Monthly Archives: July 2008

Hot Ticket: Irish Theatre On The Fringe 2008



AS EVERY dog in the street knows, Ireland has one of the most vibrant national theatre traditions on the planet; the only problem is that sometimes, the very strength of that tradition – from W.B. Yeats to Sean O’Casey – creates nostalgic expectations of a theatre drenched either in Celtic mysticism, or in a fierce, high-energy form of gritty social realism.

Now, though, a whole new generation of Irish playwrights are challenging those expectations with some of the most wild, creative and beautiful theatre being produced anywhere in Europe – work that’s not “experimental” in any old-fashioned 20th century sense, but absolutely committed to exploring the wilder shores of what theatre can achieve in terms of imaginative journeys, and the special role of language in making those journeys possible; and some prime examples of that work are about to open on this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

At the Traverse Theatre, for example, that 21st century genius of reinvented theatrical language, Enda Walsh, rolls out The New Electric Ballroom, his follow-up to last year’s left-field Fringe hit The Walworth Farce.  Best known for the global smash-hit Disco Pigs – a lurid exploration of the low-life adventures and frightening passions of a pair of disturbed Cork teenagers –  Walsh wowed Edinburgh audiences in 2007 with a show that seemed like a well-organised collision between the energy of a Dario Fo farce, the themes of a Tom Murphy Irish-expat drama, and the aesthetics of an episode of Little Britain.  This year’s show should be at least as interesting, as it explores the confused sexual histories of three ageing sisters in a small Irish village.

At the Assembly Rooms, meanwhile, Bill Burdett-Coutts’s team offer space to the work of two acclaimed young Irish women playwrights, Ursula Rani Sarma and Shona McCarthy.  Rani Sarma’s leatest play, the Magic Tree – just premiered at the Cork Midsummer Festival – follows a man and a woman through the dark landscape of a dying civilisation.  McCarthy’s Married To The Sea, a haunted tale of the breakdown of a traditional Irish family created for her own young company Dragonfly, was hailed on last year’s New York Fringe as signalling the arrival of the most exciting new Irish theatre group for a decade.

And back at the Traverse, the Abbey Theatre presents the UK premiere of Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, the latest piece of thrilling and chilling poetic drama from the man who shot to fame, nine years ago, with his fabulous Bush Theatre hit Howie The Rookie, one of the most brilliant double monologue plays ever written.   Like Howie The Rookie, Terminus begins on the mean streets of contemporary Dublin, and takes its audience on a strange and mythical journey, using a fabulous, rhythmic prose-poetry full of fierce internal rhymes.  But this play entwines three monologues rather than two; and its surreal and magical dimension is much bolder than in any earlier play, as the Dublin landscape is stalked by mighty winged demons who can save human lives, but only at a savage price.

“I think one of the key things about the monologue form is that it represents a wayof squeezing a lot of plot into a show of palatable length, and doing it organically,” says Mark O’Rowe, who spent his teenage years in Dublin overdosing not on theatre, but on classic crime movies and powerful American fiction.  “This way, you can create stories in the theatre that are incredibly big and fantastical, and do it within an hour or two – by comparison, novels are far too long, and films are much more expensive and cumbersome.   I love the theatre for that reason.

“As for the sense of violence and darkness in my plays, and in a lot of contemporary Irish theatre – well, I’m interested in something Nick Cave once said, about how the most violent stuff in art and music often comes out of periods of great peace, whereas people write beautiful love-songs and ballads in times of war.  In the end, if we’re honest, we usually want to write about what scares us.   We are scared of violence, and there’s a shame in that.   I think it’s partly in order to exorcise that shame that I write in the way I do.  And then it’s the language, and the fantastic sense of possibility within it, that keeps me moving from one line to the next.  I love that.  That’s what drives me on.”

Terminus and The New Electric Ballroom at the Traverse Theatre, 3-24 August, with previews from 30 July.  The Magic Tree and Married To The Sea at the Assembly Rooms, George Street, 1-25 August.


Glasgow East: Yawning Gap On The Left As New Labour Dies – Column 26.7.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 26.7.08

REPORTS OF THE DEATH of British political parties are usually much exaggerated; apart from anything else, there’s something about the Westminster system that so craves the presence of two large, dominating parties that it keeps hauling them back, Terminator-style, from the brink of self-destruction.

For all that, though, it would be wrong to underestimate the shocking depth of the crisis that now faces the Labour Party, as they confront the smoking electoral ruins of all they have tried to achieve since 1997. In Glasgow East, Margaret Curran fought like a terrier to save the day for Labour; and was batted aside, in a seat so safe that there are only 24 sitting Labour MP’s in the UK who would have a better chance of surviving electoral meltdown.
The prospects for Labour are now unremittingly grim. Too infauated with wealth and power to retain the loyalty of its traditional supporters, yet too trapped by history ever to be fully trusted by its new friends, New Labour has slowly written its own political and organisational death-warrant as a party; so that now, both in Scotland and south of the Border, its reconstruction will doubtless take the best part of a decade, even if the UK general election comes sooner rather than later, and feisty Margaret Curran is elected as the new Scottish Labour leader within weeks.

