Monthly Archives: October 2007

Alex Salmond and the Mood Music of Modern Scotland – Column 27.10.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.10.07
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IF YOU WANT A SNAPSHOT of the overwhelming importance of image and mood-music in contemporary politics, then look, if you wil, at yesterday’s YouGov poll of voting intentions across the UK. On one hand, it places David Cameron’s Conservatives at their highest point in the UK polls for 15 years, attracting a colossal 41% of the potential vote. Yet on the other hand, it sits against a background of stagnant support for the Conservative Party in Scotland, which remains firmly stuck around the low point to which it fell during the Thatcher years. And the reasons for this divergent response to the Cameron Tories, north and south of the Border, have little to do with any objective difference of interest between the key middle-class voters involved. Instead, they have to do with the fact that Cameron’s smooth, old-Etonian mood-music – which plays so enchantingly in the ears of the south – simply strikes a bum note in Scotland, where his demeanour seems too charming to be genuine, and his flaunting of educational privilege downright unattractive.

Which, of course, is another piece of electoral good news for the Scottish National Party, gathered in Aviemore this weekend for their first-ever annual conference as a party of government, and for a well-deserved celebration. But all the same, Alex Salmond might be wise, this weekend, to give some careful though to the mood-music business, five months on from his historic election victory. Salmond is known as a star of parliamentary debate, and a master of the devastating one-line put-down. He is also a dab hand, most of the time, at evoking a reassuringly strong sense of Scottish identity, while projecting a modern business-suit image that brooks no nostalgic nonsense; we are not likely to see Alex often sporting a kilt in public.

Yet just as Tony Blair’s political reflexes were shaped by his long ideological battle with the Labour left, so Salmond’s have been shaped by a lifetime of campaigning – not to say grandstanding – against Westminster government. Hence yesterday’s fighting speech at Aviemore, in which Salmond complained again about the level of Scotland’s budget settlement in the recent UK government spending review, drew attention once more to the soaring value of what’s left of Scotland’s oil, and defended his decision to write to all the signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to draw their attention to the Scottish government’s reservations about the planned renewal of Trident.

The likelihood is, though, that the wider voting constituency to which Salmond now has to appeal – in particular, disillusioned Labour voters, and moderate ex-Conservatives looking for a new alternative to Labour – will be far less easily delighted by Salmond’s usual performance, and far more selective about the issues on which they wish to see Westminster challenged. The mood music they generally – and rightly – seem to want to hear is of a new, forward-looking, and enterprise-friendly Scotland, which is not only confident of its own future, but has some genuinely inspiring and original ideas to contribute to the urgent global debate on energy, environment, and long-term sustainable development.

And those preferences have clear implications for Alex Salmond and his colleagues, as they make their choices about where to co-operate with Westminster, and where to stand and fight. My guess is, for instance, that complaints about the recent absolutely predictable UK financial settlement will cut little ice with this new potential SNP constituency, who instinctively dislike the idea of a begging-bowl Scotland dependent on ever-more-generous subventions. It has already, likewise, been argued with some force that the SNP should steer well clear of issues like abortion, which tend to reinforce the false stereotype of Scotland as a potential social backwater, still dominated by old-time religion. And I doubt whether anyone wants to hear the SNP tie itself in knots trying to imitate a New Labour populist agenda on public service delivery, whether on the NHS, or police numbers.

It is, on the other hand, good and right that the SNP should join with other parties in campaigning to kick racism out of Scottish football; it can’t be emphasised too often that the SNP’s nationalism is of the modern and inclusive kind. It would also, for example, be wise and statesmanlike of Alex Salmond to accept some small part of the political class’s collective responsibility for this year’s voting-paper debacle at the Holyrood elections, while rightly pointing out that the lion’s share of the blame lies with Douglas Alexander and the Scotland Office.

And when it comes to Trident – well, yes, the SNP is on strong ground in challenging the UK government’s hasty and under-debated decision to renew Britain’s controversial nuclear deterrent. But it’s one thing to use the agreed powers of the Scottish Parliament to debate Trident, and to raise key questions about its impact on the future wellbeing of Scotland, and something else again to write a letter to all the signatory nations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: in the kind of mild breach of diplomatic protocol which, while trivial in itself, nonetheless leaves Salmond wide open to attack for making rash and ill-judged anti-Westminster alliances, as we have seen this week.

