Monthly Archives: June 2008

Six Choices for the Scotsman Top 60 Shows – Fringe 2008


JOYCE MCMILLAN  for FRINGE TOP 60 – Scotsman Critique 28.6.08

Assembly @ George Street
2-25 August, previews 31 July-1August
p. 180

IF EVER YOU needed proof that the much-touted Fringe conflict between comedy and theatre is a phoney war, just look at the booming all-round Fringe creativity of comedy stars like Daniel Kitson, Bill Bailey and Owen O’Neill.  O’Neill’s new play is a dark, serious comedy about a man arrested for killing and mutilating Catholic priests; watch out for a fast, disturbing show directed by Rachel O’Riordan, who brought us Richard Dormer’s fantastic performance as Alex Higgins in Hurricane, back in 2003.

Traverse Theatre
1-23 August, preview 31 July

The National Theatre of Scotland has scored some major Edinburgh successes since its launch in 2006, not only with Black Watch, but with cutting-edge shows like Anthony Neilson’s Realism and last year’s glorious Venus As A Boy.  Now, the NTS Workshop goes into partnership with brilliant young New York group TEAM, who follow their mind-blowing 2006 show Particularly In The Heartland with this multimedia epic about the construction of nations and selves, featuring a Scarlett O’Hara pageant, anarchist architects and presidential grandchildren.

Pleasance Courtyard
4-25 August

SAY WHAT YOU LIKE about the Edinburgh Fringe, it always provides a rapid creative response to neglected aspects of the year’s news.   Played out in a tiny caravan at the Pleasance Courtyard, Look Left Look Right’s new show examines the plight of people left homeless after last year’s major floods in England.  They thought they would be back home in a few weeks; but a year on, thousands are still living in caravans like these.

Pleasance Courtyard
1-23 August

Badac Theatre Company call their work “extreme political art”, and their latest show is bound to be one of the most controversial of the 2008 Fringe.  In a cellar beneath the courtyard, they re-create the experience of entering the Auschwitz gas chambers, in relentless detail.   Is there anyone left who still needs such a graphic reminder of the horrific industrialised murder that was the holocaust?  Or is it a story – a nightmare, a warning – that can never be retold too often?  Find out for yourself, at the Pleasance this August.

Underbelly’s Pasture
3-25 August, preview 2 August
p. 83

ENTER THE ARCHITECTURAL nightmare that is Edinburgh University’s Appleton Tower, and find yourself at the office bash to end all workplace parties.  The Fringe Programme invites you to laugh your head off and dance your pants down at this rare combination of outrageous theatre show and wild party. Cal McCrystal of The Mighty Boosh and Cirque Du Soleil directs, and fabulous burlesque star Ursula Martinez leads the cast, in a show that formally ends after a couple of hours, but continues – for those in the mood – far into the night.

Traverse Theatre
3-16 August

New Traverse director Dominic Hill signals a new era of cross-border co-operation at the Traverse with this world premiere from London new writing superstar Simon Stephens.  Co-produced by the Traverse and Birmingham Rep, Pornography captures that moment in British history between the announcement of London’s successful Olympic bid on 6 July 2005, and the 7/7 bombings less than 24 hours later, as the nation crashes from euphoria and promise into a mood of devastation and fear.



Toxic Power, And How It Destroys Our Politicians – Column 28.6.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.6.08


YESTERDAY’S PAGE 3 HEADLINE in The Scotsman said it all, about the current temper of British public life.   “True Brit,” it cried, over a report on the Wimbledon tennis championships.   “It’s game set and match, as crowd howls for underdog.”

It’s true that the British – and the English in particular – always love an underdog, particularly a British one at Wimbledon; but now, the habit of howling for the apparent underdog, and kicking those in power, has also become rampant across the political scene.  Just up the river from Wimbledon, for example, at Henley-on-Thames, Thursday’s by-election – to replace new London mayor Boris Johnson –  saw voters give the governing  Labour Party what is possibly its worst electoral battering of all time.  On the dismal first anniversary of Gordon Brown’s premiership, his man in Henley won just 1,066 of more than 30,000 votes cast; and New Labour trailed home in fifth place, after the Green Party and – appallingly – the BNP.

