Monthly Archives: July 2007

Column: Cannabis and the Cabinet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 21.7.07
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IF YOU CAN REMEMBER THE Sixties, they say, then you weren’t there.  It’s one of those throwaway lines about that decade of tremendous social change that makes some people laugh knowingly, and drives others wild with irritation, both at its unpleasant in-group smugness, and its blatant inaccuracy.  For myself, I can remember the Sixties pretty well, and I was certainly there, in all the ways that mattered to me.  I was a hard-working schoolgirl, a fully paid-up Beatles fan, and a  keen and sometimes anxious TV addict, gazing open-mouthed at all the huge political developments of the decade, from the Cuban crisis of 1962 to the thrilling student protest events of 1968.

I knew, as all observant kids knew, that for some people involved in this growing anti-establishment counter-culture, the use of illegal drugs – mainly, at the time, cannabis and LSD – was part of the picture, part of the rebellion against old ways; and by the time I arrived at university in 1970, it wasn’t  hard to identify the students who used those drugs, and had access to them.  Like Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander – and perhaps for similar down-to-earth Presbyterian reasons –  I never used any myself.  But I was conscious, like most of my generation, of living across a weird but  hugely significant cultural divide.  Behind us was a world in which drugs like cannabis, LSD, cocaine, heroin were completely unknown to the vast majority of people, foreign, strange, and frightening; ahead of us, a world in which experimentation with at least some of these substances would become much more normal and widespread.

And it’s against this background, I think, that we have to understand this week’s small but distinct media fuss over the confession by some members of Gordon Brown’s new government – currently nine of them, and counting – that they experimented with cannabis in their youth.  At one level, this piece of news is so unremarkable, and so statistically predictable, that it can hardly be classed as news at all; today, almost half  of British teenagers and twentysomethings will experiment with cannabis at some time, and the percentage among undergraduate students is probably far higher.  Nor, as any good anti-drugs campaigner will tell you, is there any scientific reason to regard cannabis consumption as a greater moral evil than the routine consumption of alcohol, a much more damaging form of addiction which our society continues not only to tolerate, but to indulge and promote.

Yet somehow, despite the passing of 30 years or more, this experience of experimentation with cannabis still represents a kind of watershed  in our culture; and one we cannot easily forget or leave behind.   For many of those born before 1945, for example – a large and influential slice of the electorate – the Sixties shift in attitudes to drugs symbolises a whole raft of social change, notably in sexual mores, that has left them feeling stranded in a world they barely recognise, and which they sometimes bitterly resent.

Worse than that, though for a Labour government, is the way  issues of age, in this area,  are compounded by issues of class.  Illegal drug use may be common in some working-class communities now.  But back in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was an experience far more common among the small minority who left home for  higher education; hence the sharpest line of  criticism against Gordon Brown’s confessing ministers, that they are a bunch of middle-class hypocrites, who think drug experimentation is all right for privileged university types like themselves, but all wrong for kids from council estates.  There’s no doubt that Britain went through a social revolution during the 1960’s and 70’s, in other words.  But even today, the effects of that revolution remain so unevenly distributed, so widely feared, and so enduringly controversial, that governments dare not change the law in ways that fully reflect those changing attitudes.

And where does that leave us?  It leaves us, I think, sadly trapped in the same old psychodrama of  rebellion and reaction that I first observed when I arrived at university more than 30 years ago.   In some moods, we play the nation of grunting old reactionaries, demanding an end to all this hippy-dippy nonsense about the legalisation of dangerous substances.  In other moods, we like to see ourselves as smart young rebels, sniggering knowingly over every feeble joke about dope-growing or cocaine-snorting uttered on television or on stage, and thoroughly enjoying our own naughtiness in defying the law.  Over more than a generation, in other words, this growing schism between the reality of life in Britain, and the letter of the law on drugs, has corroded relations with the police, encouraged a widespread culture of sniggering collusion with criminal behaviour, and invited a whole generation, as they grow older, to develop an attitude to the issue which is not so much consciously hypocritical, as downright schizoid.

And now, unsurprisingly, we have a cabinet of men and women who, like any contemporary group of professionals aged between 35 and 60, more or less perfectly reflect this cultural division and confusion.  They are, in other words – at least in this respect – exactly the government we deserve; and it hardly becomes us to feign surprise at their revelations.  It is difficult to say whether we will ever recover from the culture-shock of the 1960’s, to the point where we can realign our drug and alcohol laws to 21st century realities,  including genuine changes in the type and strength of drugs available.  But to judge by the puritanical tone of the Home Secretary’s apology, this week, we would be well advised not to hold our breaths; or to expect any return to a more healthy balance between social reality and the law, any time soon.