What Salmond needs to do, in other words, is to tune his ears ever more keenly to the mood-music of modern Scottish society; and to grow ever more skilful at distinguishing it from the rousing skirl of the pipes emitted by his party at its annual gathering. The old patriotic tunes are part of the modern Scottish sound-picture, no doubt. But in a post-modern state, their appeal is necessarily limited. And they are not of much interest to the majority who will want to see Scotland’s leadership opposing the British government where it deserves to be called to account; but who will have no truck with the old essentialist idea that the British state and its supporters are always treacherous and wrong, while the doughty Bravehearts of the SNP are always virtuous, and forever in the right.

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Reality (Martin O’Connor’s Reality)

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JOYCE McMILLAN on REALITY at Studio@Q!, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 26.10.07
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4 stars ****

FOR TWO OR THREE years, Martin O’Connor has been working as a solo artist around The Arches in Glasgow, on a series of shows exploring aspects of 21st century masculinity.  Now, though – with this new one-hour show for Glasgay! 2007 – he seems to take a step forward as a writer, creating three linked monologues that look at the pathology of modern manhood from three distinctive and fascinating viewpoints.

The first piece, Fame, amounts to a brilliant high-speed tour around the delusional inner world of a Glasgow teenager obsessed with “becoming somebody” through the fickle world of reality-show celebrity.  The second, War, shows a Scottish squaddie in Afghanistan gradually sliding into despair and depression as his partner back home becomes a celebrity soldier’s wife, and dumps him for better things.  And the third is a bleak account of a boy who is both a father and a child; a teenage Dad who can no more care properly for his endangered baby son than he can imagine any escape from the brutal world of junk jobs and video violence in which he lives.

There are only a few points in the trilogy where O’Connor’s performance fully matches the quality of the writing; he needs more vocal variation, and – as he says himself, in a wry video interlude – the dispassionate eye of a good director.  There’s no doubting, though, that this time around, O’Connor has produced a very fine set of monologues about the emasculation of men in an age of meaningless celebrity, when effort and dedication count for nothing, and blind chance for almost everything.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream/Being Norwegian

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JOYCE McMILLAN on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and BEING NORWEGIAN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.10.07
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A Midsummer Night’s Dream  4 stars ****
Being Norwegian  4 stars ****

IN WESTERN CULTURE – with its long history of sexual prudery, repression and lies – the idea of sexual and erotic energy has always been associated with images of escape from the everyday self.  In the old days, we would go to the seaside, and put on a kiss-me-quick hat; or we would travel abroad, to countries where the sexual mores seemed more relaxed, and no-one knew who we were.  Even today, in what’s supposed to be an age of sexual liberation, much of what passes for sexual imagery in our culture is seen through a veil of smutty comedy, aggression or violence; and many of us still seem unable to unleash our erotic selves without first drinking our way into a drastically altered state.

Which is why it’s both easy for us to understand the impulse behind Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which shows two pairs of young, star-crossed lovers fleeing the orderly state of Athens, with its harsh patriarchal laws, to spend a night of enchantment and bewilderment in the nearby woods; yet difficult for us to express that sense of erotic liberation without adding a layer of irony or scepticism.  It’s therefore an absolute, unqualified joy to welcome to Edinburgh Tim Supple’s gorgeous, sensuous and gloriously uninhibited Indian version of the play, which rips all the veils of traditional western embarrassment from Shakespeare’s text, to reveal a passionate youthful comedy of chaotic but overwhelming sexual desire; and a kind of nature poetry – steeped in the deep imagery and folk tales of Shakespeare’s Warwickshire childhood – that reaches back far beyond Christian times, into a deep sensuous unity between humankind and nature that every culture can recognise, either as living reality, or as faint memory.

