Monthly Archives: September 2008

Trilogy: Part Three, Idolon, Equal And Opposite


JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRILOGY: PART THREE, IDOLON and EQUAL AND OPPOSITE at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 30.9.08

Trilogy: Part Three 4 stars ****
Idolon 3 stars ***
Equal and Opposite 3 stars ***

THE 2008 Arches Live! Festival finished, as it began, over the weekend, with a fierce cry of protest against patriarchy from a supposedly “post-feminist” generation. Nic Green’s Trilogy: Part Three is part of a much wider web-based Make Your Own Herstory project, designed to encourage women to tell their own stories. On a bare stage, Green and her beautiful co-performer, Laura Bradshaw alternate between half-ironic clipboard presentations, and exquisite, sharp-edged unison dance sequences. There’s a fabulous moment when Bradshaw telephones her mother in Manchester, and relays the story of her mother’s recent rediscovery of her younger, radical self; it’s a telling metaphor for the buried history of feminism. And then Green and Bradshaw invite the women in the audience to strip off to their gloriously varied nakedness, and join in singing Blake’s Jerusalem, the great English anthem of radical liberation; only seven women among us were brave enough, but it felt like a fine moment of freedom, all the same.

There are also interesting moments of radicalism in Iain Campbell and Greg Grant’s Idolon, a 20-minute event staged in a dark room between two big screens, on which the audience can see shifting live images of themselves; meanwhile, musician/ composer Iain Campbell uses a heap of retro-looking electronic equipment to generate music and sound-distorts that seem reflected in the images on screen, reducing us to the most fragile, transient disturbances of light. And Gary McNair’s Equal And Opposite is an extreme physical clown show for the age of quantum physics, featuring balloons, feathers, lettuces, and strings stuffed up McNair’s nose. If you’re a connoisseur of physical comedy, you may well be thrilled. If, like me, you’re bored by it, this will seem like the longest 45 minutes of your life; but not easily forgotten, all the same.


Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, And The End Of The Age Of Market Fundamentalism – Column 27.9.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.9.08

ON TUESDAY, the Prime Minister stood up at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester to make what was widely advertised as the most important speech of his life; yet just four days on, it’s worth asking how much any of us can really remember about it. We know, if we’ve read the headlines, that he said this was no time for a novice to be in charge, and that everyone wondered whether he meant the Tory leader David Cameron, or his bizarre-looking young Labour rival David Milliband; we know that his wife Sarah got up to introduce him, in a high-risk American-style gesture so well handled by the impressive Mrs. Brown that it seems to have won many hearts.

And we also know that the content of the speech, and the debate about its success or failure, was soon overshadowed by the sudden resignation of the Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, amid a flurry of speculation about her motives. In other words, we know next to nothing about the actual political content of the speech, and – thanks to a broadcast media now almost incapable of focussing on any aspect of politics except the rise and fall of individual politicians – almost everything about the supposed party manoeuvrings that surrounded it, some of them largely imaginary.

All of which is a pity. Because this week has seen one of those historic moments when western politics undergoes a major ideological paradigm-shift, on a scale not seen since the collapse of the postwar consensus 35 years ago; and Gordon Brown’s speech represented a fascinating rough first draft of a response to the sudden change in mood. It wasn’t a great speech; it was full, for example, of the usual flat-footed New Labour detail about micro-improvements in public services.

But by comparison with many of the Prime Minister’s recent efforts, it also fairly glowed with a well-justified sense that in a crisis such as this, the last thing the nation needs is a return to government by a Conservative Party which has opposed every progressive change in British society for the past century, and which still instinctively peddles mistrust of government as a core ideological belief, at a time when, as the frantic negotiations in Washington make clear, only very big government indeed can now bail the markets out of a horrendous mess of their own making. It’s no accident, in other words, that Gordon Brown’s long-delayed attack on the Tories was both rhetorically and verbally the strongest part of his speech. In the current crisis, David Cameron’s new “Tories-lite” are ideologically bankrupt; and they will have to turn on a presentational sixpence, at next week’s conference in Birmingham, in order to catch the new current of public and financial opinion.