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Theatre Review 20 July 2007

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY at Pitlochry Festival Theatre and DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 20.7.07
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The Philadelphia Story 4 stars ****
Disney’s Beauty And The Beast 3 stars ***

YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT: eat the rich. It’s an old joke of a radical slogan, but it touches on a universal truth; that as people grow more rich and powerful, it becomes ever harder for the rest of us to believe in their common humanity, and harder for them to express it. It’s a a question that goes to the heart of the way we live in Britain now, not only because of the sharp and growing inequalities in our own society, but because of the hard-faced attitudes we in the west now often have to take in order to justify our own relative comfort in a world of suffering. And it’s therefore a special pleasure to discover, at the heart of this year’s Pitlochry season, John Durnin’s strong and sprightly production of Philip Barry’s The Phildelphia Story, a play slightly softened in its famous film version starring Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart, and then completely gutted to form the backbone of the champagne musical High Society; but, in its original form, as shrewd and grown-up a comedy on issues of wealth and humanity as any 21st century audience could wish to see.

First seen in New York in 1939, Barry’s play belongs to that golden period of American popular culture that reached its height during the Roosevelt years. It tells the story of Miss Tracy Lord, a once-divorced Philadelphia heiress of great wealth, impressive beauty, tremendous arrogance, and very little heart. On the midsummer eve of her proposed second marriage to a self-made pompous ass of a young coal tycoon, George Kitteredge, she finds her best-laid plans thrown into a chaos by a strange constellation of forces, including the return from overseas of her playboy first husband Dexter Haven, the arrival at the family mansion of a pair of radical journalists seconded to dish the dirt on the society wedding of the year, and the determined machinations of her disconcertingly smart little sister, Dinah.

What follows is a mid-20th century American collision between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Taming Of The Shrew, in which Tracy is forced to face up to the inconstancy of her own affections, her profound human weakness, and her habit of judging others too harshly. Some of the assumptions are breathtakingly sexist, by modern standards; and the outcome is pure romance, as she finds her way back to her “true love”. Along the way, though, Barry has plenty to say – far more than most contemporary playwrights, and with far more style – about the point at which class consciousness shades into brutal inhumanity, about the role of sexual desire in breaking down social barriers, and about the struggle of the wealthy, or at least some of them, to become and remain useful members of society. “Dammit, you find yourself explaining away your dough the way you would a black eye you had come by in the dark,” says Tracy’s journalist brother Sandy, of his train journey down from New York; these days, he would probably have come in a limo, and never had to explain himself at all.

John Durnin’s production, like most at Pitlochry, has a few crosses to bear in terms of poor, old-fashioned and stagey performances in minor roles. In the end, though, it has just enough real, classy acting near the top of the cast – notably an excellent double act from Rory Murray and Suzanne Donaldson as journalists Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie, and an outstanding performance from Joanne Cummins as little Dinah – to nudge this elegant, thought-provoking evening into the four-star category. Monika Nisbet’s sets and costumes are beautiful in grey and cream, with a real edge of slightly chilly late-Thirties style; the production moves at an assured, graceful pace. And the fabulous Ella Fitzgerald numbers playing between the acts conjure up a special time and place with terrific force, while still speaking straight to our hearts, today.

If The Philadelphia Story is about the power of love to soften a particularly hard-faced kind of “new woman”, Beauty And The Beast is famously a “story old as time”, about the much more traditional idea that the love of a good woman can tame the beast in man. The stage version of Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, currently playing at the Edinburgh Playhouse, is a strange old hotch-potch of a show, strongly based on the much-loved Disney cartoon, generous in scale, and often spectacular in its use of filmed imagery conbined with live action. Yet in mood and appearance, it’s also sometimes oddly reminiscent of those low-budget British touring productions in which all the performers talk, sing and dance like survivors of a 1960’s production of Oliver!, and in which the sets and costumes don’t quite cut the mustard.

The result is a show in which Beauty – attractively played by Glasgow girl Ashley Oliver, despite an unhelpful wig – arrives at the Beast’s castle through a spectacular forest scene, only to be confronted by a load of performers not looking quite as they should, including a talking clock that doesn’t look even slightly like a clock, and a range of dancing tableware whose costumes wouldn’t win first prize at a village fete. Add this visual confusion to feeble, fragmented storytelling, and an overlong 25-minute interval, and you have a recipe for restlessness in the stalls and circle, and a lot of tiny girls all dressed up in their gorgeous Beauty outfits, with nowhere much for their imaginations to go. In the end, though, the sheer romance of this great story – together with increasingly heartfelt performances from Ashley Oliver and her beast, Matthew Cammelle – begins to work its magic; and when the power of love finally frees the enchanted servants, and triumphs over death itself, there’s hardly a dry eye in the house.

