Daily Archives: August 4, 2007

NIGHT TIME AND OTHER TRAVERSE 3 SHOWS

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NIGHT TIME, IS THIS ABOUT SEX?, STOOPUD FUCKEN ANIMALS and THE HUMAN COMPUTER at Traverse 3 Drill Hall (Venue 358), for Scotsman Festival Mag, 4.8.07
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Night Time 3 stars ***
Is This About Sex? 3 stars ***
Stoopud Fucken Animals 3 stars ***
The Human Computer 3 stars ***

HERE’S A QUESTION: how much do you really care about the detail of the sexual and personal lives of affluent middle-class folk – the kind who seem to have lost the knack for intimacy and love, but not the urge to talk endlessly about their quest for it? It’s a question you should try to answer before booking tickets for the part of the this year’s Traverse Festival programme that plays at the Drill Halll in Forrest Road; because for reasons that defy easy analysis, the Traverse has chosen to launch its 2007 Festival with a slate of shows at the Drill Hall dominated by two slim and self-absorbed plays about modern western private lives, both of them decked out in such tasteful shades of mauve, cream and beige that by the end of the evening, I felt like chucking a pot of red paint at the stage in the hope of livening things up – or at least of administering the institutional kick up the backside the Traverse occasionally seems to need, in order to keep its sense of theatre intact.

Part of the problem perhaps lies with Traverse 3 itself, which takes the form of a small dark-blue circus tent pitched in the wide open spaces of the Drill Hall; like most tented venues, it has a strange, now-you-hear-it-now you-don’t acoustic which hardly helps the cause of intimate drama. But not even that, I’m afraid, can account for the sense of low energy and langorous, self-indulgent pace that plagues the Traverse’s headline production of Selma Dimitrijevic’s Night Time, a searching, dream-like study of a woman’s journey through a night in which she leaves – or dreams of leaving – her bullying, violent husband, using real or imagined encounters with two other men as emotional stepping-stones. There’s no doubt that Dimitrijevic is a richly talented writer, with a fine sense of poetry and structure; and at best, she offers a piercing retrospective sense of the deep damage inflicted by such abuse, and how it affects any possibility of future relationships.

If there’s plenty of implicit passion and drama in the character’s story, though, Lorne Campbell’s production is far too slow, muted, and elegantly understated to capture more than a glimpse of it. At an hour and forty minutes, the play seems extended far beyond its strength. And towards the end, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that this is just a belated version of Ibsen’s Doll’s House, given a twist of mid-20th century abstraction in the style of Sartre of Pinter, and then served up with about a tenth of the energy, humanity and persuasive power the old Norwegian brought to the story of women’s oppression, more than 140 years ago.

Christian O’Reilly’s Is This About Sex? – presented at Traverse 3 by favourite Fringe visitors Rough Magic of Dublin – is another supposedly contemporary drama that seems fixated on an old narrative of women’s liberation; although here, the decade we seem to be revisiting is the 1970’s, with its belated discovery of the female orgasm, and the challenge allegedly posed by that discovery to the type of bloke who thinks of women’s bodies as a kind of engine, recently fitted with a baffling new gadget. At its best – and largely thanks to a spirited team of actors, led by Darragh Kelly as the cross-dressing hero, Daniel – Lynne Parker’s production achieves some sharp moments of wry sex-comedy. But at its worst, it plays like an embarrassingly repetitive 1970’s sex-manual, obsessed with the recently-discovered idea of oral sex, and painfully eager to display its sophistication by going on and on about it. And on, and on.

Alll of which conspires to make the remaining two shows on the Traverse 3 programme seem like lively theatrical events, although both have their limitations. Joel Horwood’s Stoopud Fucken Animals, presented by the Loose Collective, is a sharp, lurid and suitably messy piece of Suffolk country-and-western, set in the agri-commercial badlands of the east of England, where the best job a boy can get is touting straws of first-class bull semen around the chemical countryside. Horwood’s play sells itself short, in the end, with a soft-edged ending that denies the implicit violence of much that it describes; and Kate Budgen’s production suffers from some strange lapses of pace. But in its best moments, Stoopud Fucken Animals has more kinetic and dramatic energy in a flick of its cowboy-hat than the Traverse and Rough Magic shows have in their whole length; and it’s graced by a lovely, nonchalant pair of matching performances from Carl Prekopp and Joseph Arkley as the 22-year old brothers, Charlie and Dim, whose quest for the truth about their birth provides the driving-force of the play.

As for Will Adamsdale’s The Human Computer – well, even Adamsdale’s greatest admirer could hardly argue that he takes a step forward, in this piece, from the kind of complex solo drama about the farce and sadness of modern life that he developed in his previous award-winning shows, Jackson’s Way and The Receipt. What he does provide, though, is a strong, gentle 65-minutes of stand-up comedy about the struggle between man and machine, or – more precisely- between a slightly technophobic London bloke and the defining technology of our time. Adamsdale’s observations about the fundamental user-unfriendliness of the computer are as poignant as they are sharp, and his hand-knitted props – little poster-painted versions of computer toolbars and icons – are not only endearing, but significant in their rejection of the slick and digital. In the end, though, this is an extended comedy sketch which finds its narrative direction too late to achieve any real depth; and although it’s an intelligent and harmless hour of fun which will entertain anyone who has ever wrestled with recalcitrant keyboard, those who have seen Adamsdale’s previous work know that on his day, he can do much, much better than that.

