Monthly Archives: September 2007

ALEX, GORDON, AND THE ABORTION DOG-WHISTLE: Column 29.9.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.9.07
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ALEX AND GORDON: their twin administrations at Holyrood and Westminster are just four and three months old respectively, and already I’m beginning to wonder just how – aside from basic party affiliation – these two formidable fiftysomething Scotsmen could be much more alike. Both were born in the 1950’s, into that doughty strand of the Scottish small-town middle-class that believed implicitly in the value of education, and in an ethic of public service. Both were students during the great age of protest, in the late 60’s and early 70’s; I remember walking from Glasgow to the Faslane nuclear base with Salmond and his then girlfriend, some time in the early 1970’s. Both were soon recognised, within their respective parties, as brilliant young left-wing politicians with a devastating talent for debate; Brown famously co-edited the fiery 1975 Red Paper on the future of the Scottish economy, and Salmond was actually expelled from the SNP, in 1981, for wanting to take the party sharply to the left.

And now, in the well-cut suits of affluent middle age, these two gifted men find themselves installed as First Minister and Prime Minister. Both have put their left-wing past behind them, and have become powerful friends of business and the free market, while trying to retain a commitment to social justice. And both have calculated that the way to retain power, in a Britain where public opinion is increasingly influenced by a mean-minded and backward-looking popular press, is to throw as many apparent titbits and concessions as possible to that socially reactionary current of opinion, while quietly pursuing your own goals in key matters of economic policy.

Gordon Brown and his chief ministers have been at it all week in Bournemouth, talking routine Daily Mail drivel about cracking down on this and tightening up on that; plainly, Gordon’s recent Downing Street photo opportunity with Baroness Thatcher was only the beginning of his commitment to right-wing gesture politics. And here in Scotland Alex Salmond has allowed those around him to send out another little dog-whistle to the conservative religious lobby from which he has already accepted too much financial support; in the shape of a hint that he favours the devolution of the abortion issue to Scotland, along with the setting up of a commission to reconsider the current state of the law.

And this is perhaps where the stories of Alex and Gordon begin to diverge, in terms of the risk involved in their flirtations with the right; for Salmond’s, it seems to me, is by far the more dangerous and untried path. It should be emphasised, of course, that Alex Salmond himself has said little on the subject of abortion, beyond supporting a time-limit reduction to 20 weeks that should, under modern conditions, be uncontroversial. He has also made it clear that he does not want any “arm-wrestling” between Holyrood and Westminster on such a sensitive matter.

Yet it is difficult to see why anyone in the SNP has raised this issue at all, if not to tip a wink to various religious lobbies in Scotland that if the issue were devolved, then their views would receive a more sympathetic hearing. And in implying – however subtly – that Scotland would take a more restrictive view of abortion rights than England and Wales, these elements in Salmond’s party play straight into the hands of some of the most virulent anti-Scottish propagandists around, including that high-handed strand of expatriate Westminster opinion that still chooses to see Scotland as an illiberal religious backwater, where human rights are only protected because of our Union with the more developed and enlightened nation to the south. This is a view of Scottish-English relations that has been common in Whitehall since Shakespeare sat down to write his tragedy of Macbeth, in which only humanitarian intervention by the English king saves Scotland from itself. And in mirroring that view, those elements in the SNP which see devolution as an opportunity to turn back the clock on the changes in British society since the 1960’s simply reinforce the very image of Scotland that is most likely to alarm the majority of modern citizens; and also demonstrate how far they themselves have internalised that false view of Scotland as a place that belongs to the past, rather than the future.

If Alex Salmond wants to show real statesmanship on this issue, in other words – and some long-term political nous, as well – he should specifically renounce any plans to devolve the abortion issue for the time being, and instead propose a commission at UK level, dedicated to establishing a broad similiarity of approach across these islands. What he should not do, on the other hand, is to take the risks involved in throwing signals that his smart-suited, modern-looking Scottish Cabinet is only a front for a Bavarian-style nationalist movement with much more conservative social views.