All of which would be dramatic enough, if it were simply a matter – as in 1979 – of a left-of-centre political era coming to an end, and another and more right-wing consensus beginning to take shape. The problem is, though, that there is very little evidence that this is the case. People may be exasperated by high taxation, and particularly by the recent cack-handed abolition of the 10p tax-rate for low earners; but in every other area, the charge-sheet against Gordon Brown’s government, brought by dfisillusioned voters from Crewe to Easterhouse, seems to lean to the left of the government’s present position, rather than the right. The government should, people say, be doing more to protect those on limited incomes from everything from rising fuel bills to high food prices and the danger of homelessness. They should be lowering taxes on the poor, and raising taxes on the rich. They should not be wasting money on expensive foreign wars; and they should be putting a stop to their farcical love-affair with private-sector intervention in what are clearly public-sector matters – witness the current shaming fiasco over the SATS testing system in England and Wales.

The difficulty is, though, that following 15 years of determined New Labour compromise with the right, the UK party-political system seems barely able to respond to any leftward shift in the mood of the nation. In Scotland, the response has not been too bad, in terms of the emergence of an alternative willing to pick up the cudgels for social democracy. Like any nationalist party, the SNP have a slippery tendency to try to be all things to all people in Scotland. Their relationship with wealthy right-wing backers is worrying, and their willingness to play footsy with the nation’s small band of religious reactionaries – witness Bishop Joseph Devine’s intervention in Glasgow East – is enough to make the blood run cold, for anyone who cares about Scottish women’s rights.

But the fact remains that in practical areas from housing to health policy, the Salmond government has not hesitated to move to the left of New Labour, and – just as importantly – to argue the principled case for doing so; hence the standing ovation won by Nicola Sturgeon at the annual conference of the British Medical Association in Edinburgh, when she drew a clear line in the sand over the involvement of the private sector in the NHS.

In England, though, where almost 90% of UK voters live, the situation is very different. It’s increasingly clear that a critical mass of middle English opinion has now succeeded in convincing itself that Tory or not, a David Cameron government could be no worse than the current lot; and Cameron’s clever projection of a modern, multicultural, green-tinged Conservatism-lite has clearly been designed to encourage this view.

Yet you don’t have to be much of an analyst to see just how grave the mismatch is soon likely to become, between Cameron’s charming-but-vacuous Tory front bench, and the real needs of Britain’s ordinary voters at a time of mounting global crisis. There is not a shred of evidence, for example, that a Cameron government would be either willing or able to get Britain out of its foreign wars, to rebalance the taxation system in favour of the poor, or even – despite David Cameron’s carefully-cultivated green image – to do anything substantial about the nation’s carbon footprint.

In the medium and long term, in other words, there will be no disguising the yawning gap on the left of British politics left by the demise of the old Labour Party, and by the failure of the New Labour project to create genuinely new ideological ground on which to fight for social justice in the 21st century. And once Labour is down and out for a political generation, it is genuinely frightening to think what other political forces may emerge, in the badlands between far left and far right, to give voice to the increasing fear and anger of ordinary English working people in difficult times. The Union between England and Scotland could be one of the early casualties of such a shift. But so could Britain’s long social tradition of relative cultural pluralism and tolerance. And when it comes to the big picture of 21st century history, it’s not difficult to see which of those losses would be more significant; or more damaging to the long-term reputation of those New Labour politicians whose failures, in the end, made such losses almost inevitable.


Heartbreak House, Much Ado About Nothing, The Accidental Death Of An Accordionist


JOYCE MCMILLAN on HEARTBREAK HOUSE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, and THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ACCORDIONIST at Mull Theatre, Druimfin, Tobermory, for Scotsman Review, 25.7.08

Heartbreak House  4 stars ****
Much Ado Abut Nothing   4 stars ****
The Accidental Death Of An Accordionist   4 stars ****

THIS YEAR’S Edinburgh Fringe seems set to be full of plays about the impact of war on the supposedly peaceful society back home; so it’s more than interesting – as the Festival tidal-wave of creativity thunders towards our shores –  to see two major summer productions in Scotland touched by the same powerful theme.  George Bernard Shaw’s strange, visionary drama Heartbreak House – now revived at Pitlochry in a new production by the theatre’s director, John Durnin – was written during the First World War, although not performed until 1919; and it marks a huge departure from the ebullient, argumentative radicalism of Shaw’s earlier plays.