For evidence that they could possibly succeed, though, Gordon Brown should be looking hard, this weekend, at the electrifying speech made in Toulon on Thursday by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, of course, is a president from the centre-right, so firmly dedicated to deregulating and “liberalising” the suppsedly sluggish French economy that his political opponents sometimes call him “the American”.

Yet in Toulon, he seized the moment in a way that Gordon Brown would never have dared to do. “The idea of an all-powerful market without any rules or political intervention is mad,” he thundered. “Self-regulation is finished. Laissez-faire is finished. The all-powerful market that is always right is finished.” And he added, most significantly, that in his view this was not a crisis of capitalism, but a crisis of a system which had betrayed the true values of capitalism, which should be based on an ethic of effort, and fair rewards. What Sarkozy has done, in other words, is to announce the end of the age of market fundamentalism, and the beginning of a new deal between governments and markets; a new age, ideally, in which both would treat the other with respect, as an essential player in delivering freedom, peace and prosperity.

Of course, it is shocking that it has taken a crisis on the scale of the events of the last two weeks to provoke any world leader into clearly articulating what has been obvious to many ordinary people for decades. But now, the shift has happened; and in theory, this moment presents an obvious opportunity for leaders on the centre left, some of whom have been muttering for months about the need for a new balance between governments and markets. Hillary Clinton used the phrase during her primary campaign; and on Tuesday Gordon Brown spoke, although rather tentatively, about the need for markets to be servants of the people, rather than their masters.

But what is most ominous for New Labour in Britain – and also, perhaps, for the Democrats in America – is that so far, only a recently-elected leader from the right, in the shape of President Sarkozy, has had the confidence, and the poltiical leeway, to cut through the ideological fudge that has become second nature to the current generation of centre-left leaders, and to make, in clear and explicit terms, the leftward move towards a greater respect for the role of the state that the times obviously demand.

It remains to be seen whether David Cameron’s Tories will aim to replicate this effect in Birmingham next week; and whether, if they do, they will be able to embrace the new times with as much conviction as President Sarkozy. But strange times create strange ideological bedfellows, and brand-new political movements. Which is why next week’s Tory conference should be the most interesting for years; provided, of course, the media consent to tell us about the ideas under discussion, instead of dwelling on the unassailability of David Cameron’s leadership, or the relative warmth of the public kiss bestowed upon him by his wife Samantha, as compared with the one the Browns exchanged, in Manchester this week.


Don Juan, Offshore, Noises Off


JOYCE MCMILLAN on DON JUAN and OFFSHORE at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and NOISES OFF at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 26.9.08

Don Juan   3 stars ***
Offshore   2 stars **
Noises Off   4 stars ****

NO, NO STORIES, NEVER AGAIN, said the central monologue of this year’s Heiner Goebbels show at the Edinburgh Festival, I Went To The House But Did Not Enter.  And it’s broadly true that serious theatre, in our time, has to deal with the idea that by shaping experience into a story, we almost inevitably make it too neat, and too comforting.

So it’s a thrill to discover that Jeremy Raison’s new version of the Don Juan story – playing at the Citizens’ in a spectacular production by Raison and Maxine Braham – adopts one of the most exciting of strategies for challenging a familiar narrative style, one that has made serious inroads into popular culture in the last decade.  He takes the basic story, and  collides it with another, set in a different time.  So his Don Juan begins and ends the evening as a bullish, overconfident but doomed global player 21st century celebrity culture; but for most of the story, finds himself sucked back through time – in a flurry of cliched but enjoyable lighting and sound effects, from the X-Files via Torchwood – into the period of Moliere or Goldoni, all frock-coats, corsets, rigid class distinctions, and fancy hats.

Now it would be overstating the case to say that Raison and Brahan make a great deal of this idea, although Raison’s thoughtful script might benefit from a quieter and, on the male side, better acted production.   Unlike Iain Heggie’s clever, unproduced Don Juan of half a decade ago, Raison’s version makes no attempt to find a modern equivalent for Don Juan’s trampling of sexual taboos; and the effect is often to reduce his story to a relatively harmless romp, despite the evident suffering of the Don’s three principal victims, exquisitely played here by Pauline Knowles, Elspeth Brodie, and the wonderful Neve McIntosh as Donna Anna.