For if he does, he will soon find himself confronting an army of angry modern Scotswomen with no intention of going back to darker patriarchal times, and no willingess to vote ever again for a party that flirts with the idea of removing their hard-won reproductive rights; and he will also find that he has presented Wendy Alexander’s embattled Scottish Labour Party with its biggest political opportunity since the the death of Donald Dewar. Of course, the religious right is free to campaign for more restrictive abortion laws in Scotland, and to put its case before the people. But to allow the National Party to become entangled with that cause, even at the level of the political nod and wink, would be a profound error of cultural and political judgment at this crucial moment in the evolution of Scottish nationalism. And it’s an error that Salmond can best avoid by making it clear that for the time being, he is happy to leave this particular issue to Westminster; and to a Prime Minister whose personal view on this matter, as on so many others, is probably very close to his own.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

Naked Neighbours, Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, The 14 Stations Of Adrian

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on NAKED NEIGHBOURS, YOUR EX-LOVER IS DEAD, and THE 14 STATIONS OF ADRIAN at Arches Live!, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 28.9.07
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Naked Neighbours   3 stars ***
Your Ex-Lover Is Dead   2 stars **
14 Stations Of Adrian   4 stars ****

IF AN ENDLESS REWORKING OF THE STYLES and attitudes of the past is the sign of a culture in trouble, then it seems we should be worried.  We Never Done Nothing at the Arches are a talented young company, no doubt; but their new piece Naked Neighbours is an obsessive pastiche of two strands of 1940’s film culture – notably the cut-glass British romance – that has a distinct whiff of the cultural mortuary about it, despite some lovely surreal riffs involving a heroine on roller-skates, and the occasional burst of atonal song.

Naked Neighbours is both ingenious and likeable, though, compared with Your Ex-Lover Is Dead, by writer Deborah Pearson and director Andrew Field.  A predictable collage of ideas from every recent date-movie about the fact that relationships – shock, horror – don’t always last, the show is presented as a mock film experience, with great theatrical invention and skill.  But it also shows about as little real sense of perspective about the minor griefs of today’s affluent twentysomethings as any playI can recall; and the result is as dull as it is bourgeois, a complete waste of talent all round.

All of which conspires to make Adrian Howells’s latest show – strange and debatable though it is – seem like an exceptionally enriching piece of theatre.  Staged as a one-to-one promenade show around the Arches, it shamelessly frames Adrian’s life as a Christ-like journey, dwelling both on the suffering he has endured as a gay transvestite man, and also on the pain he has inflicted on others.  The concept is alarming, the intimacy of the experience sometimes disturbing.  But there’s also a real depth of wit, cultural reference and social context here; and against the background of what has so far been a lacklustre Arches Live! festival, that seems like something to treasure.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

THE WINTER’S TALE, HAMLET, RUPTURE

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JOYCE McMILLAN on THE WINTER’S TALE at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh; HAMLET at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and RUPTURE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.07
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The Winter’s Tale   3 stars ***
Hamlet    3 stars ****
Rupture     3 stars ***

IT MAY NOT BE FASHIONABLE TO say so, but directing Shakespeare well, under 21st century conditions, is a task that requires major intellectual fire-power.  It’s not only that directors need a thorough understanding of the plays themselves.  It’s that they need a vision, and a quality of engagement with their own society, that enables them to develop a powerful and original idea about why it matters that that particular play should be performed now; and then they need the skill to express that idea, through the work of a huge team of artists.  Too strong a vision can distort and destroy a great play, of course.  But without that sense of sharp contemporary response to the original text, productions tend to flounder shapelessly into life, and to lack the driving communicative energy of really great theatre.

And that, I’m afraid, is the fate of both major Shakespeare productions current playing in Scotland, at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow.  At the Royal Lyceum, Mark Thomson assembles an outstanding Scottish cast for his production of Shakespeare’s bold, breathtaking and problematic late romance The Winter’s Tale, about a ferocious firestorm of marital jealousy that costs many innocent lives, and comes close to destroying a kingdom; and at first – as the lights go up on designer Robin Don’s bright, bare stage, with a mighty crack running across the rear wall, and the dust of a major building collapse smeared across the shoulders of the courtiers – it looks as though Thomson may have some powerful, consistent interpretation in mind.

No such luck, though; for just as the dust, in this initial image, bafflingly predates the explosion of jealousy that blows apart the world of the Sicilian king Leontes and his beautiful pregnant queen Hermione, so the whole production is punctuated by ideas that seem potentially interesting, but are never developed in any coherent way – a tendency that reaches its low point in a bizarre post-interval attempt to use a Stephen-Hawing-style dummy in a wheelchair to reflect on Shakespeare’s attitude to time.