In a setting openly influenced by Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, which first appeared some 15 years earlier, Shaw assembles a group of characters at a slightly ramshackle country house, during the long twilight of the Edwardian era.  All four of the main characters – the wrecked old owner of the house Captain Shotover, his beautiful and charismatic daughter Hesione Hushabye, her husband and “household pet” Hector, and her young but forceful guest, Ellie Dunn – treat with utter contempt all those who actually do anything in the world.  They detest the very idea of Hesione’s brother-in-law Hastings Utterword, a dim but effective member of the British ruling class; and they treat Ellie’s wealthy businessman suitor, Boss Mangan, as if he were barely human.  Instead, they indulge in weird and sophisticated sexual games, dabble in mild forms of mysticism, and play with explosives; until at last, with a distant roll of thunder, “something happens” to shake their world, and perhaps to blow it away entirely.

What Shaw’s play expresses, in other words, is a profound sense of the First World War as an apocalypse that would sweep away an old civilisation for good, replacing it with nothing but a death-cult of war and destruction; and it remains a fascinating and chillingly familiar portrait of a hedonistic ruling class that has lost interest in the practical arts of government and wealth-creation, and fallen half in love with the idea of its own extinction.  Despite one or two disappointing performances – and an occasional loss of pace and focus during the long second half – John Durnin’s thoughtful and good-looking production broadly does justice to the play’s hugely challenging twists and turns.  The beautiful Deirdre Davis of River City – stepping at short notice into the key role of Hesione Hushabye – gives a dazzlingly charismatic and intelligent performance; Helen Miller is an icily brilliant Ellie Dunn, a fine specimen of youthful beauty frozen by disappointment in love into a hard-edged force of nature, bent on self-preservation.  And if the rest of the cast sometimes seem a little unsure of where they’re going, they keep right on to the end of the road; to that famous final scene where the great war-machines darken the sky at last, and the Edwardian country-house dream dies, right in front of our eyes.

In Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing – revived by Gordon Barr and his increasingly confident Glasgow Rep company at the Botanics – a group of men returning from war at first seem like the most delightful companions to the family of an old and loyal country gentleman, Leonato.  His pretty daughter Hero is soon engaged to the young and handsome Claudio; and his spirited niece Beatrice begins to warm to her bantering relationship with the slightly more grizzled senior warrior, Benedick.

The brilliance of Shakespeare’s play, though, lies in the his profound sense of how the underlying values of the battlefield – the ambivalent and often abusive attitude to women, and the instant, unquestioning solidarity among male comrades that condones that abuse – soon begin to darken the romantic idyll.   Gordon Barr’s promenade production, which moves around six lush garden settings, offers no specially sharp interpretation of the text for modern times.  But it does boast some exceptionally fine and intelligent verse-speaking, and an excellent, heart-touching Beatrice and Benedick in Beth Marshall and Stephen Clyde; as well as a superb use of the short vistas and long views of the garden, to give us a sense of the life of the community in which this powerful near-tragedy unfolds, and in which – since it is a comedy – all wrongs are eventually righted.

Meanwhile, in the forest just south of Tobermory, Mull Theatre has just opened its brand new Druimfin production centre, set to become a key focus for the creation of touring theatre in the Highlands and Islands, Argyll and Bute.  At a total cost of £600,000, the company have cleared the site, and erected a big, cheerful barn of a building featuring a large performance/ rehearsal space, workshops, offices and dressing-rooms; and director Alasdair McCrone hopes they will soon be able to add some much-needed bar and foyer space, as well as an accommodation block for artists working on projects there.

The new building was launched last weekend with a cheerful co-produced revival of Right Lines’ huge 2001 hit The Accidental Death Of An Accordionist, a famously hilarious ceilidh-cum-farce about the murderous internal politics of the 21st century Highland community of Glengirnie.  A shade brief and shambolic in structure, but hugely amusing in detail, the show is set to visit the Edinburgh Fringe, before a long autumn tour of the Highlands and north-east; so if you fancy a quick, bracing twirl round the country-dance floor after a long day on the Fringe, then this Scottish village-hall show par excellence could be just the late-night ticket for you.

Heartbreak House in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 17 October.  Much Ado About Nothing at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 2 August.  The Accidental Death Of An Accordionist at Glenkinchie Distillery, Pencaitland, 29 July-2 August, St. Bride’s, Edinburgh, 4-23 August, and on tour until 20 September.


