotland’s laudable efforts to spread theatre funding more widely, across a larger number of companies and areas including touring companies, has meant that Scotland’s highest-profile building-based theatres have taken a disporportionate funding hit, in recent years; and the mood of the big theatres, with a decline in productions, tends to affect the mood of the whole sector.

And finally there is a recurring complaint that hard information about how money is being spent is now much more difficult to acquire than it was in the days when every Scottish Arts Council report contained a ful run-down of each funded company, the number and titles of shows it had produced in the year, its total audience, and the precise composition of its budget.  Lorne Boswell of Equity says that it’s now almost impossible for the union to gather its once-meticulous figures on how many weeks of actor employment are generated by Scottish companies; Jon Morgan of the Federation of Scottish Theatre argues that the whole funding debate would be vastly more productive if the industry as a whole, including Creative Scotland, collected data better, and – crucially – shared it better. And the strange thing about the recent history of Scottish theatre is that it seems this lack of information is not covering up a decline, but actually obscuring what could be a good news story – provided, of course, that the money is spent where it should be, on Scotland’s great theatre makers, and on the spaces where they can create the work that helps us to understand the present, and to dream of different and more inspiring futures.

ENDS ENDS