Under discouraging circumstances, Liam Brennan gives a sensitive if underpowered performance as Leontes, as though he had assembled all the emotional and technical tools for the job, but had never quite been able to put them together; and the great Una McLean, at an unbelievable 77, almost acts the rest of the company off the stage in the magnificent, role of Hermione’s waiting-woman Paulina, part witch, part redeeming angel.  But given the wealth of contemporary sexual themes touched on in this play, from the insecurity of men over the paternity of their own children, to the awesome power of women when they decide to take fate into their own hands, this is a disappointing production, as pretentious as it is shapeless; and it seems astonishing that it should be left to an actress of almost 80 to give the show what contemporary edge it has, and to invest the drama with a real sense of urgency.

Over at the Citizens’ Theatre, meanwhile, joint artistic director Guy Hollands makes a slightly livelier job of the theatre’s latest revival of Hamlet, although only by adopting a more humble and open attitude to a play he never pretends to master.  Jason Southgate’s set creates a dark, bronze-toned Elsinore, part battlement, part dank Nordic quayside; behind, the castle visibly totters under the weight of corruption in the state.  The acting is variable, particularly in John Kazek’s strange now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t performance as the usurping King Claudius, all gabbling vocal mannerisms he urgently needs to drop; and some of the arbitrary visual effects are more comic than tragic, notably the crinoline-like skirt of fabric flames in which the ghost of old Hamlet rises from purgatory.

In the end, though, Hollands’s production has a powerful, youthful theatrical spirit, a sense of pleasure in the drama that at least allows the vitality of the play to shine through.  And in Andrew Clark, it boasts a fine, ragged, hell-for-leather Hamlet, who seizes on this greatest of Shakespearean roles with a tremendous virile energy and intelligence, shakes it by the throat, and – while missing the odd meditative subtlety – improves by thrilling leaps and bounds on the recent fashion for presenting Hamlet as a whimpering teenage wimp, and no kind of hero at all.

The atmosphere is at least as dark, and much less vibrant, in Davey Anderson’s Rupture, the latest in the series of urban-noir dramas he began so convincingly two years ago with his briliant tower-block nightmare, Snuff.  Presented as a co-production between the Traverse and the National Theatre of Scotland Workshop, where Anderson is currently director-in-residence, Rupture has been devised with the acting company during rehearsal, rather than scripted in advance.  The result is a show that often drifts towards contemporary television-drama cliche, both in its storyline – which involves the usual modern-underworld mess of people-trafficking, corruption and exploitation – and in its acting style, which sadly never rises much above a dreary baseline of River City naturalism.

The show has its finer points, notably an eloquent, rangy, filmic staging across the whole breadth and depth of the Traverse 1 stage.  It also has a fine, complex central character in the shape of a young  Polish cleaner, Monika, played with real force by rising star Agnieszka Bresler.   In the end, though – and despite some brave work by Black Watch star Brian Ferguson as a lovestruck security guard – this show lacks the energy that comes from real originality, and a new tale to tell; and while that’s a hazard that comes with the territory in staging classics like Hamlet, it’s slightly worrying when it begins to affect what should be the most exciting brand-new work Scottish theatre has to offer.

The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 20 October.  Hamlet at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 13 October.  Rupture at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 6 October.

ENDS ENDS

THE INQUISITOR

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JOYCE McMILLAN on THE INQUISITOR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.9.07
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2 stars **

RULES IN THEATRE ARE made to be broken.  But all the same, it seems to me that there’s one unavoidable requirement when it comes to writing monologues, in that the writer has to set up a convincing dramatic relationship between the speaker and the audience, or face complete failure.   Peter Arnott’s fascinating but deeply flawed monologue The Inquisitor – playing in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season this week, and performed by the playwright himself – never even attempts to set up a direct relationship with the audience, because it is entirely addressed to a second character who appears on stage, but remains completely silent.  Arnott is a British secret service interrogator, the silent listener is a terrorist suspect who refuses to respond to him in any way; the result is a desperate rant by the increasingly sweaty and agitated speaker, without response or development either from the other character, or from a completely excluded and increasingly frustrated audience.