Middle Class Fear And The Knife Crime Panic


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 19.7.08

IT SEEMS LIKE A WHILE AGO now, given the hectic pace of the 21st century news agenda; but some of you may recall that at the beginning of this week, the UK was caught up in what seemed like a massive crisis over teenage knife crime.  It wasn’t only that the incidence of knife crime had risen sharply in some urban areas, although the year-on-year rise across England and Wales as a whole was small.  It was that politicians were being given to understand – by elements of the media, and by their political opponents – that their entire reputation for compassion and competence now depended on their ability to “deal with” this crisis, and to do so immediately.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, therefore produced some moderately daft off-the-cuff proposals for encouraging young knife-carriers to confront the consequences of their actions, and immediately became mired in a 48-hour frenzy of media accusation about a supposed u-turn on some minor aspect of her non-proposal.  The Conservative front bench, meanwhile,  rolled out some wholly absurd “crackdown” rhetoric about imprisoning every young person who carries a knife “without good reason”.

What neither party did, though, was to challenge the mood of media hysteria over knife crime, to resist the vicious demonisation of a whole generation of kids, or to point out the solid truth that despite localised problems and surges, crime in England and Wales is actually declining, with burglaries and car thefts down by over a third in the past decade, and the murder rate currently 25% lower than it was three years ago.  Instead, as usual, politicians colluded with the media in talking up the  fantasy crime wave that provides so many sensational headlines; and as usual, their behaviour was as depressing and misleading as it was cowardly.

At some level, though, societies get the politicians they deserve; and we should be clear that while some in politics and the media are much to blame for talking up the threat of crime in defiance of the evidence, they do so mainly because the British public are so willing – even eager – to buy into this false account of the society in which we live.  This week, for example, new figures emerged suggesting that British children are now the most over-protected in the world, with nine-year-olds who would once have been allowed to wander and play over a range of half a mile or so from their homes now frequently barely allowed beyond their front gates.

The consequences of these attitudes for child health are, of course, deeply worrying.  From the threat of obesity to poor social development and speech skills, kids who spend their days in front of the playstation are poor, pasty specimens, compared with those who go out building treehouses or playing football in the park; the front-line victims, if you like, of an exaggerated paranoia about others, and about the society around us, which also has millions of perfectly sane women absurdly convinced that they can’t go out in the streets after dark without constant risk of attack.   Yet the statistics showing that child abduction by strangers remains freakishly rare cut no ice with the current generation of parents; nor does the truth, deeply suppressed in our car-dependent culture, that the very vehicles we use to keep ourselves and our children safe from supposed stranger-danger on the streets are the things most likely – by a huge statistical margin – to cause our violent deaths, at any age from six months to sixty-five.

And the tragedy about this pattern of entrenched negative belief about our society is that it tends to become self-fulfilling; if people believe ill of those around them, they become more reclusive, leaving public space increasingly at risk of being taken over by a criminal or rowdy few.  As for answers – well, they increasingly require real, committed psychological resistance to a set of myths and beliefs that damage us all, and bespeak nothing but an old, sour society no longer capable of making rational assessments of its problems, or of sustaining the basic social trust and goodwill necessary to make any society work.  Britain, at the moment, is a nation full of respectable citizens – people who have played by the rules all their lives – who are waking up at night in a sweat of fear over whether they will be able to pay the bills, keep up with the mortgage, and even hang on to their jobs, as recession bites; and it is understandable that they feel frightened, betrayed and angry.

It is, though, neither pleasant nor smart of them to take the right-wing bait which suggests they should focus that anger on a small minority of street-kids who break the rules, rather than on those actually responsible for the current state of the global economy.  And if this pent-up middle-class rage and insecurity lies at the root of the current baseless hysteria about crime, it’s also worth noting that a reluctance to end up like those ordinary, frightened  adults probably motivates much of the juvenile crime we fear.   Make a complete fool of the ordinary hard-working man or woman – and many of us have been made fools of in recent years, in terms of our earnings, our pensions, our whole attempt to build up a little security in our lives – and you provide young people from less-than-privileged backgrounds with a strong economic motive to raise two fingers to conventional morality, and to carve out their own path to status and “respect”.  And in a culture far more likely to lionise a wealthy crook than to provide a decent pension for an ageing white-collar worker, it’s hard to argue that the rest of us are not complicit, to some extent, both in the choices those young people make, and in the sense of despair and disillusionment that leads them there.


She Stoops To Conquer, Fungus The Bogeyman


JOYCE MCMILLAN on SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and FUNGUS THE BOGEYMAN at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, for Scotsman Review 18.7.08

She Stoops To Conquer   3 stars ***
Fungus The Bogeyman   4 stars ****

CLASS AND SEX: it’s a fantastic subject for drama, and one under-analysed in British theatre, given our perpetual state of denial about the extent to which class matters in our society.  For the truth is that when you slice a population in two – allocating automatic power, wealth and influence to a privately-educated few, and an unseemly scramble for the leftovers to everyone else – then you set up a strange erotic tension between the two groups.  Women go wild for chaps with that restrained, ruling-class look, or – conversely – for the virile gamekeeper with hair on his chest.  And as for the men – well, set up a social or ethnic division, and some men’s sexual energy seems to home in on it like a heat-seeking missile, excited by the difference in status, and driven to conquer whatever lies on the other side of the boundary.

