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

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Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 – A Feast Of Irish Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on the DUBLIN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL for Scotsman magazine, 14.10.17.
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IN THE MAIN auditorium of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the audience is gathering around a space that seems to have shifted slightly on its axis. Where the stage usually sits, there are extra rows of seats facing towards us; and the stage itself has become an oval, chequered pub floor somewhere near the centre of the room, with a few audience members sitting on stage, at the pub tables and chairs.

This is the set for Graham McLaren’s production of Dermot Bolger’s stage adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first produced at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2012, and now revived as the Abbey’s main contribution to the 2017 Dublin International Theatre Festival, this year celebrating its 60th birthday. And as McLaren’s first show created for the Abbey’s main stage since he and Neil Murray left the National Theatre of Scotland in 2016 to become joint artistic directors of Ireland’s revered national company, it sends out signals that are already becoming closely associated with the new regime; signals about inclusion, about a friendly, convivial and welcoming style of theatre rather than a formal one, and about an approach to the great canon of Irish writing which suggest that the great writers of the past will be honoured, in future, in a manner more robust and comradely, and less reverential.

The show itself is a vivid and sometimes slightly rambling affair, far less sombre and tightly-focussed than Andy Arnold’s 2012 production. If any two-hour stage version of Ulysses can only offer one or two facets of that huge, infinitely rich novel, then this one specialises in the bawdy, the rude, the humorous, and the straightforwardly emotional, wrapping Leopold Bloom’s day-long journey through early 20th century Dublin in layers of song, broad comedy, and puppetry, both poignant and satirical; and although Dublin’s response to the show has been genuinely mixed, this show sits firmly in the tradition of a nation that – unlike Scotland – naturally talks to itself through theatre, not least about about how bold, brilliant and taboo-busting this iconic Irish novel is, and always has been.

In that sense, it’s appropriate that the Abbey stage should be largely occupied, during this Dublin Festival, by the big brass bed on which Molly Bloom – perhaps the most gloriously and uninhibitedly sexual woman in all of literature – takes her ease and thinks her thoughts; for all around the Festival, this year, there are Irish companies arguing, dramatising, imagining and creating around the continuing struggle for sexual freedom. Out at the old Ringsend power station, Ireland’s female-led site-specific company Anu present a haunting, fragmented and powerfully inconclusive promenade show called The Sin Eaters, which arraigns the Irish state for the way in which it has historically pressurised women to take on, absorb, and endure the suffering caused by, the sins of the whole society.

The Corn Exchange’s Nora, at the Project Arts Centre, is an elegant and terrifying new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House written by Belinda McKeown with Annie Ryan, and set in a near future when – with a nod to The Handmaid’s Tale – women are once again having to accept a world of patriarchal laws forbidding them from owning property, running businesses, or being legally equal with their husbands.

Two new shows from Landmark Productions ponder on the recurring story of women murdered by their jealous menfolk. Camille O’Sullivan acts and sings up a storm of emotion as the victim Marie in Conall Morrison’s beautiful Woyzeck In Winter, co-produced with the Galway Festival, which marries Buchner’s drama with music and words from Schubert’s Winterrreise; Sharon Carty sings the role of the murdered 21st century wife Amy in The Second Violinist, co-produced with Wide Open Opera, a strangely unsatisfying new opera-with-film by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh, partly set in the badlands of modern internet sex. And at the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill offers an exquisite pair of entwined prison monologues about a cycle of violence that begins in the heart of a good man unable to accept his own homosexuality, and ends in a redemption as beautiful and moving as it is improbable.

What Dublin mainly offers this year, in other words, is a mighty feast of Irish theatre, with many of its greatest makers and creators in full flow, angry, engaged, passionate and lyrical. There is still international work to be seen in Dublin of course; some eight of the 20 shows for adult audiences on this year’s programme come from outside Ireland, and Scotland is the most prominent visiting country this year, with Lyceum shows The Suppliant Women and Wind Resistance opening and closing the Festival, and children’s show Poggle playing at the Arc.

Yet although White would like – after ten years of relative financial austerity, since the crash – to restore the Dublin Festival to the glory days when it could host huge main stage international productions by leading world directors, he is also conscious that the whole idea of internationalism in theatre is changing. “It really is a different atmosphere from the 1980’s or 1990’s,” says White. “So many of our companies – like Dead Centre, who are doing Hamnet this year, and who had such a huge international success with Lippy – now have very strong international links of their own, which have a huge impact on the aesthetics of their work.