The Philadelphia Story in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 20 October; Beauty And The Beast at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 28 July.

http://joycemcmillan.co.uk/2007/07/20/theatre-review-20-july-2007/

Big Idea – Just Double It

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BIG IDEA: JUST DOUBLE IT for Scotsman Review, 20.7.07
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SCOTLAND’S NEW First Minister, so we’re told, is a man in a hurry; without a majority at Holyrood, he needs to make an indelible mark on Scottish affairs before his plans begin to frustrated by the relentless logic of parliamentary arithmetic.  So I have a suggestion for Alex Salmond, this week.  He should think of a number, and then just double it.  In particular, he should think about the £234 million a year the Scottish government currently spends on every aspect of Scotland’s  artistic and cultural life  – from libraries, museums and festivals to the national arts companies and orchestras, plus grants to the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen – and then just raise it, to a cool half billion.  There are at least a dozen good reasons why he should do this, and do it now; here are some of them.

First, he should do it because he can.  Scotland’s devolution settlement  is a complex one, and there are many key areas of policy that are still profoundly affected by the decisions of the Westminster government.  But the arts and culture are not in that category.  They are clearly and solely the responsibility of the Scottish Executive and Parliament; and what’s more, the sums of money involved are not huge.  At the moment, the cultural spend represents about 1% of the Executive’s total budget, a mere drop in the ocean compared, say, with the vast sums spent on health.  To raise that figure to 2% would be a relatively simple operation, well within the new administration’s capacity and remit.

What’s more important, though, is than the SNP administration should have no difficulty in demonstrating that such a hike in cultural spending represents a terrific investment in Scotland’s future.  Just think, for a start, of the range of vital, life-enhancing local activities and centres on which cultural spending has an impact, in communities across Scotland.  Then think, at every level, of the huge “bang for the buck” delivered by cultural spending, far greater than in any other area.  The cultural industries are famously, and inevitably, labour-intensive; they employ large numbers of people relative to their size.  At the moment, throughout the UK, many of them run on a low-wage – and sometimes no-wage – culture that is a national disgrace; it therefore wouldn’t take much, in the way of additional spending, to put Scotland in the forefront of developing excellent education and career paths for creative people.

More than that, though, the impact of cultural spending on national life, and on Scotland’s international image is out of all proportion to its size.  So far, the most imaginative single cultural initiative of the devolved Scottish government since 1999 – the founding of the National Theatre of Scotland, on a completely innovative 21st century model – has cost the Executive something like £12 million; I defy anyone to identify any tranche of spending, on a similar scale, that has had more impact, or that has produced such a powerful piece of evidence of Scotland’s potential contribution to global debate as the NTS’s Black Watch, about to depart on its first international tour to Los Angeles and New York.

Most important of all, though, is the contribution that a rich, full national cultural life can make to the cause that should be closest to the SNP’s heart; and that is Scotland’s development into a self-confident and outward-looking nation, fit to make creative and balanced decisions about its future.   Across every art-form, from film and literature to theatre, the visual arts and every kind of music, Scotland has world-class artistic practitioners, internationally recognised as major contributors to global culture.  The only problem with this booming cultural scene of ours – beyond a permanent worry over where the next penny-pinching project grant is coming from – is that millions of Scots are not fully aware of it, or of its life-transforming impact.  It often hasn’t the resources to reach out, to promote itself, to celebrate its achievements; and crucially, it usually lacks the cash and clout to gain access to the big Hollywood-and-London-based popular media of the day, which increasingly shape most people’s cultural experience.

At a stroke, this week, Alex Salmond could begin to transform that situation, and create a whole new momentum in Scotland’s cultural life.  The previous Lib-Lab Scottish adinistrations tied themselves in conceptual and political knots over cultural spending, making Faustian bargains with concepts like “entitlement”  and “delivering social goals” in an effort to release funding for what they feared was an unpopular form of spending.  For this new government, though, there should be no need for that kind of apology.  So come on, Alex.  Seize the moment.  Think of that number, this week; and then – just double it.