Developed over a period of two years with performers from all over India, first seen in Bombay last year, and performed in both  English and a range of Indian languages, Supple’s production of course runs a faint risk of reinforcing traditional exotic stereotypes of India, as the land of the Kama Sutra, among other cliches.  But there’s something about the pure, youthful energy of his magnificent 22-strong cast – led by a fabulous Joy Fernandes as a big, burly Bottom, a dazzlingly elemental P. R. Jijoy and Archana Ramaswamy as Oberon and Titania, and the exquisite Shanaya Rafaat as star-crossed lover Helena –  that transcends and defies every kind of stereotyped thinking, and tranforms the show into a passionate celebration of the physical world in all its glory, and of the huge elemental power it exerts even within the most civilised societies.

Some may be slightly disappointed, I suppose, to hear a few favourite Shakespearean speeches delivered not in English, but in Hindi or Sinhalese.  But what’s lost in the absence of some familiar words is more than regained in the dazzling freshness of the company’s approach to Shakespeare’s text, and in the sense of seeing that mighty poetry reborn, as if it had been written last week.  Sumant Jayakrishnan’s design bursts with colour and life, swathing the wedding-day lovers in brilliant gauzes and jewels, wrapping the fairies like cocooned insects in long hanging red silks, and forcing the mortals and elementals, as they enter the forest, to punch their way in through a wall of fragmenting white paper.  The music, delivered on traditional instruments by three onstage musicians, is fabulous, with the exception of a slightly cheesy closing number that fails to capture the shimmering mystery of Shakespeare’s final scene. And the dancing lifts the heart, emerging effortlessly from the gorgeous physicality of a show that helps to remind us what a bloodless people we have become; not repressed as we once were, but still inclined to make ourselves slaves to routines, attitudes and systems that rob us of most of the joy of life.

Or so, at any rate, David Greig seems to argue, in his beautiful short play Being Norwegian, this week’s lunchtime offering in the Play, Pie and Pint season at Oran Mor.  Co-produced by Paines Plough – and set for an immediate transfer to The Vaults in London – Being Norwegian is set in the flat, overlooking an anonymous Scottish city, of a fortyish bloke called Sean, who has been living there for some months without unpacking his boxes, and seems to carry a fair amount of emotional scar-tissue.  With him in the flat – on a moonlit winter night that transforms the grey city below to a glittering panorama of lights – is a pretty, blonde woman called Lisa, whom Sean has just met in a pub, and who says that she is Norwegian.

As the conversation progresses, though – through agonies of shyness, resistance and downright emotional terror on Sean’s part, and increasing exasperation and despair on Lisa’s – it gradually becomes clear that Lisa’s Norwegian-ness is not so much a reality as a metaphor, a way of expressing her dreams of escape into a culture more open and earthy, more convivial, more attuned to nature, and more direct about expressing sexual and emotional needs.  In the end, these two not-so-young people in flight from a cold and loveless world just about find one another.  But not before Meg Fraser and Stewart Porter, in a pair of flawless performances beautifully directed by Roxana Silbert, have reduced the audience to tears as well as laughter, and a profound sense of the unnecessary, pinched bleakness of so much modern urban living.  It’s not exactly a Midsummer Night’s Dream, in other words.  But as a tiny, midwinter companion-piece to Shakespeare’s play, it could hardly be bettered; and in its way, the faint glimmer of hope and joy it achieves, at the end, is as moving as all the rich celebration of Tim Supple’s Dream, and as important for the way we live now.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and Being Norwegian at Oran Mor, Glasgow; both until tomorrow, 27 October.

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Drama Na h-Alba

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JOYCE McMILLAN on DRAMA NA H-ALBA, INVERNESS for The Scotsman, 22.10.07
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SCOTLAND’S INTERNATIONAL THEATRE ARTS FESTIVAL AND FORUM, says the official description of the new Drama Na h-Alba Festival in Inverness; and to judge by the atmosphere in central Inverness on Saturday afternoon, the “forum” element is certainly working like a dream.  There are familiar faces from the cutting edge of British theatre wandering up and down Church Street, Swedish storytellers watching community shows in the Spectrum Centre, and at least one world-famous critic – Michael Billington of The Guardian – sipping tea at the Ironworks Arts Centre after a discussion session.