“So in a sense, the whole idea of an international festival is evolving, along with everything else. Yes, I’d love to have the money to bring, say, a great big Ariane Mnouchkine show one day. For the moment, though, we’re working with what we have; and with most Festival shows either selling out or selling extremely well, we seem to be creating a celebration of theatre that works for our audience, and for the moment we’re in.”

The Dublin International Theatre Festival runs until tomorrow, 15 October, with Ulysses at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 28 October.

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The Brothers Karamazov

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

IT’S THIRTY-SIX years since playwright Richard Crane and director Faynia Williams were commissioned to create a stage version of The Brothers Karamazov for the 1981 Edinburgh Festival; and if Dostoevsky’s great 1880 novel is itself a timeless classic, then over the years Crane’s adaptation has also acquired a certain classic status, enjoying many revivals, from America and Australia to Russia and Romania.

Now, to celebrate its 35th birthday, the Tron has invited Faynia Williams – its founding artistic director in 1982 – to create a new production for Glasgow, in 2017.  And the result is a beautiful, thought-provoking, but sometimes slightly baffling show, in which the novel’s great and ever-relevant themes – the clash between religious faith and scientific rationalism, the nature of morality itself – swirl powerfully round and through a cast of four who sometimes rise magnificently to the challenge, and sometimes seem almost overwhelmed by the complexity of a narrative in which all four Karamazov brothers take turns to play their corrupt old father simply by donning his great fur cloak, and also play many other characters of dream and nightmare. 

Sean Biggerstaff is impressive in the key role of the middle son Ivan, increasingly contemptuous of faith in a savage world; Tom England gives the play a compelling moral centre as the youngest, Alyosha.  And with Carys Hobbs’s towering lecture-theatre set providing a fitting arena for Dostoevsky’s dissection of human lives and morals, Stephen Boxer’s fine choral music helps to propel the play to a climax of fierce humanistic passion for its characters; despite some moments when drama seems about to be crushed by theory, and by Dostoevsky’s mighty avalanches of prose.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 28 October.

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Love Song To Lavender Menace

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVE SONG TO LAVENDER MENACE at the Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

THE PART of Edinburgh where I live is changing; rents have soared, and the dead hand of air b&b creeps up the street, gradually corroding community. Yet in this area around Broughton Street, change – both intensely local, and linked to much wider global trends – has always been the name of the game; and that was never more true than in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it became home first to the headquarters of the Scottish Minorities Group, campaigners for homosexual rights, and then to the Lavender Menace Bookshop in Forth Street, now celebrated in this nostalgic, slightly rambling and yet absolutely life-packed play by James Ley, at the Lyceum Studio in Grindlay Street.

Lavender Menace – run by the double-act of Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson – grew from humble origins as a book stall in the SMG office to become one of the true centres of Edinburgh gay life during the vital early-80’s years of the AIDS epidemic, the club dance boom, and the emergence of the modern LGBTQ movement; and Ley’s two-handed play seeks to capture its story through a multi-stranded narrative set mainly on the day in 1987 when Lavender Menace finally closed, and moved out of the basement to become West & Wilde in Dundas Street.

Young Lewis, who works in the shop, can’t believe this isn’t the end of a rare moment of gay liberation; his friend Glen is more optimistic. And as they work through a long night to pack up the remaining books, they both act out the story of the bookshop’s origins (and its sci-fi and disco inspirations), and receive some strange hints of a future when full gay equality will at last become possible.

In a reminder of why the bookshop was so sorely needed, Ley’s two-hour play also includes a series of poignant monologues by an outwardly straight young Edinburgh man who gains strength just by walking past the Lavender Menace sign. And if director Ros Phillips and actors Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish sometimes adopt a throwaway, diffident performance style that weakens the play’s pace and impact, this is still a play for our time that speaks volumes about cities and change, about the freedom they offer and the price they demand, and about those magic, unrepeatable moments when a social revolution is in the air, and some people find themselves at the living centre of it, in San Francisco, in London, or in a basement off Broughton Street, here in Edinburgh.

Lyceum Theatre Studio, until 21 October; also at Dundee Rep 23 October, Lemon Tree Aberdeen 25 October, MacRobert Stirling 26 October, Paisley Arts Centre 28 October, and Platform, Glasgow, 29 October.