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Column 14 July 2007: Leaving Iraq

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.7.07
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A FEW WEEKS AGO, I heard a particularly heartbreaking BBC report on the consequences of the war in Iraq. It was a report not from Iraq itself, but from Amman in Jordan. The interviewee was a veiled Muslim woman, living alone in a street largely taken over by Iraqi refugees; she told a terrible story of a mixed Sunni-Shia marriage made impossible by the escalating sectarian conflict in Baghdad, and of her own agonising decision to leave her husband and children there. Just as the interviewer was leaving, the woman took out a photograph. It was an image of a pretty young woman, with long hair and western clothes, standing in front of a celebratory Christmas tree with her husband and baby. “That was me, before the invasion,” said the woman. “That was my life.” If critics of the war in Iraq want a decisive measure of the abject moral and practical failure of Britain and the United States in Iraq, in other words, then the situation of that woman is surely that measure; perhaps even more so than the mounting death-toll of brave British and American servicemen and women, or the horrific tally of up to 600,000 Iraqi dead.

To say so much, though, is no longer very controversial; for the truth is that in this summer of 2007, supporters of the war are becoming harder to find than hen’s teeth. Even diehard patriotic Democrats like Hillary Clinton are now seeking to distance themselves from the conflict. The US House of Representatives has just formally voted for withdrawal. The White House’s own latest inquiry judges the occupation to have failed in ten out of eighteen key aims. And meanwhile, the armed forces themselves, given the impossible task of pacifying, stabilising and rebuilding a country whose physical and political infrastructure had been largely destrroyed during the invasion, are cracking under the strain, generating growing numbers of cases of questionable conduct under stress, of which yesterday’s searing coroner’s judgment against a leading Black Watch officer is only the latest example.

What’s striking, though, is just how unhelpful this apparent anti-war consensus is, in suggesting a way forward. The broad coalition of voices is, for a start, made up of at least three separate strands. There are the old-fashioned anti-imperialist sovereigntists, who believe the Iraqis should be left to “sort out” their own affairs. There are the anti-Bush and anti-Blair psychodramatists, so enraged by the prolonged leadership careers of two men whom they believe to be war criminals that they often talk as though the mere act of putting them on trial would somehow end the suffering of the Iraqi people. And there are the appalled observers, a group united only in the view that the conduct of the occupation has been inept to the point of catastrophe. But none of these groups, it seems tro me, are yet focussing very clearly on the one question that we in the west now need to answer: the question of what we can best do now, starting from the terrible place we are in, to promote the best long-term interests of that vast majority of the people of Iraq who want a peaceful, prosperous and democratic future.

And it’s when we ask ourselves that question, of course, that we rapidly become aware just how few simple answers there are. That the American-British occupation of Iraq should end soon seems obvious; with every passing month, it lends greater credibility to brutal gangs of insurgents who are able hide their reactionary ideology behind a veneer of nationalism. But it doesn’t take much analysis of where the practical power would lie, in a post-occupation Iraq, to work out that the peaceful majority in the country would not, after the horrors of the last few years, be in much of a position to dictate the course of events. Throughout most of the country, for many years to come, power would grow out of the barrel of a gun; and in most places, that gun would be in the hands of fundamentalist militias of one kind or another.

Whichever way we turn, in other words, we are likely to end up with more Iraqi blood on our hands; whichever way we move, we will have committed a shocking betrayal of those very groups in Iraqi society that we set out to help. So perhaps the best we can do now – and Gordon Brown’s government shows some faint signs of moving in this direction – is to start working through international institutions to try to offer Iraq a stable transition out of occupation. Now that Tony Blair has gone from Downing Street, of course, it’s fashionable to argue that the age of liberal interventionism is dead; that the old UN charter should be torn up, and that nations should be left, in future, to oppress their own people in peace. The truth is, though, that despite the horror of Iraq, the history of international relations since the fall of the Berlin Wall hardly supports any such conclusion. Instead, it speaks of a world so intertwined – not only in terms of trade and finance, but in terms of migration, faith and identity – that we increasingly have no option but to become, and to become better at being, our brother’s keeper. We can take our soldiers out of Iraq, in other words. But we cannot take the suffering of the Iraqi people out of our hearts and minds, or remove the impact of it from the streets of our cities. And those who think such a connection can exist without sometimes carrying an obligation to act, are almost as deeply in denial about the reality of modern global politics as those who once took us into war in Iraq; believing that our troops would be greeted with garlands of flowers, and that they would all be home by Christmas.

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Review 14 July 2007: DISNEY’S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DISNEY’S HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 14.7.07
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4 stars ****

AS A huge global entertainment corporation, the Live Nation group – current owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse, along with 135 other huge theatres across the United States and Europe – can seem like a faceless organisation at best. So it’s particularly exciting to watch what happens when a company with such massive resources at its command sets about giving something back, in the shape of the annual Live Nation Stage Experience event. The idea is that Live Nation provides the venue, along with a fully professional production team, including director and choreographer; and the young people of the region around the theatre – in this case the Lothians – provide the hundred-strong teenage cast and crew for a full-scale summer production of a major musical, rehearsed and staged in just two intense weeks.