Labour’s political opponents will argue, of course, that this is because Gordon Brown’s Labour government is both peculiarly depraved – in its nannying assault on traditional British liberties and pastimes – and breathtakingly stupid in its inability to handle the current economic crisis.  In fact, though, in a whole range of currently controversial policy areas – from security and justice to  green energy – it’s difficult for any rational observer to spot much systematic difference between the official policy positions of New Labour, and David Cameron’s New Tories; indeed it’s striking that despite much posturing about freedom, Boris Johnson first major act as London mayor was to ban drinking on the tube, in a move worthy of Scotland’s own nanny-in-chief, Kenny McAskill.  What’s going on, in other words, has little to do with the rational assessment of policy, and everything to do with something that I’m tempted to call Toxic Power Syndrome.

For consider, if you will, the fate of Britain’s last three Prime Ministers, all driven out of office under a cloud of contempt bordering on revulsion.  John Major endured one of the most protracted and unpleasant political deaths in recent history, shafted day in and day out by poisonous opponents in his own parliamentary party, and by elements in the media which – partly for reasons of pure snobbery – had him down as a loser from the moment he emerged as Margaret Thatcher’s successor, back in 1990.

Tony Blair – now hailed as a conquering hero and lost political genius, as he skips back into Westminster to report on the Middle East – was dismissed from office a year ago this weekend as a political liar, cheat and moral failure, too damaged ever to lead New Labour to a fourth election victory; as he left office, the man looked skeletally aged and physically ill, a mere shadow of the vigorous 55-year-old we see today.   And now, just look at Gordon Brown; a once-brilliant Chancellor and political thinker reduced to a stammering parody of his former self, crushed by the double burden of the toxic power he has carried for the last 11 years, and the terminal  effort to sell himself to the people as  a “new” Prime Minister, when everything about him seems old, ill, pale, and puffy with exhaustion.

Political power, in other words, now seems to function like an insidious, slow-acting poison: harmless and even invigorating for the first four or five years, then a little tiring and debilitating, and finally – after a decade or so – so completely destructive and repulsive that people flee from those infected with evident disgust, and become dangerously incapable of rational discussion about any policy proposal which bears their fingerprints.  The reasons why power has become so toxic are complex.  Power does tend to corrupt, and those who make political decisions over a long period inevitably accumulate a growing list of crimes, misdemeanours and enemies.

The difficulty is, though, that British political life now lacks two crucial pieces of ballast that used to moderate this cyclical process, and link it to the reality of our lives.  In the first place, the party battle at Westminster – once rooted in strong grass-roots party activity in every constituency in the country – is now viewed almost entirely through the eyes of the London-based political media, a hysterical rat-pack of Westminster insiders whose obsession with the personal fate of leading politicians reduces the whole business of politics to the vacuous nastiness of a build-them-up-then-vote-them-off reality show.

And secondly, the politicians themselves have opened the way to the trivialisation of their profession through their increasing failure, over the last quarter-century, to offer voters any significant ideological choice.   One after another, these  ambitious young men, in their identical business suits, step up to the task of becoming apologist-in-chief for a global system increasingly designed to deliver colossal profits to those in the inner circle of wealth and privilege, while siphoning ever-larger amounts of cash out of the pockets of struggling middle earners who can no longer even begin to promise their children a better future.  It’s not strictly true to say that this job of representing power to the people is a thankless one; the thanks, delivered by those who hold the purse-strings, are profuse, and include life membership of that global inner circle.

But it is a toxic task, all the same; a shameful, energy-sapping business, surrounded by a nasty stench of moral compromise bordering on corruption.  And only a fool could possibly believe that half a decade on from his election as Prime Minister, that stench will not also begin to cling about David Cameron and his crew.   Unless, of course – in defiance of the entire history of his party – he turns out to be a real champion of the people, in their timeless battle against unaccountable power; and so far, in his smooth Tory-boy  presence, there is no real sign of that at all.

ENDS ENDS ENDS                 

The Bacchae, Anthony And Cleopatra, Feast


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BACCHAE (NTS at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen), ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and FEAST (Ankur Production at Arta, Glasgow) for Scotsman Review 27.6.08


The Bacchae  4 stars  ****

Anthony And Cleopatra   4 stars ****

Feast    3 stars ***

IT WAS A FABULOUS, gaudy night in Aberdeen, when Alan Cumming climbed back into his famous gold kilt, descended upside-down and bare-bottomed to the stage like a true Hollywood god diving to earth, and gave the city’s audiences a performance to remember, in the revival of the National Theatre of Scotland’s controversial and spectacular version of Euripides’s The Bacchae.