The question that remains unanswered, though, is whether this Festival has the potential to become anything more than a northward annual conference for the theatre world, with a range of  performances thrown in as illustration.  The Festival schedule is certainly busy, featuring more than 80 performances of 29 shows over five days.  There are talks, seminars and conferences, and a round half-dozen of this autumn’s top Scottish touring shows, including the National Theatre of Scotland’s Molly Sweeney and Mull Theatre’s Brightwater.  There’s an Inverness version of the Leith-based Puppet Lab’s Big Shop event.  There’s  Tara Arts from London with their current version of The Tempest.  There are two small-scale Swedish groups, and some local community shows, in English and Gaelic.  But of the four shows I saw on Saturday, none had an audience of more than 25 people, including Festival organisers and artists; suggesting an event that, in its first year, may have spread itself too thin, and baffled its potential audience in the process.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that of the four shows I saw, the one that seemed most comfortable in its Festival setting – a small corner of Bught Park – was the most public and playful, the one most visible to the city.  Volcano’s A Few Little Drops (4 stars ****) is a thoughtful and sometimes challenging  21st century meditation-cum-installation on water and what it means to us, staged by a team of seven inspired actor-performers on an outdoor set that ranges through a little, wrecked, water-damaged wooden house like something from a Tarkovsky film, and then moves on into a great wave of a blue-green tent.

Rejoice With Trembling (3 stars ***), from the Vasterbottensteatern of north Sweden, is charm itself, a  gentle, modest-looking two-handed  storytelling show that plays around intriguingly with the interface between languages.  Kissing Bandits (3 stars ***) is a gutsy, thoughtful  50-minute community show about six modern Inverness women trying to find something to celebrate at New Year.  And Reeling And Writhing’s latest show Only The Men (3 stars ***), which had its premiere at Drama Na h-Alba, is a desperately tantalising piece of work; a deep, poetic meditation on a damaged father-son relationship, set around a croft on Mull at the turn of the 1980’s, and featuring some beautiful music for flute and piccolo by Eddie McGuire.

The difficulty is that Tim Nunn’s text handles the story in a militantly undramatic style, with little sustained narrative or dialogue, and a strange, unfocussed comic riff involving a stuffed sheep; and it’s delivered by actors Callum Cuthbertson and James McAnerney in such a rapid, throwaway Glasgow style that it’s difficult – apart from a few brief, late glimpses from Cuthbertson – to imagine how well it might have worked if it had been delivered with the vocal weight and range it seems to demand.  Which is a pity, given that the situation it tackles – the tension between croft and city in the life of one island family – is so central to the experience of changing rural communities across the world; and therefore central to the kind of festival Drama Na h-Alba would wish to be, and might one day become.

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The Doctor And The Devils

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JOYCE McMILLAN on THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.10.07
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3 stars ***

OVER THE YEARS, the Young and Community companies at the Citizens’ Theatre have tackled some fairly original and experimental work; so it comes as something of a surprise, this autumn, to see the Young Company offering up a good, sturdy piece of traditional youth theatre, without an experimental impulse in sight.  Dylan Thomas’s The Doctor And The Devils – first seen at the Citizens’ in 1961 – is a vivid re-telling of the story of Burke and Hare, the 19th century Edinburgh body-snatchers- turned-murderers, and of their chief customer, the anatomist Doctor Knox; and it creates a memorable romantic image of the dedicated scientist as monster, a cold-blooded Faustian figure who prioritises the demands of intellectual curiosity over the most basic human decencies.

Neil Packham and his young company give the play a full-blooded conventional production, with a large set and sixteen-strong cast stuffed sweatily into the small Circle Studio.  Vocally, there are difficulties; some of the cast gabble at warp speed, others have bizarre intonation problems.  But in terms of expression and movement, there are some strikingly fine performances here, particularly in the leading roles.  And if this production is partly a victim of its own poor vocal technique, that’s a fault it has in common with many professional productions in Scotland, which have far fewer excuses for their weakness, and more resources with which to tackle it.