And the result, at the Playhouse this week, is a production of Disney’s High School Musical so fizzing with energy, talent and joie-de-vivre that any minor problems in the staging – notably some hard-to-catch dialogue – hardly seem to matter at all. Part of the show’s huge success must have to do with the choice of a musical perfectly designed for school-age kids, and currently at the height of its global smah-hit status; released just last year, the High School Musical movie, along with its soundtrack CD, has been a huge success for the Disney corporation.

Mostly, though, it’s the combination of terrific talent and enthusiasm among the cast, and superb professional direction from the Live Nation team, that produces the goods. I suppose some might find something terrifying in the thought of such a standardised Hollywood-bubblegum participation opportunity spreading across the planet like wildfire. But in the presence of so many radiant young performers, singing, dancing and acting their hearts out, it’s impossible to feel anything but optimistic. For them, the sheer thrill of having all the resources of a theatre like the Playhouse at their command is a life-transforming experience; and for us, it feels like a privilege to be there, watching the magic in action.

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Theatre Review 13 July 2007

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PASSING PLACES and THE MAGISTRATE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for Scotsman Review, 13.7.07
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PASSING PLACES 4 stars ****
THE MAGISTRATE 2 stars **

THESE DAYS, Stephen Greenhorn is probably best known as the man who invented River City, and as the writer behind the recent smash-hit Proclaimers tribute show, Sunshine On Leith. Long before either of those projects was thought of, though, he produced this finest of all his stage plays, a beautifully-made rite-of-passage drama about Scotland itself, and about two boys who – although they call themselves Scottish – often feel like strangers in their own land.

Subtitled “A Road Movie For The Stage”, Passing Places tells the story of Alex and Brian, two boys from the badlands of Motherwell, who, on an impulse, steal a surfboard from a rip-off sports shop where Alex has been working, and head off for Thurso in an ancient Lada borrowed from Brian’s squaddie brother. On the way – up through Glasgow, past Loch Lomond and on into the western Highlands – they encounter a Scotland where, at first, they feel no sense of belonging at all. Alex, in particular, is preoccupied by the horrible truth that they are being stalked by Binks, the psychotic thug of a sports-shop owner, whose increasingly homicidal progress through the Highlands acts as a horror-comic counterpoint to the boys’ journey.

As they travelon, though, Alex and Brian gradually begin to take on board two of the huge lessons of post-modernism, the lessons that have transformed the idea of Scottish identity in recent years. They realise that in a globalised world of strangers, belonging is a choice as much as an unavoidable destiny; and that the people who choose to belong to, and care about, the Scottish Highlands and Islands, these days, are a mind-blowingly mixed bunch. They also begin to grasp the big truth that in the post-modern world, the periphery is often more advanced in its thinking, more cosmopolitan, and more wired into global networks, than the decaying centre. If old class and cultural structures have excluded Alex and Brian from whole tracts of Scotland and Scottishness, in other words, then the mobility of new times can free them to take possession of their own identity. And although some of this late-Nineties New Age optimism has now been overtaken by grim events, the central thesis still holds true; or true enough to make this play a real treat of substantial yet light-touch comedy, for any audience interested in the times we live in.

Ken Alexander’s deft Pitlochry production of Passing Places sometimes seems to undersell the play’s serious undercurrents a little – although it’s good to see an impressive Callum O’Neill, in the key role of Alex, squaring up to the serious and sometimes almost tragic elements of the play, when the pace and music of the production often seems keen to move things on and keep them light. For most of its length, though, this is a smart, witty, respectful and good-hearted account of Greenhorn’s play, sensitive to its powerful mix of narrative and dialogue, and full of enjoyable cameo performances, notably from Greg Powrie, as an impressive range of weird strangers encountered en route. And the production is movingly well served by Charles Cusick Smith’s set, which begins as a graffiti-scarred wall of breezeblock concrete, and gradually opens out, from scene to scene, into the widest and most breathtakingly beautiful of open skies – the kind we in Scotland can see so often, in these midsummer months, if we turn our faces to the north and west.

Written to offer London audiences some of the joys of French farce without the kind of risque plot-lines that might give serious offence, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1885 comedy The Magistrate is a thoroughly jolly affair. It revolves around the simple proposition that the lovely Mrs. Poskitt – a comely widow recently remarried to a respectable magistrate of London – has understandably knocked five years off her age in order to land her man; and has therefore also had to knock five years off the age of her son Cis, an alarmingly mature 19-year-old with a well-developed taste for wine, women, and gambling, now posing as a 14-year-old schoolboy. When an old friend arrives and threatens to betray her secret, Mrs. Poskitt triggers a chain of events that involves all the usual farcical shenanigans, from ladies making clandestine visits to dodgy hotels, to husbands unfortunately discovered carousing in the next room, and the whole party ending up hiding under tables and being arrested by the police.