Within these severe limitations, though, Arnott displays his usual formidable combination of sharp political intelligence and sheer theatrical chutzpah, ranging fiercely over the myriad ways in which enemies seek to deny each other’s humanity, spirituality and moral complexity.  Arnott’s performance is a bit of a shambles, as he loses track of the script, sweats and blubbers.  The disturbing fact is, though, that even in a show which is largely a mess, he demonstrates more brains, presence and gravitas in 35 minutes than most Scottish actors can muster in a whole season.  Get Arnott trained up and physically fit, in other words, and he could become the finest Scottish actor of his generation; as well as remaining what he already is, one of our leading playwrights, on his day.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES

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JOYCE McMILLAN on HOW THE OTHER HALF LOVES at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 26.9.07
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5 stars *****

IT’S ONE OF THE BESETTING SINS of cultural life, in Britain, that we constantly tend to over-rate the importance of the tragic and enigmatic, as against the comic and playful. In terms of breathtaking structural boldness and piercing social insight, Alan Ayckbourn’s great 1969 hit How The Other Half Loves – with its central device of showing two very different households on stage, simultaneously, throughout – is probably one of the half-dozen finest plays written in Britain in the last half-century. But because its crises and dilemmas are instantly understandable to any audience – and because, above all, it makes us laugh until we cry – we constantly overlook its greatness in favour of more solemn and portentous stuff.

It doesn’t matter, though; because almost 40 years on, Ayckbourn’s play is still inspiring productions like this superb touring version from the Theatre Royal, Bath, brilliantly directed by Alan Strachan, and starring Nicholas le Prevost in outstanding form as the bumbling upper-middle-class boss, Frank Foster, whose blind eye to his glamorous wife’s infidelity with a rising young manager, Bob Phillips, sets the plot in motion. The production boasts a fantastically precise and witty sense of period detail, matched with some world-class physical comedy, and six performances so fine that they both embody and transcend the play’s late-Sixties setting in the way that only the greatest theatre can. And the truth revealed is that through 40 years of breakneck social change, none of the demons brought to light in this play have been fully laid to rest. The wars of class and status still rage, domestic bullying still happens, sexual thrill-seeking still involves a frightening edge of violence; and middle-class liberals like Bob’s wife Terry still helplessly write letters to the Editor of The Guardian, hoping that one day, the grim carousel of runaway consumption and ruthless status-seeking will finally grind to a halt.

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Big Week For The BBC – Column 22.9.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 22.9.07
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ONE WAY AND ANOTHER, it’s been a memorable week for the BBC, the UK’s battered but still beloved national broadcaster. On one hand, there was the ceremonial opening of BBC Scotland’s new headquarters at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, a facility so technically advanced, by comparison with the other UK broadcasting centres currently in use, that it seems set to represent a major new resource not only for broadcasting in Scotland, but for the BBC as a whole. The Director-General Mark Thomson announced an extra £50 million for network programme-making in Scotland; and no less a person than the Prime Minister stepped up to declare the building open, although not without delivering a pointed political reminder that the BBC is a British organisation, and that the new facilities should not be used to pursue a “Scotland only” agenda.

It all seems a million miles, in tone and gravitas, from the other major BBC story of the week, which involved the sad tale of the Blue Peter cat. For after a series of damaging summer stories about broadcasting practices that mislead viewers and falsify events, this week brought the final, crushing revelation that Britain’s once-wholesome flagship children’s show held a viewer poll to determine the name of the programme’s new kitten, and then simply ignored the result, ditching the name “Cookie” – preferred by the viewers – for the slightly more stylish “Socks”.
And although the Socks story looks like a prime specimen of broadcasting trivia, compared with the sonorous words of the Prime Minister at Pacific Quay, it strikes me that both stories reveal something of the same malaise that has been stalking the BBC for the last 15 years.

For it seems to me that both reflect a collapse of faith in the value of the material the Corporation creates and provides, and in its intrinsic worth to the British people, that has led not only to a sad decline in the quality of some of that material, but to a subtle breakdown of the real creative relationship between programme-makers and audiences. In the case of Socks the cat, this process of breakdown is both familiar and obvious. Losing confidence in their right and ability to entertain and inform audiences in an old-fashioned top-down way, BBC programme-makers – like all British broadcasters – have opted heavily for cheep-and-cheerful audience participation, and for what is known as “interactivity”. The problem is that in most cases, the editorial consequences of this move have been so poorly thought through that ethical guidelines are weak, and issues of quality have barely been addressed at all; and as a result, the audience who are supposed to be calling the shots are increasingly viewed by programme-makers as some kind of ravenous beast, which has to be placated with the appearance of democratic participation, even where none really exists.