First seen during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, John Tiffany’s glittering show is now on its way to New York via Inverness; and if it remains the flawed, uneven theatrical masterpiece it obviously was last summer, it’s still a tremendous piece of showbusiness, brave, clever, camp and visually breathtaking.  The show’s problems lie deep in the imagery with which Tiffany has chosen to surround the story of Dionysus, the rejected god  of sex, sensuality and polymorphous pleasure, who returns to his native city of Thebes to seek revenge.  According to the writer, David Greig, the serious purpose of this show is to challenge the immature and chaotic attitudes to sensual indulgence that still plague our society today, and lie at the root of our problems with alcohol and sex.

On stage, though, that purpose is smothered in imagery that never makes it clear that the city of Thebes echoes the uptight, cash-driven society in which most British people live today, and that does not evoke the self-destructive madness of our own weekend  attempts at escape.  Tiffany’s Dionysus focusses instead on a camp challenge to the rigid, gangsterish attitude to masculinity represented by the Theban prince Pentheus.  And his wildly sensual female followers, the Bacchae, are played by nine fabulous black actresses in glittering red who express themselves only through soul music, a form specifically designed to tame and domesticate the sensual female voice in the service of conventional religion.

If the production’s imagery fails to connect with the deepest potential of the story, though, everything about the surface of the show is witty, extreme, and completely memorable; and the current version – with some new material designed to make the story tighter, faster and more lucid – achieves a stronger and more frightening theatrical impact than last year’s staging.  Alan Cumming, in particular, has grown impressively into the role of Dionysus; he is as camp and provocative as ever, but now with a deep new dimension of steely, earth-shaking rage, that makes the burning of Thebes and the horrible destruction of Pentheus all too credible.  And the rapturous reception the show received in Aberdeen demonstrates just what can be achieved, in terms of building new audiences and new relationships with them, when the National Theatre Of Scotland takes its most spectacular and controversial work out on the road in Scotland.  Next week, this show reaches Manhattan, where it will no doubt be cheered to the echo.  But the cheers of the Aberdeen audience are at least as important to the bright future of Scotland’s National Theatre; and perhaps even more rewarding.

It was Shakespeare, of course, who fiirst invented the idea of the “gaudy night”.  He coined the phrase to evoke the blazing, destructive passion that bound the Roman general Mark Anthony to the Egyptian queen Cleopatra; and if ever a play of Shakespeare’s dramatised the archetypal conflict between Pentheus and Dionysus – between the cold demands of Roman diplomacy and politics, and the wild flame of physical passion – then this is it.

Mary McCluskey’s intense one-hour version for the Oran Mor lunchtime Classic Cuts season, which ends this weekend, focusses tightly on the conflict within Anthony between Rome and Egypt, duty and love; and if it tangles too much, and for too long, with the byzantine complexities of the play’s long-drawn out finale, it still evokes the central drama with  memorable force.   In Kenny Miller’s sensuously candle-lit production, former Citizens diva Lorna McDevitt is in sensational form as the beautiful and manipulative queen, her magnificent bosom heaving it way towards the final encounter with the asp in a way that makes Anthony’s passion wholly explicable.  Andrew Clarke roars and suffers convincingly as Anthony; and Candida Benson heroically carries the rest of the narrative, as a combined version of all the play’s loyal advisers, messengers and servants.

When it comes to sensual pleasure, though, no subject – not even sex – is more important than food.   Ankur Productions is one of the few Scottish companies committed to working across all the cultures now represented in Scottish society; and last week, in the lush gothic space of the Arta Bar and Restaurant in Glasgow, director Cora Bissett and her team had the brilliant idea of presenting Feast, a series of eight snippets of drama around themes of food and family, accompanied by a generous tapas menu of similarly bite-sized food.

