Daily Archives: September 7, 2007

HALF LIFE/HA HA HA Review 7 September 2007


JOYCE MCMILLAN on HALF LIFE (NVA at Kilmartin Glen, Argyll) and HA HA HA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 7.9.07

HALF LIFE 4 stars ****
HA HA HA 3 stars ***

IN THE FAR WESTLANDS of Argyll, something is stirring. Urban types in well-zipped jackets and husky boots wander along rough forestry trails, clutching soggy maps and an enigmatic guide-book. Here and there – in a handful of hidden places, thinly spread across the vast landscape of Kilmartin Glen and Crinan Moss – they find the sites they visit subtly changed. Here, the trees leading uphill to some ancient markings in earthfast rock are singed in strange patterns, or peeled so that their bark releases a heady smell of sap. There, in a deep valley near the sea, a new chapel-like roof of arched pine branches rises over a flat stone scored with deep cups and channels; in the ruin of an old mill cottage, someone has created a living image of the old northern legend of the world ground out between two millstones of heaven and hell. In many of these chosen places, small, sculpted sounds emerge from the rock and trees; the groaning, singing, roaring and twittering of the land itself, ampliied a thousand times. And at night, in a clearing at Achnabreck, light gleams and flashes through the tall pillars of the trees, as a team of five actors and two musicians strive to bind the whole event together in a one-hour outdoor performance.

This is Half Life: Journey Into The Neolithic, the first-ever collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and Angus Farquhar’s great landscape art company NVA, most famous for creating The Path at Glen Lyon in 2000, and The Storr, last year in Skye. The aim is partly to open up this astonishing landscape at Kilmartin to a nation still largely unaware of its presence, and of the huge historic and archaeological importance of a cluster of burial and ritual sites dating back almost 5000 years. At the same time, though, Farquhar and his company are anxious to raise questions about how we relate to the past and to the dead, using the intense neolithic burial-culture of this area to remind us of humankind’s epic struggle, over countless millennia, to make sense of our own lives and deaths, and to place ourselves and our fate within some pattern that gives it shape and meaning. Hence the two-part character of Half Life, which combines an evening show, experienced collectively, with an opportunity to spend a day or two travelling independently around the Kilmartin area, experiencing the scattered pattern of sites and monuments at our own pace; there are likely, in other words, to be as many responses to this event as there are audience members.

What seems generally true, though, is that as a total experience, Half Life never quite resolves the problem of trying to deconstruct and re-examine a historical narrative that most of the audience members will never have heard in the first place. If you spend a day before Half Life reading Rachel Butter’s beautiful standard guidebook to the glen, and the Half Life book itself, then you may become absorbed in NVA’s conversation with the place, and begin to appreciate the carefully-crafted modesty of its interventions. If not, you may well find the experience disappointingly minimal and uninformatve, and the size of the organisation and crew involved completely out of proportion to the effect. Either way, you will almost certainly find the evening show a shade disappointing, despite the stunning visual impact of James Johnson’s beautifully-made forest performance site, a great double stage within a mighty radiating crown of felled pine-logs. In the effort to find a point of contact with the burial culture of Kilmartin, writer Thomas Legendre and movement genius Mark Murphy reach for a story of a modern couple with a lost child that never fully escapes the television-drama cliche and New Age self-absorption of our modern grief-culture, despite some fine acting, and superb movement-based imagery.

Yet for all these failures, Half Life as a whole is an infinitely enriching experience. Angus Farquhar is the leading conceptual artist of Scottish landscape and theatre, and like all conceptual artists, he faces the criticism that his work represents a minimal jolting or re-framing of reality, something that looks as though anyone could have done it; in this case, he certainly could have used a stronger writer, to provide texts with a sharper intellectual and poetic edge. But in the end, as with all great conceptual artists, his critics have to concede that although anyone might have done it, no-one else did. No-one else had the idea, raised the cash, put together the project, and cared enough about the mighty heritage of Kilmartin Glen to lure audiences there, and to bring them into a dialogue with a vital part of their own heritage. The results are debatable, even flawed. The impact, though, is unforgettable; and the whole event is exactly the kind of project in which Scotland’s National Theatre should be investing, not in a quest for perfection, but in the search for new horizons, and for a constant shifting and deepening of Scotland’s vision of itself.

Meanwhile, Oran Mor this week features a play based around one of our oldest European traditions for defying and transcending human mortality, the ancient art of clowning. Ha Ha Ha is a brief 30-minute piece, by brand-new writer Tom Tabori, which shows us two clown-figures, Bungle and Bo, trapped forever in the sexless, ageless, co-dependent world of the circus, until Bungle makes a doomed bid for freedom. The writing – in a strange version of old circus patois mixed with modern street-speak – shows huge promise, and Ann Scott Jones gives a beautiful performance as the older clown, Bo. But Liz Lochhead, in the director’s chairm, allows Karen Dunbar, as Bungle, to deliver an overpitched comic turn that drains the drama of depth and flexibility; and leaves Tabori’s script feeling oddly unexplored, as if still hidden behind the greasepaint.

Half Life at Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, until 16 September. Ha Ha Ha at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 8 September.