Even more interesting, though, is the casual presumption of the Prime Minister – shared, I’m afraid, by many senior broadcasting executives – that if the BBC Scotland focusses mainly on providing strong coverage of Scotland and its affairs, then it will inevitably become parochial, inward-looking and dull. Now I don’t think I need to dwell, for readers of this newspaper, on the extent to which this assumption – like most of the BBC’s current Scottish programming – fails to grasp the sheer vibrancy of the current Scottish scene, in fields from culture to science and politics.

But in its assumption that audiences only exist in dumbed-down sectors – as if no-one in no-one in London, for example, would be capable of appreciating the issues raised by the debate about wind-farms on Lewis – this kind of talk also reflects a very similar collapse of belief in the value of the very material the BBC was designed to produce. It not only underestimates the huge outward-looking energy of what is happening on the BBC’s doorstep in Scotland, or Manchester, or Birmingham. It also simply assumes that BBC programme-makers are no longer capable of covering local events in ways that are of national interest; a prediction that is well on the way to becoming self-fulfilling, so steadily have the BBC and other broadcasters, in recent years, been disinvesting in the basic stuff of intelligent and well-trained broadcasting talent.

Well, times change; and there certainly should be more space, in the 21st century BBC, for audience involvement, response and debate. But in the swarming world of modern electronic communications, high-quality content is actually more important than ever before, in distinguishing major media organisations from the general hubbub of quack medicine, cheap porn, New Age tat and ill-informed opinion that populates the lower reaches of the web. The BBC still retains, by a hair’s breadth, its long-standing reputation for authority and quality; the Corporation is a mighty ship, and will take a very long time to break down.

But it will not finally be able to reverse its perceived decline, and to restore full public confidence in its integrity, unless it rediscovers its own faith in the rich, varied life of the nation from which it broadcasts, and in the power of gifted broadcasters to show how that life is of significance to every thinking citizen of the 21st century. “The more one is local, the more one is universal,” said the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay, decades ago. The BBC’s bosses in Scotland should now be pondering that thought; and bending their minds to how – with the help of their fabulous new base at Pacific Quay – they can begin to reflect the rich realities of contemporary Scottish life with so much wit and insight that the quality of their work will match anything that 21st century broadcasting has to offer; and its wider significance will soon become self-evident, even – whisper it softly – to the Prime Minister himself.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

GAG/PLEASANT KIND OF LONELINESS Arches Live!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GAG and A PLEASANT KIND OF LONELINESS at Arches Live!,  Arches Theatre, Glasgow
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Gag   3 stars ***
A Pleasant Kind Of Loneliness  3  stars  ***

THERE’S A STRANGE TENSION between surface normality and underlying horror, in Rob Drummond’s new five-handed play Gag, which opens this autumn’s Arches Live! festival.  Its central character, Sandra, is a foul-mouthed schoolgirl facing her 15th birthday with what seems like a fairly standard mixture of rebellious cockiness, sexual curiosity, and  strange night-time fears.  On Kirsty Mackay’s hyper-real domestic set, though, another couple move through and between the simple family trio of Sandra, her brother Jamie, and her father Mike, revealing the extent of the real hidden horror on which their household rests, and the way it will cast its shadow down the years.

Neil Doherty’s production moves at a desperately funereal pace, squandering some of the dramatic tension and energy inherent in the script.  But there’s some fine acting here, notably from Susan Clark as young Sandra, and Bill Wright as the older Jamie.  And the show plays memorably throughout with the double meaning of its title word, gag; both in the sense of speech stifled, and in the deep-seated feeling of sickness and revulsion that results, when a family tries to swallow a horrific truth, and to keep it down.