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Oresteia

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JOYCE McMILLAN on ORESTEIA at Cumbernauld Theatre for The Scotsman 20.10.07
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4 stars ****

ON A DARK STAGE, a man in a strange orange silk robe – fitted around the rib-cage, flaring into a wide skirt – stands in a posture of agonising tension, like a yoga master demonstrating absolute mastery.  His arms are raised and bent at the elbows; his knees are splayed and bent, quivering with strain.  And for 50 minutes, the award-winning actor Sandy Grierson remains in this gruelling position, like a prisoner under torture, while he raises his voice and – in broken fragments – tells us his story.  He is Orestes, son of Agamemnon, the man who has seen his father murdered by his adulterous mother Clytemnestra, and has therefore killed her in turn.  Now, the Furies are pursuing him for his terrible crime of matricide; and he awaits judgment from the people of Athens.

This is Oresteia, the latest work from Grierson’s Lazzi Experimental Arts Unit, with Cumbernauld Theatre; and it’s still unusual, in Scotland, to see a show so clearly based on an actor’s experimental impulse to test himself to the limit in performance.  It’s debatable how well this Oresteia – co-created by Grierson with his teacher and director David W.W. Johnstone –  works as theatre; the distraction of watching Grierson’s physical agony is so severe that subleties of thought are completely lost, along with most of the story.

Yet for all that, the performance has a physical, aural and visual intensity that burns itself onto the mind.  Davey Anderson provides a superb soundscape, combining a heartbeat rhythm with choral voices that capture the text’s recurring images of crucifixion and sacrifice.  And Grierson remains perhaps the most compelling performer on the Scottish stage today; a man who can invite audiences to watch him undertaking what’s really an exercise in extreme theatre, and still deliver a performance to remember, and to debate.

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Tackling Our Obesogenic Society – Column 20.10.07

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.10.07
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DATELINE 19 October, 2007; and I am sitting typing at my desk, as I am most days.  I am drinking tea, and eating olives; I would have gone to the gym, but today – as on six days out of any seven – I don’t have time.  I should be cooking myself something fresh and nutritious for tea, but I don’t have time for that either; so there’s a supermarket quiche in the oven, no doubt bulging with excess salt and transfats.  And when I have to go to Glasgow this evening, I won’t cycle up the road to the station.  Yes, I have a lovely bike, and cycling it around the bicycle paths of North Edinburgh on a quiet Sunday morning is one of the joys of my life.  But the idea of navigating it through the rush-hour traffic around the east end of Princes Street is just too terrifying for words.

And all this, mind you, from a woman who is persistently overweight, who has dodgy joints, whose waistline breaks all the rules in those scary diabetes adverts; and who, in addition, is not daft, and knows perfectly well what health problems may lie ahead if I don’t take better care of myself.  So why don’t I do it?  For all the reasons listed above.  There’s the chronic shortage of time, which makes exercise and good cooking hard to fit in.  There’s the easy availability of tasty instant food containing too much fat and salt.  There’s the colossal dominance of cars and lorries in our transport culture, which often robs us of our one chance of taking exercise in a way that is functional and time-saving, rather than boring and time-hungry.  There is, in other words, a whole economy which depends for its income, its profits and its very existence on the presumption that most people will live the kind of unhealthy life I’ve just described.  And if resistance is difficult for middle-class people with adequate resources and everything to live for, then it’s obvious how much tougher it is for families with few pleasures, restricted incomes, and an uncertain future, living under chronic stress.

Which is why I felt strangely liberated, this week, to hear the UK Health Minister Alan Johnson – in the aftermath of this week’s Foresight report on the obesity crisis – embracing the idea that obesity is no longer just a question of individual will-power and self-discipline, but a much wider problem, caused by what the report calls our “obesogenic” society.  For if there is one thing we should have learned from the health history of the last 25 years, it’s that simply exhorting people to be strong-minded, eat healthily, and get thin, does not work.  On the contrary, the kind of punitive anti-fat culture which exists throughout our fashion idustry, and in most women’s magazines, seems to send many people into a downward spiral of self-hatred that actually makes matters worse.  It’s not that the structures which promote our obesity crisis are so rigid that no individual can ever escape them; they can, and some do.  But for all that, those structures act as a formidable, profit-driven engine of change; and it’s driving our society in just one, lardy direction.

