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

Britain’s Latest Financial Scandal, Brought To You By The Cameron Government’s Friends In The City; And How The SNP 56 Now Face The Challenge Of Offering The UK’s Most Coherent Opposition To This “Rogue” Form Of Capitalism – Column 22.5.1.5.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 22.5.15.
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THE LAST TIME the story hit the headlines, in November of last year, Channel 4’s feisty economics editor Paul Mason stood in the street outside the London headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and delivered a furious rant straight to camera; this time, I wouldn’t  be surprised if some equally irate commentator were to abseil down the facade of Barclays’ head office in a Batman costume, threatening to drive the evil-doers out of Gotham for good.

The story in question, of course, is the one about how traders in a consortium of big banks – including Barclays, RBS, JP Morgan and Citigroup – got together to fix global foreign exchange rates, to the benefit of themselves and their businesses, and the great disadvantage of everyone else.  No-one seems able to calculate how much money this scam actually made for the banks in question.  But at any rate, their conduct  has been rated so seriously by the US Financial Conduct Authority that they have now been ordered to pay some of the highest fines in banking history, a total of $6 billion dollars across the six banks involved.

So far, so familiar; and still, most people in Britain remain utterly baffled as to why no individuals have been prosecuted for carrying out or encouraging what are clearly fraudulent practices, either before or since the financial crash of 2008.  Now that the UK has made its electoral choice, though – and decided by  a narrow margin to continue for another five years with the government of David Cameron, closely entwined as it is with finance-industry cash, interests and lobbying – the question of what is to become of this unsustainable “rogue” form of capitalism begins to seem ever more urgent.

It’s not only the continuing stream of scandals, after all,  which suggest that these huge institutions are still shot through with a short-term, “loadsamoney” culture that often ignores the basic rules of contract, never mind any idea of ethical conduct, trust, or stewardship.  It’s also our abject failure even to begin to address the absurdly inflated  patterns of remuneration that begin in the financial sector, and are now beginning to distort the whole of British public life.  Since the crash of 2008, for example, our allegedly penitent UK  banks have paid out a staggering £100 billion pounds in personal bonuses; a sum easily capable, if divided into annual chunks over seven years, of filling the £12 billion gap in Britain’s public finances that George Osborne says must now be closed by, for example, slashing the benefits and quality of life of people with severe disabilities.

And politically, there are three observations worth making about this state of affairs.  The first is that despite the pallid performance of the Cameron-led government in actually tackling any of these abuses – as opposed to talking fluently about doing so – even some Tories are now becoming actively concerned that this bloated, finance-driven and heavily subsidised model of capitalism is bringing the whole idea of a free market into disrepute.  This week, for example, David Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton, still a loyal Tory, was to be seen buzzing about London promoting his new book More Human, in which he denounces Britain’s pampered and overpaid elites, wonders why anyone really needs to be paid more than the £250,000 a year picked up by top civil servants, and characterises modern Britain as a decaying democracy where policy can be bought, and the genuine voice of the people  is rarely heard.

Secondly, it’s becoming clear that it will be many years, at best, before we can look to the Labour Party for any sustained effort to mend this broken system.  So far, the Labour “leadership” debate has consisted mainly of a grim series of post-Blairite clones repeating the mantra – factually false, if you look at the results – that Labour lost the election because was too left-wing, was not business-friendly enough, and had not succeeded in banishing every hint of trade union influence from its affairs.

What this strange generation of blank-eyed careerists fail to grasp, though, is that if their analysis is correct, then the Labour Party might as well shut up shop now.  What Britain needs now – but seems unlikely to get – is an opposition party which forgets its traditional left-right paranoia, and simply begins to deal in reality; to expose the economic lies being told by the present government, to oppose cruel and unworkable social policy largely based on delusional headlines in the popular press, and, above all, to nail the myth that “there is no money”, at a time when we’re told the offshore coffers of the super-rich are awash with cash, just wandering the globe in search of high short-term “yield”.