Later in the evening, Barry Henderson offers a deceptively throwaway 40-minute meditation on loneliness, expressed through dance and movement, through a story about gay boy’s search for love, through a series of short lectures on charm and how to have it, and through descriptions of paintings of lone figures by Edward Hopper.  The lectures on charm are sharp and clever, the movement is interesting, the rest of the material often seems more self-indulgent.  Henderson, though, plainly has the kind of talent that Arches Live! exists to encourage; and as an expert on the subject, he also has plenty of charm.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

Bright Water/Taking Sides – Review 21.9.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN on BRIGHT WATER (Mull Theatre at Easdale Island Hall, Argyll) and TAKING SIDES at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 21.9.07
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Bright Water   4 stars ****
Taking Sides  4 stars ****

ON THE PIER at Ellenabeich, on Saturday afternoon, Mull Theatre Company are half-way through unloading their van when the weather changes, and great salty swathes of West Highland rain begin to sweep in from the sea.  Mull’s latest show, Bright Water, is a reflection on the life of Gavin Maxwell, mid-20th century author, conservationist, upper-class adventurer, and author of the much-loved otter book Ring Of Bright Water; and the set for the short two-handed drama is not a complicated one.  Apart from some basic lighting equipment, there are a couple of upholstered chairs, a lightweight blue gauze backdrop, eight pieces of plywood flooring, a carpet, a box, a tiny side-table, and a fragile-looking standard lamp.

But long before a little flat-bottomed boat arrives to ferry the company and its show across the harbour to Easdale, the chairs are drenched, and the paintwork on the flooring is being tested to its limit.  On the grey sea, as the boat chugs across the narrow sound, the teetering pile of furniture and people looks comically vulnerable, like an image out of an ancient 40’s movie; and by the time the whole show has been carted up the long, slate-lined slipway into Easdale Hall, wet is the hardly the word for everyone involved, from the unflappable boatman, through the three-strong stage management team, to the company’s tour manager Mick Andrew, and the actor Richard Conlon, gallantly lending a hand.

Ever since the days of 7:84 – and even before that, with companies like Glasgow Rep and Theatre Workshop – this kind of “extreme” Highland touring has enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Scottish audiences.  But no other company maintains that tradition with such passion – and on such a relatively modest funding base – as Alasdair McCrone’s Mull Theatre, which will visit a record-breaking 19 Scottish islands on this current tour; and just a few hours after that rain-drenched arrival on Easdale, I walked into the village hall to find Alicia Hendrick’s set looking exactly as it had the night before on Iona, a calm, melancholy, slightly shabby evocation of Gavin Maxwell’s last home at Eilean Ban near Skye, enlivened only by a faintly audible squelch whenever the actors sat down on one of the padded chairs.

When it comes to the show itself, Jon Pope’s interesting script is framed as a dialogue between Richard Addison as the older Maxwell, holed up at Eilean Ban in the months before his death in 1969, and his much smoother and more genial younger self, played with a fine, glowing poise by Richard Conlon; and the difficulty is that the play seems unclear, particularly in the early scenes, about where the main tension lies between these two figures.  Sometimes, the younger man accuses the older of being a “hippy”, the first Highland dropout, fleeing the pressures of urban life on an impulse that is bound to strike a chord with many of those who choose to live in the Highlands and Islands today.  At other times, though, the play seems more deeply focussed on Maxwell’s distinctive history as a compulsive loner, whose failure in human relationships both appals and disappoints his younger self.

The result is a show that takes a long time to find a convincing narrative thread.  But there are flashes of rare beauty and eloquence in Alasdair McCrone’s production, notably in the moments – beautifully illustrated by Martin Low’s music – when Maxwell’s reserve breaks down in the face of his passion for the beautiful animals that became his life. And by bringing Highland and Island communities together not only for entertainment or practical business, but for a couple of hours of complex, grown-up drama on the life of this fascinating local anti-hero, this is the kind of show that plays a valuable part in developing the life of those communities, as places not only of retreat from the urban world, but also of real change, reflection, and renewal.

By common consent, Gavin Maxwell was an immensely complicated man, a charming, vulnerable and sensitive character who could be also be monstrously selfish and aggressive; and it’s this kind of complexity that lies at the heart of Ronald Harwood’s superbly thoughtful drama Taking Sides, given a powerful revival by Richard Baron as the final production of this year’s Pitlochry season.  Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the play revolves around a confrontation between an angry, foul-mouthed, proudly philistine American intelligence officer, Steve Arnold, and the great German orchestral conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, whom Arnold is to interrogate over his alleged collaboration with the Nazis.