The result is a swift, richly-flavoured panorama of mainly Asian family life in the 21st century city, featuring elements from established plays – including Debbie Isitt’s The Woman Who Cooked Her Husband – and fine little fragments of new writing, from Sarmed Mirza’s deftly-crafted monologue for a little boy caught short after a family banquet, to a piece devised from the cast’s own stories, about an obviously doomed attempt at an arranged marriage. The acting, from a cast that involves some complete newcomers to the stage, is variable in quality.  But Gia Avan, Sbah Shahid and Sanjeev Chitnis all create some memorable cameos; and the black poet Tawona Sithole comes and goes, with two poems of exile and powerlessness so chilling that they make us, just for a moment, lay down our forks, and let the food go cold on our plates.

The Bacchae at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, until tomorrow, 28 June, and the Lincoln Center, New York, 2-13 July.  Anthony and Cleopatra at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow; Feast, run completed.


And Then There Were None


JOYCE MCMILLAN on AND THEN THERE WERE NONE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.6.08


3 stars ***

SAY WHAT YOU LIKE about Agatha Christie, the brand name still works like magic.   The Theatre Royal was full of happy customers for the Glasgow opening of this latest show from Bill Kenwright’s Agatha Christie Theatre Company; and if they got pretty much what they bargained for in the way of 1930’s murder and mayhem, the company’s director Joe Harmston still has the  knack of giving Christie mysteries a slightly darker and more stylish twist than usual.

And Then There Were None is the classic 1939 story of ten people who arrive at a house party on a remote island off Devon, only to find themselves accused of murder, and picked off, one by one, by some unknown executioner.  Christie’s own version of the play inevitably involves the usual stereotypes of the bright young thing, the restless young military man back from the Empire, the wheezy old general, the dim-witted policeman, and the deceptively mild-mannered old dear with the knitting-bag.  The structure of the plot, though, unleashes an unusual intensity of speculation about which of them is the killer, and about the nature of murder itself; and on Simon Scullion’s art-deco-influenced set, the mood is often more Bauhaus than country-house, with menacing contemporary classical music to match.  

In the end, the story is a fairly nonsensical one, and veteran television star Gerald Harper, in the leading role of a senior judge, has to pull out all the stops to make any sense of it.  But there’s real poignancy in the budding relationship between the young couple, played with quick-witted intensity by Alex Ferns and Chloe Newsome; and if Christie somehow manages, in the end, to be both shallow and depressing – well, I guess her own early life was like that, for much of the time.

ENDS ENDS             

The Irish Referendum And The Betrayal Of The European Dream – Column 21.6.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 21.6.08


ON WEDNESDAY evening, the Chancellor of The Exchequer, Alistair Darling, stood up in the Mansion House to deliver his first annual speech to the City of London.  By all accounts, he gave a decent performance, defending the government’s position with some dignity.  But in truth, behind the mask of the glittering occasion, he was the very picture of impotence; a middle-ranking and not-much-trusted priest of the global system, sent to explain to the ordinary people of his country why he cannot do much to protect them from the current global storm of rising food and energy prices, or from the possible collapse of more banks and savings institutions.

At least Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, was able to talk turkey to the Lord Mayor’s banquet guests about what the current situation is likely to mean for British living standards: a year – possibly several years – of declining real incomes, in a nation where a shameful proportion of our most vulnerable people already live on the brink of poverty, in terms of both fuel and nutrition.  But so powerless is the modern politician that Alistair Darling could not even do that; instead, he has to prevaricate about the coming fall in living standards, and play by the iron rules of an increasingly idiotic political game which dictates that governments in power must always pretend that everything is under control, even when the economy, for the foreseeable future, is obviously going to hell in a handcart.

And it’s in the light of this sad spectacle that I think we should consider the sorry state of the European Union project, following the crucial rejection by Irish voters of the Lisbon Treaty, designed to streamline EU decision-making for the new century.  The response of many in Europe – and particularly in Britain – has of course been to respond to the Irish referendum with a kind of visceral delight at the sight of the Brussels bureaucracy being slapped in the face by voters; and there is no doubt that the EU leadership, both political and administrative, richly deserves the humiliation it has suffered.  Right from the start, the European project has been plagued by the undemocratic assumption that the people of Europe are too stupid, and too instinctively nationalistic, to grasp the benefits of union, and that they will therefore need, at every stage, to be led and manoeuvred into a position where they have little practical option but to give their continuing consent.  There are plenty of bureaucrats, lobbyists and politicians in Brussels who cheerfully describe themselves as “Euro-mutants”, people who have evolved to a different level of consciousness from most citizens of Europe, and who no longer care much about national identity – although most of them, revealingly, care very much about not being American.  Their casual elitism is repellent, and their failure to put real energy into the task of seeking true democratic consent for the EU project has been both morally culpable and politically foolish, from start to finish.