It’s all this that Oliver Goldsmith observes, in his famous and gorgeous 1773 sex comedy She Stoops To Conquer; and it’s perhaps not surprising that he wrote from the vantage-point not of a born-and-bred Englishman, but from the lower reaches of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland.  Subtitled The Mistakes Of A Night, his thoroughly jolly play – now revived in a slightly mannered and musty production at Pitlochry – details the amorous adventures of a young blade called Marlow, who is frightfully shy with women of his own class, but a right lad when it comes to comely wenches from the lower orders.

Sent into the country to woo pretty Miss Kate Hardcastle, the daughter of an old friend of his father’s, Marlow comes across Kate’s oafish step-brother Tony Lumpkin, who informs him – for a joke – that Mr. Hardcastle’s handsome old house is an inn.  Marlow therefore mistakes Kate for a barmaid; and a fine series of  comic misunderstandings unfolds, involving not only Kate and Marlow, but his stalwart chum Hastings, and Kate’s resident cousin, Miss Neville.

Richard Baron’s production at Pitlochry is a conspicuously conventional affair, marrred by such a quantity of strained and mannered vocal work, particularly by the younger actors, that their speech is all but strangulated by the plums (or mangel-wurzels) in their mouths.  The costumes are precisely what any fan of period theatre would expect, Ken Harrison’s set is tasteful to the point of handsomeness, the physical comedy is painfully leaden and unfunny, and the whole production has not an idea to bless itself with; unlike the recent touring production from Birmingham Rep, which at least lent some wit and point to the proceedings by adding  a 21st century Prologue and Epilogue.

In the end, this dusty-looking show is heroically hoisted into the three-star category by the sheer will-power and geniality of the acting company, led by Martyn James, who gives a wonderful, poised performance as old Hardcastle, full of basic theatrical wisdom and fine vocal technique; and by Jacqueline Dutoit, who – script-in-hand, after the sudden illness of another actress – mysteriously produces the comic performance of her life as the exasperated Mrs. Hardcastle.   But it takes more than individual feats by hard-working actors to create a memorable production of a classic as well worn as this.  Directors should love these plays enough to make fresh, living theatre out of them, for modern audiences; or they should leave them alone.

If Goldsmith deals with the tensions and energies created by society’s old class divisions, Raymond Briggs’s 1977 children’s classic Fungus The Bogeyman puts its greasy finger squarely on another great and related psychological divide in our culture – the gulf between filth and cleanliness, or between ever-more-draconian standards of hygiene, and ordinary human muck.  The story’s twin heroes, Fungus and his son Mould, are nice, slimey green nasal bogeys, living in a cheerful underworld where filth and damp are prized, dryness and cleanliness abhorred.  And their adventures begin when, to the dismay of his mum Mildew, Mould accompanies his Dad on a night-time visit to the upper world, makes friends with a human girl called Maxine, and runs away with her, in an effort to escape from her obsessively hygienic mum, Miriam.

Pilot Theatre’s musical stage version of the story – now completing a UK tour with a month-long residency at the Byre in St. Andrews – captures all of these tensions with admirable flair, on a big two-level set superbly designed by Ali Allen to capture the different atospheres of the two worlds, the one full of cheerful dripping slime and rotting metal tunnels, the other all puffy pink armchairs and pristine front lawns.  Ivan Stott’s music takes a while to get going; but once Fungus hauls his guitar on stage, and the live character of the music begins to emerge, there’s no turning back, as director-adaptor Marcus Romer ‘s excellent, punchy six-strong cast hoof their way through a series of catchy song-and-dance numbers.

The story is simple pantomime stuff, about the human quest for balance and wholeness, with plenty of chances for audience participation; and just now and then – looking at all the pretty party-frocks and neat blazers in the audience, and noting the slightly muted response – I wondered whether the little princes and princesses of St. Andrews really conform to the modern stereotype of children as natural anarchists, roaring with delight at the celebration of filth, and at naughty words like “snot”, “bum” and “poo”.  Some of them looked shocked, as if they wouldn’t flick a bogey to save their lives.  In the end, though, Briggs’s Fungus is a pretty benign purveyor of muck; and the show rocks on, to a memorably jolly conclusion.

She Stoops To Conquer in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 16 October; Fungus The Bogeyman at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, until 9 August.