Which brings, us finally, to the 56, Scotland’s new SNP MP’s, and the unexpectedly prominent role they may find themselves playing, as a centre-left Westminster opposition party in relatively good heart.  It’s always unwise, of course, to overstate either the radicalism or the coherence of the SNP; the truth is, though, that given the state of Westminster opposition politics now, the party will have little difficulty in looking both more radical and less confused than the post-defeat parliamentary Labour Party.  Wiser Westminster observers willl note that in demographic terms, the new SNP contingent  represents exactly the kind of intake the Commons now desperately needs, ordinary active citizens pitched straight from the world of “real” jobs into the Commons chamber; and the resources they will now have available for research offer them a historic chance to deepen and sharpen their arguments, and to do a job of work not only for Scotland, but for tens of millions of non-Tories across Britain, in holding the Cameron government to account from a centre-left position.

It is a heavy responsibility; and powerful forces – from the might of the right-wing media, to the party’s own ambivalence about Westminster itself – may make failure more likely than success.  For now, though, and whatever benches they finally occupy in the Commons, the SNP looks by far the best-organised team in in UK politics, when it comes to opposing the British government’s current direction of travel; so let battle begin, and may they succeed in raising their game, to match the scale of the challenge.

ENDS ENDS

The CATS Awards, 12 Years On

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CATS AWARDS 2015 for Scotsman Magazine 9.5.15.
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IT STARTED, IMPROBABLY ENOUGH, in Leipzig twelve years ago, when a small group of journalists from Scotland had been invited to cover a weekend celebrating British playwriting, including a new German production of Gregory  Burke’s Gagarin Way, and readings of other works by the rising generation of young Scottish playwrights.  We had been discussing the irony of the fact that the power and range of contemporary Scottish theatre often seemed more widely recognised outside Scotland than in Scotland; and as we set off for home, my colleague Robert Dawson Scott of The Times – a former arts editor of The Scotsman – raised the idea that like the Critics’ Circle in London, we should launch our own annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, to celebrate the best work produced in Scotland each year, and to seek to gain more recognition for an art-form often seen – for historic reasons – as less central to Scottish life than, for example, music or literature.

When the idea was put to the group of a dozen or so critics then writing regularly about theatre in Scotland, there was the usual robust disagreement about how we should do it, or whether we should do it at all; critics are never short of conflicting opinions.   And in that first year, the awards began very modestly; we held a meeting, made our decisions, and travelled around Scotland delivering awards plaques to the winners as and when we could, across the ten categories – from Best Male and Female Performances to Best Show For Children Or Young People – that still make up the CATS awards today.

Over the years, though, the CATS Awards have grown into something like a real annual celebration for Scottish theatre, an award ceremony and party that, while still modest in scale and budget, has become a vital part of the theatre year.  We’ve won loyal sponsors that range from the Mackintosh Foundation to STV, BBC Drama in Scotland, Equity the actors’ union, and the theatre insurers W & P Longreach. We’ve had vital in-kind support from theatres including the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Pitlochry, the Traverse and the Tron, where we return this year, for the CATS Awards 2015.  Our guest stars have included theatre legends like John Byrne, Alan Cumming and Bill Paterson;  and our winners range from recognised stars like David Tennant and Blythe Duff to the whole of the Lung Ha’s company for adults with learning difficulties, who won the Best Ensemble award in 2010.

Like all awards, the CATS raises issues about who makes the decisions, and why.  Over the years, as journalism has grown more fragmented and moved online,  we’ve changed our membership to reflect those shifts; and no-one is ever likely to agree with all our decisions.  The best guarantee of the integrity of the process, though. lies in the diversity of the critics as a group, in the sheer range of conflicting opinions we bring to the table, and the fact that we all love the art-form enough to spend a huge part of our lives in darkened rooms, watching theatre good and bad, and reporting back on it.  Over a long day’s discussion, we hammer out a result by which we can all stand; then we celebrate, and hope theatre-makers and theatre-lovers will join us.   This year, we gather at the Tron on 14 June, with mighty shows like last year’s James Plays and the Lyceum’s recent, brilliant Caucasian Chalk Circle in contention.  And if the critics’ decisions are never perfect, they nonetheless represent an honest attempt to reach a conclusion through a day of passionate debate among a group of very different minds; and that, in an age of deep uncertainty about how we assess quality and achievement  in the arts, must be a process worth considering, as we muse on the relationship between an ancient art-form, and the society it aims to reflect and serve.