To say so, though, is not necessarily to join in the casual rejoicing over the Irish result.  For the truth is that these arrogant elites have gradually weakened and betrayed a magnificent project; one that has helped to deliver two generations of peace and prosperity to a continent historically riven by war, that has played a key role in easing the emergence of East and Central Europe from Cold War communism, and that offers European politicians like Alistair Darling a final chance to escape from their pathetic individual impotence in the face of global markets and mounting resource crises.  Worse, in their failure, they have created political opportunities for every tinpot xenophobe, migrant-hater and social reactionary in Europe to whip up anti-EU feeling, and campaign to return our entire continent to a dark age of knee-jerk mistrust of foreigners, dim-witted national chauvinism, and neanderthal sexual politics.  Just look at the current Italian government if you need a graphic demonstration of the forces unleashed by the current anti-EU mood; or listen to that primitive roar of tribal delight that swept the Tory benches at Westminster on the news of the Irish referendum defeat.    

Now of course, those on the right of British politics who think that state power is always a problem, and that it is naturally a malign force, will be pleased to see a project designed to create a powerful European state beginning to stall, weaken and fragment.  That is not, though, historically, the view of the vast majority of British voters, who tend to honour and value the role of the state in providing basic services, supporting and enabling citizens to play a full part in economic and social life, and protecting and helping those who fall by the wayside.  The European Union project has represented, in part, an effort to reinvent the welfare state for the 21st century, in a form powerful enough to continue to offer citizens the support they need – to achieve, if you like, Swedish or Norwegian levels of social stabilty and human development, on a European scale.  It should, in that sense, have been an easy polticial project to sell, and to enshrine in the hearts of the people.

But a mixture of active and influential ill-will from those who oppose that social model, instinctive xenophobia on the part of millions of Europeans, and colossal political ineptitude among Europe’s pro-EU elites, seems now to have robbed us of the chance of that more civilised and open-hearted future.  And for anyone with a shred of political vision beyond the petty and the short-term, this must surely be a time to mourn rather than rejoice; and to start thinking hard, fast and responsibly about viable alternatives.



Old People, Children and Animals


JOYCE MCMILLAN on OLD PEOPLE, CHILDREN AND ANIMALS (Quarantine at Tramway, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 21.6.08


4 stars ****

WHEREVER THEY go – in this case, to the big indoor space of the Tramway – Quarantine of Salford tend to put up a marquee, and create the feeling of a community get-together; and the result is a unique and delightful form of theatre that sits right on the cutting-edge of debate about what we mean by performance, but is still as unpretentious and accessible as a good community show.

So this time around, Quarantine assemble a cast of four elderly women from Salford with stories to tell and wisdom to transmit, and three teenage girls who form a loud, metallic rock band.  They’re assisted by a live parrot, a giant pile of soft toys, and a bagful of toy furry rabbits that squeak and hop around the floor.  And for 80 minutes, in a deceptively informal but in fact tightly-structured sequence, they reflect on their lives, ask searching questions, lash out a few songs, and share a cup of tea with the audience.

What emerges is a show in which people who don’t fit the frame of showbiz stardom – the old people and children of the title – talk not about their social problems, but about the joy and sadness, poetry and philosophy of their lives; there’s also a strand of reflection on how a gentler, less exploitative relationship with non-human creatures is part of human happiness.  This is, in other words, one of those memorable shows that stops us in our rush through the days, and asks us to reflect, across the generations, on the real texture of our lives; and it’s perhaps a sad comment on our time that we need theatre to do that for us, when once we might have shared endless hours like this with family and friends.