The Merry Wives Of Windsor


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (Illyria at Paxton House, Berwickshire) for The Scotsman 18.7.08

3 stars ***

ON THE BACK OF MY my ticket for Illyria’s jolly outdoor touring production of The Merry Wives Of Windsor – which appeared briefly at beautiful Paxton House in the Borders this week – I see that I have doodled the shapes of seven highly distinctive hats.  The hats are necessary, because Oliver Gray’s barnstorming production – presented with two planks and a passion, on a small touring platform  – extraordinarily chooses to present a full-length, 3-hour, 20-character version of the play, with a cast of exactly five people.

The plot of Shakespeare’s famous old pot-boiler is mercifully not  too complicated.  Written to delight Elizabethan audiences with further comic appearances by the fat knight Sir John Falstaff,  it details his failed attempts at adulterous love-affairs with two wise and witty Windsor matrons, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford.  But all the same, the pressure of recounting the tale with so few actors leads to a frantic doubling, trebling, and quintupling of parts, a desperate reliance on hats and funny beards, and a mood of total confusion for the first 20 minutes or so, while the audience try – like a bunch of Telegraph readers confronted with a particularly fierce cryptic crossword – to work out what’s going on.

Things are much clearer, though, towards the middle and end, although the frenzy of hat-changing never allows much variation of pace.  And what’s undeniable in the sheer heroism of the cast.  They rush, dive, prattle, scene-change and cross-dress like the team of total professionals they are, giving the audience a fine time in the process.   And if this is finally a production more about their ingenuity than about the play itself – well, Shakespeare only wrote this play to entertain, on a bright summer’s night; and that’s exactly what it does.


Politics Confounded By Hopeless Stalemate Over The Role Of Government – Column 12.7.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 12.7.08

IT HAS BEEN ONE OF THOSE WEEKS when the thinking citizen might well have felt, on balance, that a visit to the dentist would be preferable to the trial of watching the television news.  In Japan, the G8 leaders met, ate gourmet dinners, and produced another almost laughable failure to meet the challenge of climate change; back in Britain, Gordon Brown told us all to do our bit for the global food crisis by eating up our leftovers, and not throwing away so much of what we buy.

In Yorkshire, meanwhile, former Tory home affairs spokesman David Davies fought and won his self-imposed by-election on the theme of threatened civil liberties; but seven out of ten of the voters in his constituency ignored the election completely.  And in Edinburgh, the SNP deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, received a standing ovation from the British Medical Association in conference for her stout defence of a public sector NHS, free from the private profit motive; but was promptly denounced by many for her “dinosaur”attitude to 21st century healthcare.

On every front, in other words, our political life presented a dispiriting and sometimes frightening picture of stagnation and ineffectiveness, accompanied by a huge amount of fine talk, public nagging,  and pointless bickering.  And in each case, the underlying paralysis seemed related to one of the great unresolved questions of 21st century politics; namely, the question of what we now expect the state to do, in order to deliver the basic elements of a civilised society, and of where we expect it to butt out, and respect our privacy and liberty as free citizens.

To say that public debate on this subject, in Britain, rarely achieves any level of coherence, is to put things politely; indeed it often seems as though members of the public are now actively encouraged to talk like political idiots, as if the responsibilities of government were clearly limitless, whereas its right to levy taxation represented an obvious outrage to freedom.  It is 150 years since James Wilson, the Hawick-born businessman and public servant who became the founder of The Economist magazine, suggested that every good society should be founded on the principle of “free trade under the law.”   Yet ever since the great ideological disruption of the 1980’s, and the end of the postwar consensus, political debate in the English-speaking world has been hopelessly polarised between those who just can’t help seeing the intervention of elected law-makers as a constant threat to freedom; and those, on the other side, who view free trade with suspicion, as a polite phrase for buying cheap, selling dear, and ripping off your fellow-man for private gain.

And the long-term result is the kind of helpess stalemate we have witnessed this week.  Robbed both of basic moral authority and of any real clarity about their role, governments in the west are effectively powerless to act in areas where their intervention is desperately needed – notably over the shocking threat of climate change, which requires a complete and well-organised paradigm shift in the way our economy is powered and structured.  Yet at the micro-political level, governments find themselves increasingly under pressure to niggle, comment, regulate and legislate in areas where no self-respecting adult citizen would permit their intrusion, as well as to deprive us of key privacies and liberties at the behest of a popular media cynically obsessed with crime.  And in traditional areas of public service, notably education and health, politicians often find themselves trapped between competing ideologies, and stuck  with some fudged Blairite compromise designed to placate private interests, while effectively bamboozling sceptical voters.