All shows until 26 August.

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GORDON BROWN AND A CHANGE OF TONE

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 4.8.07
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FRIDAY MORNING: and the news of the death in hospital of Kafeel Ahmed, the man arrested in during the failed terrorist attack on Glasgow airport five weeks ago, comes as a sharp reminder of the baptism of fire Gordon Brown has experienced, since he took over as Prime Minister on 27 June. There has been flood and tempest and terrorist attack; yet the fact seems to be that Gordon Brown’s style of leadership – solid, reassuring, thoughtful, and not given to sudden public expressions of emotion – has proven to work well in a time of crisis. His opinion poll ratings remain impressively high; and last week, radio audiences were even treated to the strange sound of a Conservative MP recounting how pleased and touched he was to be telephoned by the Prime Minister himself, asking – in his strong “Scottish voice” – whether there was anything more that could be done to help his crisis-hit constituents. Apparently, this was the kind of correct political gesture noticeably lacking during the spin-driven Blair era.

For the truth is that in the modern, media-driven state, when the leader changes, the whole tone of political life undergoes a series of shifts; and the sense of cultural change created by the transfer of power from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown has been unexpectedly profound. It shouldn’t be mistaken, of course for a substantial shift of policy; cultural change usually precedes real political action, often by half a decade or more. But if nothing else, Gordon Brown’s accession to the Premiership comes as a clear and resounding reminder of that powerful strand of the British national psyche – the more sober, northerly, nonconforrmist and moralistic strand – that has effectivelly been exiled from the centre of power at Westminster since the 1980’s. Unlike his three immediate predecessors, Gordon Brown has never moved an inch, in terms of personal demeanour or style, from the place where he was raised, in the Church of Scotland manses of west Fife; indeed, since he left the Treasury for Downing Street, his voice has if anything become more relaxedly Scottish, rather than less so. And the ripple-effect of this change is beginning to throw up some strange reactions. Some of the London press corps have begun to write petulant columns about the new “Taliban” style of presbyterian government, with its stated aversion to supercasinos and 24-hour binge-drinking, although their frivolous tone suddenly seems a shade old-fashioned. At Tory headquarters, David Cameron – chosen for his credentials as a convincing Tory son of Blair – is searching for strategies to combat this unexpected change in the political weather.

And In Edinburgh, the fleet-flooted Alex Salmond will have to tread carefully, in order not to irritate the majority of Scots with the spectacle of two powerful, capable Scotsmen falling out over trivia, including the matter of where the Saltire flies, and how high. It’s as if, by forcing his way through that famous constitutional loophole to seize Prime Ministerial power without a general election, Gordon Brown has provided the British people with a short, sharp, unasked-for refresher course in their own historical diversity as a nation, and in the closeness of the ties that bind us; and although it may finally prove a futile rearguard action against the rising tide of English and Scottish nationalism, it seems – at the moment – to be playing better with the public than anyone could easily have predicted.

But perhaps there is also another element in the current Brown “bounce” that has relatively little to do with Gordon Brown’s Scottishness, and something to do with other aspects of his personality. Last week, in tribute to the leading actor Ulrich Muehe, who had just died, I went at last to see the beautiful German film The Lives Of Others, about the ferocious state surveillance endured by citizens of the old German Democratic Republic, in the 1980’s. The attitude of that government to its citizens was intensely paternalistic; and although this was clearly a malign and destructive paternalism, I was struck by how completely the paternal tone has been absent from western politics for the last 20 years. Today, the President of the United States is still boyish at the age of 60; and Alastair Campbell’s notorious diaries have just revealed the extent to which he and Tony Blair, in their heyday in government, saw themselves as lads abroad, playing smart boys’ games of spin with the masters of the media. This was a generation of men terrified of their own maturity, because of the intimations of mortality that come with it; and many of their more rash decisions seem tinged with that desperate need to prove themsevles.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand – perhaps precisely because he came to the reality of fatherhood so late in life – seems absolutely comfortable, at 56, with that middle-aged, nurturing role; and just as moments of crisis are said to separate the men from the boys, so the seriousness of the subjects with which they were dealing seemed to drive a wedge between Gordon Brown and “Boy George” Bush, as they stood together at Camp David last week. Gordon Brown is no-one’s idea of a perfect statesman, in other words. But for quality of thought and strength of character, he remains one of the outstanding politicians of our age. And now that he has his feet firmly under the table at Downing Street, the mood-music of our political culture is changing, in ways that may one day deliver him an election victory of his own; and that seem, on balance, only to improve our chances of dealing with the terrifying challenges we face, and doing so with some intelligence, humanity and grace.

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