All of which makes it abundantly clear that simply treating the symptoms of our obesity culture is all but pointless; consider the wall of ingrained resistance Jamie Oliver hit, when he tried to force-feed Britain’s schoolchildren with healthy dinners.  As one campaigning website puts it, what the Foresight report reveals is that the obesity crisis is almost as profound as the crisis over climate change; and any convincing policy for tackling it would involve the promotion of a series of economic shifts so radical that it’s impossible to imagine the current generation of politicians even daring to mention them.  Government will not confront the road tranport lobby, for instance, and routinely invests billions in new roads and bridges, while denying Britain’s cycling lobby the relatively tiny sums it might need to promote a real switch to two-wheeled transport.  Time and again, they renege on their duty to confront the convenience food manufacturers who plainly will not reduce the fat, salt and chemical content of their products unless forced to do so by law.  They have only recently worked up the nerve to ban some forms of junk-food advertising aimed directly at children; too little, too late.  Fear of faltering economic growth, in other words, is the water in which modern politicians swim; and on almost every major issue now facing western societies, that fear renders them all but useless.

So what do we need?  We need an alternative vision of how a 21st century society might organise itself; a vision which encourages enterprise, but does not allow it to go down paths which destroy our planet, compromise our health and – in the passing, in this week of pain for the BBC – casually devour our most cherished and valuable institutions.  Over the last generation, we have become used to considering the turbo-charged capitalist system in which we live as a force of nature, something to which we must adapt, and from which we can protect nothing; and we have become used to despising our politicians for doing nothing about it, while refusing to vote for anyone who actually suggests anything radical.  What might help now, more than anything, is a new deal between business and government, in which decent business people agree where the “red lines” of damaging commercial exploitation are, and government gets on with the task of enforcing them properly.  Instead, we have a cowboy economy that thrives by making us ill, layers of government that won’t help except by tinkering at the margins, a natural environment collapsing under the strain, and an ideology that tells us there is nothing that can, or should, be done about it.  And people wonder why we’re all stressed, depressed and fat; I think I’ll go round to the pizza place, and start eating for comfort.

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Pearlfisher: Philip Howard’s Traverse Swansong

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JOYCE McMILLAN  on THE PEARLFISHER (PREVIEW) for Scotsman  Critique 20.10.07
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WHEN PHILIP HOWARD first arrived at the Traverse Theatre in 1993, as a young associate director, John Major was still in Downing Street.  The idea of a Scottish Parliament still seemed like a distant constitutional pipe-dream; and the vision of a National Theatre for Scotland seemed as far from becoming a reality as it had a century before, when enthusiasts first started to campaign for it.

Yet fourteen years on, as Howard prepares to hand over the artistic directorship to Dominic Hill of Dundee Rep, the cultural and political landscape in which the Traverse sits has been utterly transformed; and it’s widely acknowledged that Howard, in his quiet way, has been one of the key players in encouraging the massive surge of cultural confidence that helped to underpin that peaceful revolution.  As the leading supporter and producer of playwrights like David Greig, Rona Munro, David Harrower, Henry Adam and – with the help of his then associate director, John Tiffany – of Black Watch writer Gregory Burke, he has helped produce the modern Scottish repertoire that made the coming of a National Theatre seem possible, not as a nostalgia-trip or an exercise in cultural archaeology, but as an explosion of contemporary creativity.

And the structures he put in place at the Traverse – the workshops, the writers’ groups, the international touring, the partnership schemes that encouraged linked pairs of Scottish and international writers to work together on versions of their latest plays – has led to an astonishing surge in Scotland’s international reputation as a centre for new drama; so much so that audiences in Germany, Sweden or former Yugoslavia often seem more aware of the strength of our  contemporary theatre than the public here at home.

So it seems thoroughly appropriate that Philip Howard’s very last production as Artistic Director should be part of a project that has been close to his heart from the beginning, and one that has undeniably helped to bring the Traverse’s work to a wider Scottish audience.  The Pearlfisher, by young Lewis-born writer Iain F. MacLeod, is the show chosen for the Traverse’s 15th annual Highlands and Islands tour, which will visit venues from the Wauchope Hall in Yetholm to An Lanntair in Stornoway following its opening at the Traverse next week; and it’s a typically thoughtful and lyrical piece of work, set among traveller people in Easter Ross in the late 1940’s and the present day.  “Its themes are money, sex and kinship,” says MacLeod, “so I’m hoping most people will find something interesting there!