So what’s the conclusion?  I think it’s that if we are to have any hope of dealing seriously with the colossal problems we now face, then it must be time to call a halt to the generation-long battle against state power begun by the new right in the 1980’s, and to try to reach a new consensus about a balance between law and freedom, government and markets, that will work for the 21st century.  If we want solid, credible and sustainable political solutions to our problems, then we cannot continue to talk as if state power is always to be resisted; we need government we can accept and trust, within reason, and we need a private sector which will – under the law – bow to its authority.

Yet on the other hand, if our societies are to remain free, we need a clear sense of where the boundaries of government lie; we need to mark out areas into which it will not intrude, to be vigilant in defending those areas, and to become wiser about resisting the tendency to make infantile demands that the government fix everything, and do it now.  Back in the age of the Enlightenment, we in Scotland – in the shape of thinkers like Adam Smith and William Robertson –  were massive contributors to the global debate on how government should operate in a good society, and left an indelible mark on the structuring of modern societies across Europe and North America.

And now it seems to me that we need to join that debate again; not because we can expect to dominate it as we did 250 years ago, but because there is now an urgent practical need to start honouring the subtlety and strength of that intellectual history, rather than allowing its great figures to be recruited into today’s petty political battles.  And perhaps also because, in our smaller political community, we can see with great clarity that both security and freedom are necessary; and that the art of good politics is not about bad-mouthing one in order to make space for the other, but about striking the balance that enables human beings to flourish and – in tough circumstances – to survive.


Peeping At Bosch


JOYCE MCMILLAN on PEEPING AT BOSCH (Mischief La-Bas at the Tramway, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 12.7.08

4 stars ****

IN THE ARTS, titles matter; and Peeping At Bosch is altogether too modest a name for Mischief La-Bas’s weird, beautiful and astonishing spectacle, unfolding at the Tramway this weekend.  Presented as a first glimpse of what might eventually be an even more ambitious project, the show is already a dazzling theatrical realisation – part show, part installation, part fairground ride –  of Hieronymus Bosch’s most famous work, the early 16th century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its famously surreal representations of Heaven, Hell and Eden.

The audience enters a curtained foyer space in Tramway 1, and is greeted by various religious figures who issue tin hats and tickets for our journey, and invite us to watch a superb film animation of Bosch’s paintings assembling themselves, out of empty landscape.  Then we board a revolving carousel – each section featuring a mediaeval beast on which to ride – and arrive at the first of our three destinations, a haunting  realisation of Eden, in which Adam and Eve perform a dance of awakening, pain and wonder, while the audience lolls on cushions that speak the words of Genesis in our ears.

This is the strongest of the tableaus; but there’s also a delicious and spectacular Heaven, and an almost comical hell, where audience members can exercise their sadistic instincts by operating three spectacular torture machines themselves.  Ian Smith’s great spectacle is perhaps a shade too playful in mood; in a post-religious age, it needs slightly more thought about serious contemporary visions of heaven and hell, to justify its scale.   But Bosch’s painting is one of the great works of western art; and to be invited to walk straight into its world of fabulous fantasy and colour, for an hour on a Glasgow summer evening, is a rare privilege indeed.


Muziektheater Transparant And The Art Of Confronting Everyday Nazism



IN AN UPPER ROOM at a dockside arts centre in Stavanger – heavy wooden beams in the roof, dark sea and gleaming harbour lights beyond the windows – an audience assemble, and take their places on a hundred or so plain wooden chairs, arranged in a rough circle. Some of the chairs are already occupied; and as the lights dim, the men sitting on them suddenly climb up to stand on their seats, and begin to sing Schuebert lieder, with a heart-stopping, tightly-disciplined intensity.

The men are members of the Collegium Vocale of Ghent, widely recognised as Belgium’s finest male voice choir. And they are providing the essential counterpoint – the backdrop and foreground, the balancing element in the argument – to Muziektheater Transparant’s Ruhe, one of the most quietly searching shows about the origin and nature of Nazism ever staged in Europe. As the voices fade, a woman stands up and comes to the centre of the circle, recounting a silly girl’s tale of why she thought it was right, proper and fun to be involved with Hitler’s SS in the 1940’s; later, she is matched by a man, whose vulgar justifications for anti-Semitism and ethnic bigotry start by sounding quite reasonable, and end up turning the stomach.

Sometimes, the man is played by Muziektheater Transparant associate Josse De Pauw, the leading Flemish actor, director, and writer whose brainchild this show is. And although the text is based on a a book published in the 1960’s about the self-justifying testimony of unrepentant former SS members, it has been transformed, through the special genius of the company, into an event that treads delicately along the boundary between theatre and world-class musical performance; and that finally emerges as a challenging and frightening meditation, with elements of new music and visual imagery, on the gulf between the perfect integrity and beauty of Schubert’s music on one hand, and the sheer banality of everyday evil on the other.