ENDS ENDS               


Les Parents Terribles, The Winter’s Tale


JOYCE MCMILLAN on LES PARENTS TERRIBLES at Dundee Rep, and THE WINTER’S TALE (Shakespeare’s Globe at Glasgow University Quadrangle) for Scotsman Review 20.6.08


Les Parents Terribles  4 stars ****

The Winter’s Tale    3 stars  ***

IN THE AGE OF TERROR and “family values”, Sigmund Freud and his ideas are out of fashion; but all the same, it’s worth remembering their explosive influence on many of the great sexual and social revolutionaries of the 20th century.   Jean Cocteau – born near Paris in 1889 – was one of those revolutionaries, a bisexual man in an age when gay relationships were still publicly taboo, and an avant-garde novelist, playwright, poet and film-maker whose powerful aesthetic style helped define two generations of rebellious counter-cultural art.

Despite the elements of surrealism in his work, though, Cocteau always remained fascinated by the bourgeois family life into which he had been born, and by the traditional representation of it in theatre; and his 1938 play Les Parents Terribles – now revived at Dundee Rep by the brilliant Glasgow designer-director Stewart Laing – is a product of that fascination.   At one level, Les Parents Terribles is a boulevard comedy – almost a farce – about a middle-class family in meltdown.   As the play opens, the mother, Yvonne, is slumped in a coma on the floor of the grubby bathroom of the family’s Paris flat, brought low by the fact that her only son Michael – a spoiled but amiable 23-year-old whom she adores with an unhealthy passion – has spent the night away from home.

The plot takes an even more melodramatic turn when it emerges that Michael’s new love – the pretty 25-year-old Madeleine – is also the mistress of his father George, the husband Yvonne has been ignoring and neglecting ever since the birth of her adored boy; and events come to a head at a ludicrous meeting in Madeleine’s flat, where Michael’s clever aunt Leo indulges in some absurdly Machiavellian manoeuvring, largely for her own ends.

The aim of the play, in other words, is to rip the mask of respectability from the face of the family, and to reveal the seething, destructive Oedipal passions beneath, as they threaten Michael’s vulnerable new love.  Cocteau’s trick, though, is to set up the familiar structure of a farce, but then to people it with real, trapped, modern human beings whose suffering is as tragic as it is extreme; and it therefore makes every kind of sense for Stewart Laing to update the action to the early1960’s, that decade when every self-respecting middle-class kid rebelled against an older generation that seemed suffocated by polite hypocrisy and lies.

On a vivid double-letter-box set like a pair of wide cinema screens – Madeleine’s cool, white loft apartment above George and Yvonne’s cluttered, stuffy flat – the Dundee Rep Ensemble, currently on a roll after their well-deserved triumph at last weekend’s Critics’ Awards For Theatre In Scotland, play out Cocteau’s melodrama with a powerful, tightly-contained combination of intelligent irony and sheer emotional commitment.  Just here and there, the style slides a little too much towards muted television naturalism; even at his most emotionally observant, Cocteau is always thoroughly theatrical.

But by and large, the five-strong cast turn in performances to treasure, notably Ann Louise Ross’s furiously irrational yet somehow appealing Yvonne, Irene MacDougall’s steely Leo, and Kevin Lennon’s bouncy, innocent Michael, a classic beat-generation juvenile lead in white t-shirt and turned-up jeans.  As always, Laing’s production looks and sounds superb.  This time, though, he also offers us a powerful and timely reminder that the idea of “family” is always an ambiguous one; and that the price of outward stability and respectability is often immense inner tension, and a series of lies and myths which are finally bound to implode, with a force both liberating and destructive.

When it comes to imploding family passions, though, there’s no rivalling the dramatic genius of William Shakespeare, whose breathtakingly bold late romance The Winter’s Tale cuts straight to the heart of the matter by taking such a violent implosion as its starting-point, and then setting out to examine what can be saved from the wreckage.  In the first scene of the play, the anti-hero, Leontes, becomes suddenly convinced that his queen, the beautiful and virtuous Hermione, has been unfaithful with his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and that the child she is about to bear is not his.  He imprisons Hermione, and orders his newborn daughter to be abandoned in a wild place, condemns his young son to die of grief; then spends the rest of the play in a slow search for redemption.