“As for Philip,” he adds, “believe it or not, I’ve been working with him for 18 years, since he came to give a schools workshop on Benbecula in 1989.  I was a 16-year-old schookid, he was on the Young Directors scheme at the Royal Court, I think; and ever since then his commitment to the Highlands and Islands dimension of his work has been unshakeable, particularly through the Traverse tours.  And I think people in the Highlands and Islands love the idea that the Traverse is coming, with all the associated workshops and so on.  It’s tremendously important in sowing the seeds of a real, creative theatre culture.”

Howard’s time at the Traverse hasn’t been entirely without controversy.  His strict insistence on working only with Scottish-based and international playwrights, which has helped the Traverse set such a distinctive agenda over the last 11 years, may be about to be challenged; and there has even been a mild public spat with his brilliant former associate, John Tiffany, over his famously suppportive and unshowy directing style.

As the leader of the generation of playwrights Howard has nurtured, though, top playwright David Greig is inclined to agree that Howard’s contribution to Scottish cultural life may take decades to be fully appreciated.  “There’s a real sense in which you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  Because Philip is not a one for spin, because his personal style is so quiet, I think people will only begin to grasp the full significance of the job he’s done here when they can see it whole.   He’s helped to create a whole new play culture, in ways that are now being picked up and emulated in countries across the world.  And for a director of the Traverse, that’s about as good as it gets.”

The Pearlfisher at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 30 October- 2 November, with previews 26-28 October.   Then on tour until 24 November.

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Herbal Remedies/Blood Brothers

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JOYCE McMILLAN on HERBAL REMEDIES at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, and BLOOD BROTHERS at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 19.10.07
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Herbal Remedies   4 stars  ****
Blood Brothers    4 stars  ****

RADICAL IS HARDLY the word for James Kelman, still a struggling outsider after 25 years as a leading Scottish writer, and despite that famously controversial Booker Prize win of 1994, with his novel How Late It Was, How Late.  For one thing, Kelman is an unrelenting poet of working-class life and experience; he does not cease to see the inner world of working-class people – mainly men – as the place where the true narrative of recent history lies, along with its tragedy and poetry.

And even more controversially, Kelman sees the Glasgow street language in which he often writes not as a cheap signifier of jokes or violence ahead, but as part of a rich continuum of language, each part of it capable of its own poetry, philosophy and grandeur.  These twin beliefs have not made Kelman popular, either with readers, or with most of the literary establishment.  But they have made him into one hell of an artist; and if you want a swift introduction to the world of Kelman – not all of it, but a witty and beautiful corner of it – then you could do a lot worse than invest 75 minutes in watching Andy Arnold’s latest show at the Arches, a world premiere production of a short Kelman play called Herbal Remedies.

Set in a space that carries conscious echoes of some of the great semi-abstract dramas of the later 20th century – there’s the bare tree from Waiting For Godot, the park bench from Albee’s Zoo Story – Herbal Remedies is essentially an archetypal  dialogue between two male tramps, although in this case it is interrupted by the arrival of a woman, or maybe a goddess or  female “Godot”, in the shape of comely drunk called Clarissa, previously sound asleep on a nearby bench.  Mate – brilliantly played by Laurie Ventry – is an elderly down-and-out of the sanguine sort, who may lack shoes, but is never short of the odd surreal reflection on life, language, marriage and metaphysics.  Crutch, his mate – David McKay, in superb form –  is a more restless soul, a one-legged, needy type with a fastidious air of frustrated aspiration; and between them, for the blissful first 40 minutes of the show, they shoot the breeze in brilliant style, hilariously going through the motions of profound conversation, which may or may not be matched by the content.