“One of the reasons why the book overwhelmed us as it did,” says Josse De Pauw, “is because it challenges one’s assumptions. You start out with the firm belief that fascism has nothing to do with you. But then it soon emerges that these SS volunteers were in fact very ordinary people, who thought pretty much the same way you do; the point of doing the show is to confront that.”

And in all of these respects – from its powerful theatrical purpose, to its subtle, exploratory use of new and existing music in performance – Ruhe is typical of the work of Muziektheater Transparant, who, from their base in Antwerp, are fast emerging as one of the most sought-after companies on the international performance scene. In Stavanger – Norway’s European City of Culture 2008 – they were the first artists-in-residence at the city’s year-long Open Port Festival, directed in inspirational style by the Scotsman’s former music critic Mary Miller. Over an intensive three weeks in February, they presented four challenging productions, two of them involving local children and young people, along with a series of workshops and events on subjects ranging from new forms of music theatre, to the company’s “Institute for the Living Voice”; their relationship with Stavanger is set to continue in the long term.

Their acclaimed latest show, playing now in Flanders, is a giant adult sleep-over-cum-storytelling, with episodes of music, that features a boat ride to a disused warehouse and an overnight stay in a huge dockland dormitory. In Edinburgh in August, at The Hub, they present not only Ruhe, but their virulent 1920’s political cabaret Wolpe, a sequence of blazing socialist torch-songs, delivered by the fabulous Viviane De Muynck – well known to Tramway audiences for her performances with Needcompany – with a ferocity that makes the contemporary work of Brecht and Weill look hopelessly middle-of-the-road. And over the next three years, Edinburgh Festival director Jonathan Mills hopes to develop a continuing relationship with the company, as they explore their new connection with Edinburgh audiences, and begin to feed the dynamics of the Festival into their own creative process, which involves not only two artistic directors, but five young composers-in-residence.

“Certainly, I think we’re at a point where new models of international co-operation in the arts are beginning to take over from straightforward Festival visits,” says the company’s general director and joint artistic director Guy Coolen. “For example, we know that what we do has begun to work well with audiences at home in Belgium. But that’s not necessarily true elsewhere, and it’s very interesting for us to work with different cities and audiences, and to explore what we can contribute over a substantial time.

“And it’s very satisfying for us to come to Scotland and to the UK, and to develop our relationships there. Right back in 1993-94, when our company was formed in Antwerp out of the shell of an old, failing chamber opera group, the very first show we chose to perform was Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs For A Mad King, and he has been our friend and honorary president ever since – we were thrilled to be able to premiere his Mr. Emmet Takes A Walk at the the St. Magnus Festival in 2000.

“For the future – well, we have so many good projects coming up, including a chance to work in Istanbul, City of Culture in 2010, which should be really exciting. And in general, I feel there’s so much energy coming from the underground at the moment, so many different things happening in small venues across various forms of music from rock to classical, with the voice, with performance, with visual arts and so on. We need to be in touch with that, and of course the scene in Scotland and Britain is a very rich one. So we’re looking forward to being in Edinburgh in August; and I’m sure we’ll make some exciting new connections for the future.”

Ruhe at The Hub, Edinburgh, 21-24 August; Wolpe at The Hub, 29-30 August.




JOYCE MCMILLAN on FAUSTUS (Chimaera at Nicol Edwards Bar, Edinburgh) for The Scotsman 9.7.08

3 stars ***

THE SETTING IS ALMOST perfect, for this shoestring production of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, staged by Alex Pryce’s young Edinburgh-based company Chimaera.  In a dank, dripping vault beneath Nicol Edwards Pub in the Old Town, an audience of thirty or so line the walls on pew-like seats; the atmosphere is instantly mediaeval, with a deep sense of the struggle between flesh and faith that is etched into the history of the city, and a definite whiff of the brimstone underworld from which Faustus’s demons emerge.

The show that unfolds in this compelling space, though, is more mixed blessing than unqualified triumph.  It looks sensational, and adapts Marlowe’s text with real skill, surrounding Gary Quinn’s lonely Faustus with a shape-changing chorus of six female demons – including Rebecca Hale’s frightening Mephistopheles – in ripped fishnets, tartan-punk miniskirts, and scary Goth makeup.  Quinn’s Faustus radiates a powerful if baffled male sexuality, morphing from academic geek in the first act to stylish, lipsticked global playboy in the second; and if the vocal and verbal complexity of Marlowe’s text sometimes defeats him, there’s still a flicker of real star quality in the performance.  Given the structure of the production – which could have been subtitled “Faustus And The Women “ –  Pearce could have mounted a more thorough and less self-consciously showy exploration of the tortured sexual politics of the Faustus story.  But overall, this is a raw, vivid and enjoyably cheeky 90 minutes of theatre, bursting at the seams with theatrical energy and promise.