The result is – or should be – uproar and hilarity; all the old farce needs, to work like clockwork, is a light touch, a brisk pace, a strong approach to the development of simple but credible characters, and a real skill in managing the physical business of the play. Unfortunately, in Ben Twist’s production, none of these elements is fully in place. It starts at a cracking pace, but soon loses momentum. Much of the physical business is dire – awkward, incredible, and clumsy to the point of embarrassment. And on the male side of the cast at least, there are two or three performances so vague, so full of bluster and bad rep-theatre posturing, that it’s hard to detect the simplest outline of the character’s motivation. It should be said that most of the audience seemed to be quite enjoying the show’s combination of fine, elaborate period sets and costumes, and clod-hopping physical comedy. But I was bored to distraction, not so much by the play itself, as by the lack of real comic skill and genius with which it was being presented; although Steven Rae – switching in hours from troubled Motherwell boy Brian to posh young Etonian Cis – gives the best performance of the evening, in one of those transformations that makes the Pitlochry season special, even in its less impressive moments.

Passing Places at Pitlochry Festival Theatre 16, 21 and 26 July, and in repertoire until 18 October; The Magistrate 14, 17,18, 23 and 28 July, and in repertoire until 20 October.

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Column 7 July 2007 – Climate Change

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 7.7.07
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WE ALL KNOW what the astronauts said, when they came back from that first journey into  lunar space.  In a dark universe, they said, full of whirling spheres of gas and cold lumps of rock, our home planet glows like a jewel, a pale blue paradise veiled in strands of white cloud.  Some have described it as looking like a bride; something breathtakingly beautiful, sacred, and full of potential, in a universe of fierce physical and chemical reactions that normally make organic life impossible.

But not, it seems, for much longer; for if the growing scientific consensus is to be believed, the long period of finely-balanced climatic stability that gave us this beautiful blue planet, and the sophisticated development of its life-forms, may be drawing to a close, partly because for the last century or two, humankind has been burning carbon-based fossil fuels at a rate which has already caused the proportion of carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere to rise almost 40% above its historic level.  Temperatures are already running at about 1 degree  above historic averages, causing the kind of large-scale disruption that now often dominates our news headlines, from the misery of floods in Hull, to the melting of the high Himalayas.

And at the micro-level, we all know the truth, even if our very language – with its talk of “cold” weather –  continues to deny it.  In my North Edinburgh backyard, last winter, there was simply no frost at all, even in December.  My wardrobe is full of gloves, sweaters and winter coats that I never wear any more.  And in April – when temperatures in Scotland ran a terrifying 3.8 degrees above the seasonal average – there were hot nights when I had to open all the windows to get any sleep.  This is already not the climate in which I was brought up, a generation ago.  And if the temperature continues to rise by another degree, to the point where climate change gains an unstoppable momentum, then the survival of our whole species begins to look doubtful; not only because of the sheer difficulty of survival in a fast-changing and increasingly hostile environment, but because of the murderous wars over dwindling resources that such rapid climate change would almost inevitably trigger.

The problem is, though, that it seems we don’t believe in this nightmare vision;  or, at any rate, that we cannot bring ourselves to take it seriously.  As an Ipsos Mori poll discovered last  week, about half of Britons believe that the threat is being exaggerated by scientists and politicians.   As for the political leaders of the west, their position is even more puzzling, in that they say they accept the scientific evidence, but then repeatedly refuse to take any action remotely commensurate with the threat.  At the recent meeting of the G8, for example, they were seen squabbling in the most petty fashion, and ultimately failing to agree, over a modest plan to cut emissions by only 50% by 2050; this at a time when most experts agree that to prevent disastrous climate change, we need to phase out carbon fuels almost completely over the next two decades.  The British government itself  is committed to a carbon reduction plan which it privately admits is completely inadequate, but says that it fears the reaction from the business lobby if it does more.

Faced with what seems like a truly cataclysmic threat, in other words, both people and governments, in the west, seem to have retreated into a culture of denial.  Part of the problem lies, of course, in the number of major threats – from the new ice age to mad cow disease and the millennium bug – that science has confidently announced in recent decades, only to be proved wrong.  The point of the tale about the boy who cried wolf is not that the wolf never came, but that when it finally came, no-one believed his alarm call any longer.  And that, roughly speaking, may well turn out to be the position of science in the face of climate change, disbelieved because of its long-term abuse of the authority it once had, and because of the widespread perception that modern scientists are more like funding-driven intellectual fashion-victims than serious independent scholars.