CATS Awards 2015, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 14 June.

ENDS

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Election Day Comes: Time To Take The Long View, And Reflect That In The End, Scottish Independence – Or Not – Will Be Less Important Than Good Governance And Good Relations, Across The Islands – Column 8.5.15.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 8.5.15.
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AFTER ALL THE sound and fury of the general election campaign, polling day comes; and with it a moment’s peace, or at least a breathless pause before the post-election horse-trading and grandstanding begin in earnest.  It’s a moment when we might – just briefly – raise our eyes from the day-to-day stuff of politics, and try to take a longer view; indeed in this election, the longer view is so much more interesting than the nitty-gritty of the debate that the mismatch is beginning to attract comment, not least from non-British observers.  “Why is the debate across most of the UK so dull,” they ask, “when the stakes are so high?”  And the answer surely lies partly in the strange two-speed politics the UK has developed over the last 18 months, since the Scottish referendum campaign offered voters north of the Border an exceptionally clear glimpse of a different possible future from the one proposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and triggered a passionate increase in voter registration, turnout, and engagement that has not been mirrored elsewhere in the UK.

Yet however unclear the likely outcome of the Labour-Tory battle for Downing Street, what seems certain is that this election will transform the make-up of the House of Commons in ways that make further radical constitutional reform inevitable.  Essentially, what has happened is that the traditional Westminster voting system so stoutly defended by Labour and the Conservatives has abruptly turned against them in Scotland, threatening to deliver a clear majority of Scottish seats to a party – the SNP – that probably still commands less than half of the vote.  There is, of course, a profound irony in the failure of the two main parties to notice the grotesquely unbalanced results produced by first past the post, until it began to work against them; Tony Blair, we should recall, won a commanding overall Commons majority in 2005 with a bare 35% of the vote. There’s little doubt, though, that the likely over-representation of the SNP – and the equally marked under-representation of UKIP – will provoke a level of debate about the future of first-past-the-post previously unseen at Westminster; and could lead to a historic reshaping of British politics away from a system of two-party adversarialism that has lasted for more than 300 years.

Even more important than any debate on electoral reform, though, is the likely impact of the presence of a large, energised group of SNP MP’s on the whole territorial politics of these islands.  It’s not only that their presence is likely to provoke further debate about the limits of Scottish devolution, and about the increasingly obvious instabilities and inadequacies of the recent Smith Commission proposals.  It’s that their presence is likely to provoke real existential anxiety among Northern Irish Unionists, who see the SNP as a profound threat to their British identity; it will also cause growing unrest among English MP’s, both those of an English nationalist stripe, and those who speak for regions, from the north-east to Cornwall, that feel themselves poorly represented under the present system.  Even  in Ireland, free for more than 90 years from any direct involvement in Westminster politics, the SNP presence may arouse long-buried memories of the last time a group of nationalists bent on secession took their seats in the Commons, and tried to form a “progressive alliance” with the centre-left party of the time.  And at the very least, those pressures are likely to unleash in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties the full range of debate on constitutional reform hinted at in some of their recent statements – from the setting up of a UK constitutional convention, to renewed debate about federalism and even confederalism, as the best way forward for the peoples of these islands.

And of course, pessimists would say that all this can only end in conflict, ill-feeling, and the kind of low-level economic warfare that benefits no-one; we certainly had a taste of that possibility during the referendum campaign, with loose talk of the kinds of “border posts” between Scotland and England that have never existed between Britain and Ireland, even at the height of the troubles.  And it is possible to argue that the emergence of a stronger territorial politics in the UK represents a falling-off from the great days when we were able to build and maintain island-wide political movements, across all our cultural divides.