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Fringe First Winners 2016

WEEK 1

ANGEL Pipeline Productions at Gilded Balloon
COUNTING SHEEP Lemon Bucket Okestra & Aurora Nova at Summerhall at King’s Hall
EXPENSIVE SHIT Adura Onashile & Scottish Theatre Producers at Traverse Theatre
HEADS UP Kieran Hurley and Show & Tell at Summerhall
THE INTERFERENCE Pepperdine Scotland at C Chambers St.
WORLD WTHOUT US Ontroerend Goed at Summerhall

WEEK 2

DAFFODILS (A PLAY WITH SONGS) Bullet Heart Club at the Traverse Theatre
FABRIC Robin Rayner etc. at Underbelly Cowgate until 28
FASLANE Jenna Watt in association with Showroom at Summerhall
MARK THOMAS: THE RED SHED Lakin McCarthy in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse at the Traverse Theatre
TANK Breach at the Pleasance Dome
TWO MAN SHOW RashDash at Northern Stage at Summerhall
US/THEM BRONKS, Big In Belgium etc. at Summerhall

WEEK 3

THE DUKE Hoipolloi, PBJ Management & Theatre Royal Plymouth with Save The Chlldren at the Pleasance Courtyard
GROWTH Paines Plough at Roundabout@Summerhall
JOAN Milk Presents with Derby Playhouse and Underbelly Untapped at Underbelly, Cowgate
LETTERS TO WINDSOR HOUSE Shit Theatre with Show & Tell at Summerhall
ONE HUNDRED HOMES Yinka Kuitenbrouwer, Big In Belgium etc. @ Summerhall
SCORCH Prime Cut Productions at Roundabout @ Summerhall

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Coriolanus (Botanics 2016)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CORIOLANUS at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.6.16.
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5 stars *****

THE PEOPLE have voted, and the ruling elites are aghast at what they have done. The people demand not only relief from hunger, but the immediate punishment of arrogant rulers who have scorned their opinions for too long; including one who dismisses their views as “the yea or no of general ignorance”, and demands that the Senate ignore or reverse their decisions.

This is the high political drama that plays out in Shakespeare’s mighty 1609 tragedy Coriolanus; and it’s perhaps not surprising that the atmosphere in the Kibble Palace was electric, on Friday night, as the audience began to feel just how powerfully Shakespeare – apparently still a living playwright, 400 years on – had imagined, understood and dramatised exactly the kind of clash between elite opinion and ordinary voters that is shaking the British state this weekend.

In normal times, the main talking-point in director Gordon Barr’s spare, intense and unforgettable two-hour version might have been the fact that the great general Coriolanus is here a woman, played with breathtaking skill and passion by the magnificent Nicole Cooper. This weekend, though, the question of gender is simply overwhelmed by a tide of mighty poetry about statecraft and its perils that could hardly be more timely and absorbing if it had been written yesterday. Janette Foggo is superb as Coriolanus’s lion-hearted mother Volumnia, Alan J. Mirren full of warrior glamour as her great enemy Aufidius. And will the state “cleave at the midst and perish”, as Shakespeare’s desperate senators fear? Perhaps; but in the meantime, here is a piece of theatre worthy of the historic moment in which we find ourselves, and one that demands to be seen.

Until 9 July.

Ring Road

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RING ROAD at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman, 9.4.16.
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4 stars ****

IF THE PLAY were a situation comedy, the scene would be about as familiar as they come. Lisa and her brother-in-law Mark, who have always liked each other, have sneaked away to an unromantic hotel on a ring-road, to spend an illicit couple of hours together; and the atmosphere of nervous anticipation, as they look around the room, is exactly what we would expect.

The situation is not quite what it seems, though, in this latest Play, Pie and Pint drama by actress and playwright Anita Vettesse; and the genre is not comedy but quiet contemporary tragedy, as a tale unfolds of lives that have lost their joy, and of people who – unable to find the courage to start all over again – are trying to patch things up as best they can, and simply trying to bear the damage that results.

The play, in other words, is quite painfully true to life; and although elements of the sex comedy survive – and are cheerfully carried throughout by Martin Donaghy as Mark – it’s the underlying grief and desperation of Lisa’s situation that burns itself onto the mind, in a terrific performance by Angela Darcy. And there’s also a bonus, in the form of an unseen voice-over performance from Robbie Jack as Lisa’s absent husband, Paul, each of his mobile phone calls more poignant than the last. It’s a short play, in other words, but one that contains a little slice of the real music of humanity; and just a couple of years into her writing career, Anita Vettesse is proving herself a playwright well worth watching.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, today; and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

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