Things become a shade less sure-footed when Clarissa rouses herself from her slumbers.  In a trice, Kelman begins to drift towards the Strindbergian badlands of gender politics, where a pair of hopeless men are ruthlessly bullied into self-betrayal and bafflement by an all-powerful woman – played with terrific poise by Andrea Gibb – who seems to them to know “everything”, but who won’t even offer them a cuddle, or a bit of home cooking.
At its best, though, Herbal Remedies achieves a theatrical lightness of being that belongs only to the greatest drama, a rare sense of sheer pleasure in the joyful play of impulses and ideas in front of an audience.  And it not only confirms Kelman as a writer of huge theatrical gifts, but also reminds us that – amid all the other achievements of the Arches – its boss Andy Arnold is steadily emerging, on his day, as a comic director of genius, a man who can make Pinter’s Moonlight as funny as an episode of One Foot in The Grave, and a chunk of Kelman as hilarious as a piece of vintage Frankie Howerd.

Willy Russell is another writer of the postwar generation whose career has been dedicated to putting working-class stories at the centre of British culture; and it’s certainly true that Russell shows like Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine, and above all the 1983 musical Blood Brothers, have played a vital part in sustaining a living link between the lives of ordinary non-metropolitan folk in Britain, and the shows that appear on our big stages.  This week, Blood Brothers makes a return visit to Edinburgh in a Bill Kenwright production so well-worn that its set – a half-demolished old back-to-back street, a distant, glittering view of the Liverpool pierhead – is beginning to seem like an old friend.  Yet for all that, this fine and fatalistic modern tragedy of a show, about twin brothers separated at birth and brought up in very different parts of the British class system, still gives audiences a terrific evening for their money, full of tough questions, big songs, and real drama.

For this week’s Edinburgh performances, the show’s advertised star Linda Nolan – who is unwell – is replaced by young Scottish singer Vivienne Carlyle, to the audible disappointment of some of the audience.  But in truth, Carlyle gives a terrific performance as Mrs. Johnstone, the tragic mother-of-nine whose decision to give one of her baby sons a better chance in life leads to so much grief; and she’s brilliantly supported both by Keith Burns as a superbly sharp, streetwise narrator, and – particularly in the childhood scenes – by Antony Costa as her son Mickey, about as persuasive an adult 7-year-old as I’ve ever seen on stage.  And if some aspects of this show seem dated now – the complete absence of contraception from Mrs. Johnstone’s life, or the idea of posh boys and working class kids “playing out” in the same streets and parks – the image of a single mother battling to keep her family together in a constant struiggle against debt remains, alas, all too familiar; along with society’s tendency to lecture her about her bad decision-making and feckless lifestyle, without the smallest understanding of the pressure under which she makes those choices, for better or worse.

Herbal Remedies at the Arches, Glasgow, and Blood Brothers at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, both until 27 October.

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Hue & Cry

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JOYCE McMILLAN on HUE & CRY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 17.10.07
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4 stars ****

THE PLAY SET around a family funeral is one of the great cliches of theatre; but you’re never likely to see it reworked with more off-the-wall originality than in this latest show in Oran Mor’s  Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season.   Brought to Glasgow by Tall Tales Theatre Company of Dublin as part of the season’s regular Irish exchange, Hue & Cry opens with Damien – a bullet-headed, unemployed ex-drug-addict in a bad tracksuit – downing solitary beers in the living-room of his recently-deceased Dad, whose death has caused Damien to turn up at the house for the first time in years, sparking a flaming row with his much-hated stepmother, Betty.

Enter old neighbour and former schoolmate Kevin, who has taken Betty round to a neighbour’s to calm down; and as the two men talk, it soon becomes apparent that their lives have followed different paths that speak predictable volumes about recent changes and growing inequalities in Irish society.  Despite their shared boyhood, Damien is now a member of the great western underclass, Kevin a successful choreographer in the world of contemporary dance.  And Kinehan’s gift is to work this one-line joke of a situation into a wonderfully lively piece of writing and performance, which not only explores the clash between two very limited codes of thought – Damien’s dumbed-down alcoholic cynicism, Kevin’s fatuous middle-class psychobabble – but also takes a great, daft soaring leap into world of dance and movement itself, with its strange healing power.  The tremendous Irish actor Karl Shiels gives a memorably wounded but humorous performance as Damien, with Will O’Connell equally persuasive as Kevin.  And although, in its final moments, the play moves dangerously towards a sentimental ending, it finally avoids it with a memorably sharp slam of the door, in a true Doll’s House moment for the class politics of the early 21st century.

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