And the rest of the problem has to do with the weak position of government in the west, after three decades of pervasive neoliberal propaganda to the effect  that governnment intervention in the economy is a bad thing, and  that politicians are, by definition, a profession  of second-rate bunglers who cannot be trusted to deal with their own expenses, far less to plan and lead, over a period of just two decades, a total transformation of our whole energy-base and way of life.  If we sow the tempest, in other words, we reap the whirlwind; and in recent decades, we have done that twice over, not only in creating and seeking to export the turbo-charged consumer economy that has raised the risk of catastrophic climate change, but also in colluding, through sheer intellectual laziness, with the anti-poltiical culture which has left us incapable of dealing with it.  Our new Prime Minister shows some signs, at least, of understanding the need to restore trust in politics.  But I have seen no evidence, yet, that he himself has wrestled, in the still of the night, with the incredulity we all feel at the scale of the climate threat now predicted; or that he has made a firm decision about whether to act against it with a courage and radicalism that matches the risk, or to continue with business as usual, on the off-chance that science has got it wrong  again, and that the worst will never happen, after all.

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Theatre Review 6 July 07 – Manchester Festival

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MANCHESTER INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL for The Scotsman, 6.7.07
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Monkey (Palace Theatre) 3 stars ***
Interiors (Starting from the Festival Pavilion, Manchester Central) 4 stars ****
The Pianist (Museum of Science and Industry) 4 stars ****
Monster 3 stars ***
For All The Wrong Reasons 3 stars ***

THUNDERY RAIN beating down on the glass and steel of 19th century arcades, a grand piano in dusty post-industrial attic, a newly-commissioned film with a premiere in the virtual webworld Second Life as well as in real Manchester, and a head-on collision between a book launch and a furiously brilliant gig by one of the city’s legendary rock bands. Yes, it’s the new kid on the block, so far as major British festivals are concerned; and so far, the Manchester International Festival looks like a tough, wiry, intelligent infant. MIF’s boss, Edinburgh-born Alex Poots, says he has tried to create a Festival to match the genius of Manchester as a radical industrial city; and this first MIF therefore has three themes, of which the first is innovation – it presents itself as a “Festival of Firsts”, specialising in newly commissioned work. The second theme is music, in a programme featuring classic rock from Lou Reed to Mark E. Smith of The Fall, who firmly and typically had his manager announce that he was dissociating himself from the new book of Fall-inspired short stories, Perverted By Language, that was launched just before his blazing Sunday-night Festival gig at The Ritz.

And the third is a concern with “burning issues of our time”, reflected in a series of weekend debates on subjects ranging from slavery to the future of journalism. Add a healthy dose of multiculturalism, world-class print and publicity shaped by Manchester design guru Peter Saville, a lively hatred of old distinctions between “high” and “popular” culture, and a commitment to encouraging artiists to ignore conventional boundaries between art-forms, and you have a city Festival made – at least in theory – not only for Manchester, but for the age we live in. It’s true that the Festival, with a slightly larger budget than the Edinburgh International Festival, drawn mainly from an enthusiastic Manchester City Council, delivers fewer large-scale performance events. But the difference, as Poots is quick to explain, lies in the colossal additional cost of commissioning spectacular new shows – and nowhere more so than in the Festival’s flagship production of Monkey: Journey To The West, a 21st century “circus opera” based on the traditional Chinese story that also inspired the cult 1970’s television series. With music by Damon Albarn of Blur, and graphics and design by James Hewlett (Albarn’s partner in creating the smash-hit virtual rock band Gorillaz), Monkey is a 4 million euro co-production with the Chatelet Theatre in Paris and the Berlin Staatsoper; and in a purely commercial sense, its global success already seems assured. The Manchester run is already completely sold out, and major international venues are competing for the right to stage it in 2008.

Artistically, though, Monkey is a mixed blessing. Alex Poots sees Monkey as part of a long-term campaign to revitalise the opera repertoire for the new century. But in truth, Monkey is less of an opera than, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, in that it makes very little attempt to create character through song. Instead, it’s a lively, inventive acrobatics show with a huge cast, spectacular sets, fascinating use of graphics combined with live action, and – above all – a solid and interesting east-west fusion score by Damon Albarn. The narrative is sketchy, the characters are the barest of stereotypes, the show – performed in Mandarin with largely illegible subtitles – actually provides less insight into the meaning of the Monkey King story than last year’s lacklustre version by Dundee Rep and Scottish Dance Theatre. But some of the spectacle is breathtaking, with world-class acrobatic sequences cleverly and sometimes beautifully integrated into the narrative and design; and that, combined with a familiar story, seems to be enough to attract the mass family audience at which the show is firmly aimed.