Traumatised by the horror he witnessed at the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, Arnold sees himself as one of the proletarian “good guys”, Furtwangler as a self-serving member of a corrupt and arrogant elite whom he is determined to destroy; but Harwood’s brilliant drama sets out both to undermine those crude moral certainties, and – even more disturbingly – to remind us that without them, action sometimes becomes impossible.  Baron’s production – played out on a powerfully evocative Berlin-in-ruins set by Adrian Rees – suffers slightly from the occasional lapse into staginess and vocal rigidity, accentuated by the exaggerated stage-German accents sported by the German characters.   But Allan Steele gives a tremendously brave, powerful and dislikeable performance as Arnold, the good guy as willing to bully, corrupt and abuse power as any servant of a totalitarian state.  And there’s some stunning work, in supporting roles, from Grant O’Rourke as a liberal young American officer assigned to the case; and from the wonderful Suzanne Donaldson as Emmi Straube, the office secretary torn in two by her hatred of the Nazis, and her equal hatred of the barbarism displayed by the victors, in their apparent contempt for the very civilisation they claimed to be fighting to defend.

Bright Water at Castlebay, Barra, tonight, at South Uist tomorrow, and on tour until 10 November.  Taking Sides in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 19 October.

ENDS ENDS

CYRANO – Review 20.9.07

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CYRANO (Catherine Wheels at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews) for The Scotsman, 20.9.07
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4 stars ****

AT THE BEGINNING Of this beautiful short version of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac, created by Flemish writer Jo Roets for audences over 10, there’s a magical moment when the three actors play a game of chance about who will wear the huge false nose that identifies the hero.  From one moment to the next, one of the three becomes the kind of person who will always find it hard to believe that he is worthy of love; and although the yearning, unfulfilled romanticism of Rostand’s story seems a million miles from our 21st century culture of instant satisaction, there’s something in that moment of chance that forms an instant bond between Cyrano and any young audience, full of painful self-consciousness about looks and image.

Gill Robertson’s fine revival of her own touring production of Cyrano, for her  increasingly acclaimed Catherine Wheels company, is full of touches like this, inspired moments of theatre that bring an old story exquisitely to life.  Roets’s version uses just three actors to move swiftly and deftly, in just 70 minutes, through the story of Cyrano’s profound love for Roxanne, and her girlish passion for the handsome but tongue-tied soldier Christian.  There’s plenty of wit and humour, a beautiful, simple design by Karen Tennant, some clever use of modern pop anthems to remind us that love can still hurt in the age of rock and roll, and the occasional moment of clod-hoppingly overstated comedy.  As Cyrano and his Roxanne, Ronnie Simon and Veronica Leer transcend time and place to remind us of how hard it can be to recognise true love, when it comes from an unexpected source.  And the show also defies our self-seeking culture by reminding us that love unfulfilled is not always love wasted; but can continue to create beauty and joy, long centuries after the star-crossed lovers are gone.

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ELF ANALYSIS – Review 19.9.07

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ELF ANALYSIS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 19.9.07
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3 stars ***

AS ORAN MOR shows go, Morna Pearson’s elf Analysis (yes, that irritating small “e” is correct) comes loaded with advantages.  For a start, Pearson is one of the most exciting new writers on the Scottish scene, following last year’s much-admired Traverse show, Distracted.  For another, elf Analysis has the kind of edgy, sexy, dangerous atmosphere that  makes for strong theatre; its subject is the horrendous first day at work of small-town girl Melissa, who arrives at her first big-city job only to find herself monstered by a pair of lustful and sadistic office barbarians, Louis and Tiffany.  For a third, in a pleasant twist of magical realism, the play actually features an elf, holed up in the office stationery cupboard.  For a fourth, it plays joyfully throughout with the central linguistic joke contained in its title; for “elf” read “self”, as in inner elf, elf-respect, etc.  And finally, it boasts an excellent director in Jemima Levick – who turns the Oran Mor space sideways in search of a wider stage – and a cast of four excellent young actors, led by the lovely Kim Gerard as Melissa.

So what goes wrong?  Just one thing, in that having had her idea, set up her situation, and started to write with her usual captivating fluency, Pearson seems to lose track of the structure of the piece, with poor Melissa running backwards and forwards to the stationery cupboard not three or four times, as the rhythm of a 50-minute play might demand, but like a demented yo-yo. This is still a hugely engaging short play, full of energy, colour, and presence.  In the end, though, it squanders some of its impressive theatrical strength through sheer messiness in constructing the story; time for some decent dramaturgical advice, and a stern session with the red pencil.

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