In their brisk, cut-down but conventional-looking version of the play – playing in Glasgow this week as part of the West End Festival – the Shakespeare’s Globe company from London, under the direction of the excellent John Dove, can do little but lead us clearly and concisely through the story, which they do with admirable good nature and professionalism, despite the odd rain-shower.  The fierce doubling required to deliver this play with a cast of nine creates some odd effects, and it’s slightly painful to anyone who cares about the under-representation of women on stage to see the plum part of Paulina, Hermione’s waiting-woman, taken – albeit with commendable discipline and seriousness – by young Michael Benz, in a matronly frock.

But Michael Taylor’s design strikes just the right note of informal but dignified summer storytelling; and on his simple catwalk set,    Sasha Hails emerges as a lovely, fragile yet indestructible  Hermione, with Fergal McElherron in superb barnstorming  form as the old lord Antigonus and the rogue Autolycus.  And the power of the story is undimmed by wind and rain; reminding us that centuries before Freud was born, Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the romance of family life, about how cold reality fails to measure up to it, and about how we still need that romance nonetheless, to drive us on through the generations.

Les Parents Terribles at Dundee Rep until tomorrow, 21 June; The Winter’s Tale at Glasgow University Quadrangle until Sunday, 22 June.

ENDS ENDS                            


The Shoemaker’s Wonderful Wife


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE SHOEMAKER’S WONDERFUL WIFE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 20.6.08


3 stars ***

MARRIAGE IS A FAMOUSLY COMPLEX INSTITUTION.  On one hand, there’s the ideal image of the thing.  And then there’s the reality – the long lifetime of compromises, disappointments and occasional joys that makes up any ordinary existence, whether married or single.  Federico Garcia Lorca’s rarely-performed comedy The Shoemaker’s Wonderful Wife explores this space between marital dream and reality; and although it’s likely to remain a less iconic piece of theatre than the great Lorca tragedies, Rosie Kellagher’s 55-minute Corona Classic Cuts production at Oran Mor does just enough to make a full-length production seem like an interesting project.

Translated and adapted by Paines Plough boss Roxana Silbert, this short version of the play begins with a painful portrait of marital disharmony between the 50-year-old shoemaker and his lovely wife, not yet 20, and alarmingly given to chatting with other men through the windows of their house.  Things, though, are not quite as they seem; and when the shoemaker storms out and leaves the village after yet another row, it soon becomes clear that the wife is more loyal to her marriage than anyone could have predicted – as least so long as her husband remains out of sight.

Sarah McCardie and Callum Cuthbertson turn in a sprightly pair of performances as the unhappy couple, with Cuthbertson subtly exploring how male strangers always appear more enticing than familiar husbands; Keith Fleming is in wicked, scene-stealing form as a gallery of passing townsfolk.   And if this is a less compelling show than the first two Classic Cuts of the season, it’s perhaps because we, in the audience, lack the background knowledge of this play that helps give these short shows resonance, and makes the cutting and condensing more fun.

ENDS ENDS       

Father’s Day And The Stress Of Time-Poor Parenting – Column 14.6.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 14.6.08

TOMORROW IS FATHER’S DAY; and it’s worth remembering that in most British households with children, the day will unfold pretty much as it has always done, over the last 50 years.   70% of British children still live with both of their parents – not as high a number as 30 years ago, but still an overwhelming majority.  And in three-quarters of those homes, the Dad will still be the major breadwinner; committed, like his own father and grandfather before him, to bringing home the lion’s share of the cash the family needs, to lead what’s seen as a normal life.

Beneath the surface, though, it’s clear that there has been a sea-change in the role of fathers in families since the 1970’s, one to which millions are still struggling to adjust.  Above all, the mass movement of women into the labour market, over the last 30 years, has crucially changed the balance of financial and social power within the average marriage, and has caused a profound shift in women’s expectations of their husbands.   On the radio this week, Tony Parsons described his loving relationship with a Dad who was a great provider, but who had “probably never even seen a nappy being changed, never mind changed one”; whereas today, hands-on parenting is the rule for both sexes. This transition, though, is still very far from complete.   Full-time working women with children, for example, still typically do ten hours’ more housework and domestic organisation than their male partners every week – a fact which probably accounts for more marital disharmony than any other single factor in contemporary British life.