There are much richer dramatic experiences, though, elsewhere in the programme, and particularly in the two site-specific shows commissioned for the Festival. Johnny Vegas’s remarkable solo show Interiors – co-scripted with Stewart Lee – is performed in an empty two-bedroomed semi in Old Trafford, with Vegas giving a superbly-judged performance as Jeffrey, the owner desperately trying to sell us what was once his marital home; the show emerges as a tragic, funny, and often searing one-hour commentary on the bleak and desperate emotional emptiness that lies behind Britain’s TV makeover culture. As for Neil Bartlett’s gloriously restrained and beauitiful reworking of Wladyslaw’s Szpilman’s famous holocaust memoir The Pianist, in a sense the true star of this show is the production’s astonishing setting, in the long-disused wooden attic of a warehouse at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry, on the site of the old Liverpool Road station. With its old goods-yards, sidings and railway wagons, the setting could hardly be more appropriate for a story that pivots around the horrible herding of Jews into cattle-trucks at Warsaw’s Umschlagsplatz. And actor Peter Guinness and pianist Mikhail Rudy pour their hearts into an exquisitely lit and perfectly choreographed performance, that memorably captures the tension between the necessary outward restraint of Szpilman’s character, and the piano music – mainly by Chopin – that, as he replays it in his mind, helps to keep him sane, in the face of the horrors he survives.

Beside these shows, the Royal Exchange studio production of Duncan MacMillan’s Monster – the runner-up in the Festival’s Bruntwood Playwriting Competition – looks like a relatively familiar ASBO-kid story, enlivened by a terrific performance from Mikey North as bad boy Darryl; and For All The Wrong Reasons, the Festival’s Manchester-inflected co-production with the ubiquitous Belgian company Victoria, emerges as a slightly old-fashioned looking piece of European avant-garde surrealism. There’s still plenty of excitement to come, though, in the next two weeks of the Festival, which – among other things – is looking forward, next weekend, to its closing production Il Tempo Del Postino, in which more than a dozen leading modern artists set out to see whether they can create work that works over time, as a theatrical performance. There’s nothing in Manchester, in other words, that remotely looks like rivalling the huge constellation of Festivals that hits Edinburgh in August, either in scale, or in impact on the city’s streets and atmosphere. But as a complementary summer festival on the British scene – scheduled to take place every two years, rather than annually – MIF looks strong, energetic, and distinctively post-industrial, as Glasgow’s Mayfest once was; and to judge by the quality of the show so far, it’s a presence that can only add to the gaiety of nations, and to the strength of Britain’s booming cultural scene.

Manchester International Festival runs until 15 July.

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Review: Midsummer Night’s Dream

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Glasgow Repertory Company at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 2.7.07
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2 stars **

DANK AND DIRTY GROUND , Shakespeare calls it, that famous forest floor outside Athens where the story of A Midsummmer Night’s Dream unfolds; and there was certainly plenty of that around, as this year’s Bard In The Botanics season made a soggy start, this weekend.  The sky cleared beautifully for the performance, though, and the omens looked good.  The Dream, after all, is a tough old play, which can survive torrents of rain both real and artificial, so long as its essential sense of poetry and magic remains intact.

But poetry and magic, alas, is exactly what turns out to be in short supply, in this disappointing Dream.  It’s not that Glasgow Rep’s director Barr has failed to assembly a talented cast.   Beth Marshall and Lisa Gardner both turn in decent performances as the female lovers, with Marshall in particular pulling off a powerful lyrical double-act as Hermia and Titania; and Paul Cunningham is a more-than-capable Bottom.  In the end, though, the atmosphere of the show just never begins to work.  Perhaps it’s the fault of the interesting-but-weird pattern of doubling – Titania with Hermia, Lysander with Oberon, Demetrius with Bottom – forced on Barr by the tiny size of his cast.  Perhaps it’s the truly terrible soundscape, a fuzzy ambient disco-beat that swells up briefly like a nasty ring-tone every time someone casts a spell.  Or perhaps the cast, in crusty modern dress, are just too busy being down-home and accessible to realise that they are crushing all the natural magic out of some of the most beautiful lines ever written in the English language.  Whatever the cause, though, the result is a resolutely flat-footed dream, with the odd passable moment of comedy; and a Midsummer Night’s Dream without enchantment is no Dream at all.

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