It’s also possible, though, to see the political shift taking place in this island now – and summed up in that historic opposition leaders’ debate a few weeks ago – as a long-overdue rebalancing of a heavily over-centralised state with a huge cultural arrogance at its centre, and a growing indifference to the very different economic needs and priorities of the UK’s other nations and regions, particularly its former industrial heartlands.  And in this long view of British politics, there are two final paradoxes worth considering.  The first is that for all its aspirations to Scottish independence, the 21st century SNP is nonetheless a very British party, with a far warmer and more eloquent line of argument about the ties that bind the British and Irish family of nations, and the unbreakable  “social union” between them, than the ill-tempered No campaign was able to muster during last year’s referendum debate.

And the second paradox is that in the long-term outcome  of the coming constitutional upheaval, one of the questions that may finally matter least is whether Scotland actually becomes independent or not.  In or out of the Union, what will matter most will be good governance in all parts of the islands, democratic institutions that constantly evolve to meet new challenges, and mature, well-negotiated good relations among all our elected governments, at every level.  And if, at this moment, the SNP is the most decisive force driving us towards that kind of positive change, we should also recall – as we mourn or celebrate today’s result – that it may not always be so; and that while we can bet on the likely end of the journey, only those with a very long view indeed can even begin to predict it, with any hope of success.

ENDS END

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Peter Pan Goes Wrong

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PETER PAN GOES WRONG at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow , for The Scotsman 4.5.15.
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3 stars ***

WHENEVER I MENTION my job as a theatre critic, someone is bound to respond with by sighing, “I know I should get to the theatre more often,” as if it were some arduous but elevating chore, like visiting an aged aunt.  And I can only suppose that it’s because theatre enjoys this wearily prestigious status in British life that there is such an endless appetite for shows like Mischief Theatre’s Peter Pan Goes Wrong, in which the whole art-form is seen falling flat on its face, and audiences are invited to laugh themselves silly – not for ten minutes but for two long hours – over all that can go wrong when a local amateur dramatic company, the Cornley Youth Theatre, attempts to stage Peter Pan.

Designed mainly for fans of slapstick – and set to arrive in Edinburgh  tomorrow – this touring follow-up to the company’s award-winning Play That Goes Wrong often seems like a thin idea stretched beyond its limit, as flying actors are slammed ruthlessly around the stage, and the set develops a chaotic life of its own; it’s all been done before, and far more wittily, in Michael Frayn’s backstage classic Noises Off.  The programme is a good read, though, full of interviews with fictional Cornley actors, and entertaining small ads; the sheer energy of the ten-strong company demands a salute.  And towards the end, as the revolving set threatens to reach warp speed, there are one or two moments of genuine hilarity; before this self-absorbed piece of theatrical foolery disappears again into the night, leaving not a trace behind.

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Farewell To Rowan Tree Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on FAREWELL TO ROWAN TREE for the Scotsman magazine, 2.5.15.
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IT’S 28 YEARS since Judy Steel – writer, activist, campaigner, and great champion of Borders culture – called a meeting, near her home in the Ettrick Valley, to launch the Rowan Tree Theatre Company.  The idea was to create small-scale but fully-fledged professional theatre in a part of Scotland that had traditionally lacked it, despite a strong amateur drama tradition in some areas; Judy Steel called it “chamber theatre”, small in scale, but aspiring to the highest quality.