There’s nothing in this social change, of course, that shouldn’t be eminently negotiable, for couples who like and respect one another.  But there are other factors in play which, when added to the rapid change in women’s employment, can contribute to a real sense of traditional family life in meltdown.  The first is the relative ease and of divorce, which – particularly for low-income families – removes the ancient pressure on women to put up with bad marriages for the sake of respectability; unhappy wives are now free to leave with their children, a freedom which some men deeply resent.  The second is the growing mobility of society, and collapse of traditional communities, which often leaves the children of bad or broken marriages without a support-network of neighbours and relatives to cushion the blow.

And the third – as fans of Sir Alan Sugar will have noted, this week – is the remarkably unreconstructed workplace culture within which British parents still have to function, tolerating chronic loss of status and earnings if they make family life a priority, and often having to work unacceptably long hours if they want to remain in employment at all.  Add all these factors together, and you have, for a minority of households, the kind of “crisis” situation that has irate Fathers For Justice climbing onto Harriet Harman’s rooftop to demand restitution of their traditional rights; and a growing proportion of Britain’s children living in poverty, often following a family breakdown.

So what can be done?  First, it would be helpful if everyone concerned with this debate would simply forget the idea of turning the clock back.  However much some conservative souls may now idealise the family life of the 1950’s, the fact is that it often concealed levels of unhappiness, frustration and  straightforward patriarchal bullying that we now rightly regard as unacceptable; consider this week’s jokey television account of the early career of Margaret Thatcher, for a glimpse of the suffocating patronage and prejudice intelligent women once suffered, in a period now often viewed through rose-tinted glasses.

And then secondly, our society needs to face the fact that parenting takes time, and that that time should now be far more equally shared between fathers and mothers.  Until now, British government’s preferred solution to the dilemmas of modern family life has been to enhance maternity rights for mothers, make a few ineffectual gestures on paternity leave, and boost the provision of childcare so that women can make a rapid return to the labour market.   But the brute fact is that that model is not good for chldren.  It puts them into the care of strangers at far too early an age, it deprives them of the company of their  parents at the time when they need it most, and it subjects both parents to the nerve-jangling stresses of a highly competitive and unsympathetic labour market – stresses which they are bound to bring back into the home with them.

As a society, in other words, we have gadually become guilty of a kind of child neglect so insidious that our kids are now – according to a series of  surveys – among the most damaged and unhappy in the developed nations.  Our neglect takes the form not primarily of material deprivation, or of a failure to fuss over our children’s physical protention and safety – we are arguably too sensitive, in that respect – but of an absolute, mulish refusal to adapt our labour market to the fact that most workers no longer have a stay-at-home spouse, and therefore have no-one to raise their children in the secure and loving environment of their own home and community

And until we grasp that that is a problem not only for women,  who bear the brunt of its contradictions at the moment, but for an entire society doomed to bear the growing costs of a generation of stressed-out parenting, our celebrations of Father’s Day will continue to ring slightly hollow.  Not because a monstrous regiment of uppity women are depriving men of the right to parent; but because the time to parent at our own speed – and at the speed dictated by our tiny, growing children – is gradually being devoured by our voracious cash economy, and taken away from us all.


The Tempest


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TEMPEST (RSAMD at the Brian Cox Studio, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 14.6.08

3 stars ***

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of cut-to-the-bone Shakespeare in Glasgow this summer, with Oran Mor’s fine 50-minute version  of King Lear playing its final performance today.  Now, here’s Mark Saunders’s 70-minute Tempest, devised by his second-year RSAMD students during “three days of collective creative frenzy” at last week’s international student theatre meeting in Essen; and although a Tempest as brief as this inevitably misses some of the most beautiful and famous poetry in the whole Shakespeare canon, it’s still striking how much of the essence of this great play can be distilled into a single short act.

The secret of this show’s success lies first in its simple but gorgeous visual imagery; in the image of a small, glowing paper sailing-ship riding through the dark on the backs of the actors, or in the strange, feathery gold of Sarah MacRae’s Ariel costume, as she slips across the stage like a flash of sunlight.   There’s also an outstanding performance from Michael Cheema as both the prince, Ferdinand, and the monster Caliban, capturing both faces of male sexuality – the courtly and the beastly – in a single body.  And the ending of the show – using Prospero’s famous elegiac speech from the end of the masque – is hauntingly beautiful enough to compensate for the odd moment of disappointing verse-speaking; and to suggest that three days of total immersion in Shakespeare can sometimes produce a small theatrical pearl.