Beyond that, the company also aimed to make theatre that would have a deep connection with the culture and landscape of the Borders itself – with the farming way of life, the mighty Borders tradition of ballads and folk songs, and the many great writers  who belonged to the land between Edinburgh and the Tweed, including  James Hogg,  John Buchan and Sir Walter Scott.  And for almost three decades, despite constant financial struggles, the company has fulfilled that remit, creating dozens of memorable shows like The Minstrel And The Shirra – Allan Massie’s reflection on the life of Walter Scott – or Rowan Tree co-founder John Nichol’s beautiful interpretation of Buchan’s Fish Tales.  The gorgeous live music from Rowan Tree’s 2009 Burns show The Lasses O won a Critics’ Award For Theatre In Scotland; and the company is also rightly proud of the role it has played in helping to develop the Borders network of performing venues, in encouraging new initiatives such as the Borders Youth Theatre, and in encouraging young people from the Borders to develop professional theatre skills, and to believe that they can create top-flight theatre which reflects the life and culture of their region.

Now, though, Rowan Tree Theatre has decided to call it a day; and although the underlying reasons are many, dating back to Judy Steel’s retirement a few years ago, the final straw came when Creative Scotland refused to grant  project funding to Rowan Tree’s latest new play commission, the winner of a Borders-wide competition.  Rowan Tree has always enjoyed strong in-kind support from Borders Council, and generous sponsorship both from Stobo Castle, and from the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust, which runs the stable-yard theatre at Bowhill near Selkirk, a space partly created to host Rowan Tree’s work.  According to the company’s Chair Helen Currie, though, the company had simply been stuck with this short-term and provisional funding structure for too long; and when the latest project failed to gain Creative Scotland support after massive and time-consuming efforts to meet all the stated criteria, they decided it was time to leave the field to others.

Yet although the Borders cultural scene has certainly been transformed over the last 30 years – with new emerging venues like the gorgeous Heart of Hawick, and the new Firebrand Company now making professional touring theatre in the Borders, based on revivals of recent Scottish classics – it’s still difficult to see any other company, in this landscape, that shares Rowan Tree’s passion for linking the wider world of Scottish theatre to the great themes of Borders life, and the region’s mighty tradition of poetry, storytelling and song.   In the great scheme of public spending – or for that matter of private wealth, in Scotland –  the sum of £100,000 a year or less that would have kept Rowan Tree alive is a tiny drop in the ocean; it speaks ill of our society, and its priorities, that we now cannot find such a small sum to support a company that, for the last generation, has trained up young artists, opened up new performance spaces, and inspired people across the Borders by giving a contemporary voice to their great cultural heritage.  And if this particular Rowan Tree is about to fade from the scene, it’s to be hoped that that impulse to give a voice to the Borders, and to link that voice with the wider stream of Scottish theatre, will not fade with it; but will find new spaces, new structures, and new ways of making itself heard.

ENDS ENDS

Vlad The Impaler

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on VLAD THE IMPALER at Oran Mor glasgow, for The Scotsman 2.5.15.
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3 stars ***

WRITTEN in tribute to the late Romanian poet, playwright and satirist Marin Sorescu, Richard Crane’s new play – premiered at Oran Mor this week before arun at the Brighton Festival – is a fiercely ironic meditation on the role of savage violence in creating and underpinning political, set in 15th century Romania.  On stage, a pair of impaled victims of Vlad’s reign of terror – played with style by Iain Robertson and Anna-Maria Nabirye – remain strangely alive on the points of the sharpened tree-trunks that have been thrust through their guts, giving the odd obligatory yowl of agony, while shooting the breeze about Vlad, his character, his political methods, and whether the recent invention of the printing-press will make any difference.

Meanwhile Vlad – splendidly conjured up by Jack Klaff, in an impressive range of headgear – often wanders down to have lunch among his victims, and complain about the burdens of power, until political events sweep him off into a rat-infested prison, and then back onto the throne again.  And if there’s something about the tone of Faynia Williams’s production that doesn’t quite work – a distracting jokey ingenuity in the staging that somehow masks the underlying weight of the theme – there’s also a magnificent strand of wild music and song in the play that’s delivered with great flair, by all three actors; and that often seems to come closer to the bright but despairing heart of the  drama than all of Richard Crane’s witty and well-crafted words.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

ENDS ENDS