Even more importantly, the production never reaches a conclusion about its real focus of attention.   It seems unconvinced by the traditional story of Don Juan as a free-thinking sinner who suffers spiritual retribution; but it also fails to opt firmly for the radical idea, best expressed in Mozart’s opera, that Don Juan is basically a mirror in which we can see reflected the powerful erotic lives of three different, magnificent women.

And yet, even with these limitations, this Don Juan is tremendous fun: interesting and exciting to look at, uncommitted but rich in its exploration of female attitudes to sex, and fascinating in its handling of the figure of Anna’s father, The Commendador, who ranges through the ages as ringmaster, crossing-sweeper, and representative of a vengeful God.   Mark Springer’s Don Juan looks confused and lacks depth, Fintan McKeown’s Commendador shambles a bit, and James Anthony Pearson’s gay Octavio reaches John-Inman-like levels of limp-wristedness.  But there’s some spectacular time-bending design by Jason Southgate and lighting man Stuart Jenkins, with stylish costume and sound by Liz Krause and Graham Sutherland; and at least this show creates some playful creative space, in which ideas can flourish, and theatrical energy spark like a firecracker.

There’s no such challenging fun to be had, though, upstairs in the Circle Studio, where the mixed-ability company Birds Of Paradise present Offshore, a new play by Alan Wilkins which begins well, evoking the natural beauty and underlying despair of an economically stressed Scottish island community.   This is a place where the temptations of alcohol and drugs are never far from the door; so when wealthy strangers Jock and Frida arrive, and start offering large cash sums to buy up ex-hippy Kath’s failing chandlery, people have to make quick decisions about how deeply to inquire into the nature of their business.

The problem with Offshore, though, its that it can’t decide whether it wants to be a serious drama about the corrupting power of drugs money in Scottish coastal communities, or a silly small-screen thriller with a self-undermining twist in the tail.   In barely 65 minutes, it fails to collide the two genres in an interesting way, or to save its characters from becoming mere thumbnail sketches of wicked incomers and wily locals.  And in the end, it seems like a strange choice for Birds Of Paradise, more reminiscent of Wilkins’s awkward and unconvincing early play The Nest, than of last year’s big, ambitious and thoughtful award-winner, Carthage Must Be Destroyed.

For a truly masterly deconstruction of a tired form of narrative, though, the place to be this week is the King’s Theatre in Glasgow, where Ambassadors are presenting a hilarious touring production of  Michael Frayn’s 1982 classic Noises Off.   This is the play which begins like a classic English country-house farce – elaborate set full of doors and staircases, housekeeper in a pinny answering the phone – but rapidly descends into magnificently-choreographed chaos, as we realise that this particular farce is a play within a much more shambolic play, about the lives, loves and ferocious jealousies of the acting company who are presenting the ghastly farce, Nothing On.

There are moments when the pace of David Gilmore’s production flags, and when the heart yearns for an even more radical take on a satire which is itself now a quarter of a century old.   But in the end, there’s just no denying the skill and brilliance of Frayn’s text, or the inspired work of Gilmore’s acting company, led by Jonathan Coy as the philandering director, and the fabulous Maggie Steed as Dotty, the ageing diva who has money in the show, and who plays the housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, with a deranged geniality that’s hard to describe, but impossible to resist.

Don Juan at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 11 October;  Offshore at the Citizens’ Theatre until tomorrow, and on tour until 1 November; Noises Off at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, until tomorrow, 27 September.


When Clarence Calls


JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHEN CLARENCE CALLS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.9.08

3 stars ***

IT’S EASY TO LIST THE many things that are not good about the latest show in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season, written by Ford Kiernan of Chewin’ The Fat fame. In the first place, When Clarence Calls tells the immensely sentimental story of a man saving his own life after a childhood horribly scarred by bereavement; needless to say, the salvation of our hero, Tony, involves the love of a good woman, Doreen, and the prospect of becoming a father himself.

Then there’s the play’s structure, which involves a rambling monologue by Tony about the past, occasionally interrupted by scenes with Doreen set in the present; sadly, it’s not done with enough style to avoid reducing Doreen to a kind of human punctuation mark in Tony’s story. And then crucially, there’s Michael Hines’s funereally-paced and deeply untheatrical production, which has no idea how to use the long, flat stage on which it’s set, and allows Stevie Hannan to deliver his monologue in a style so underpowered that it’s often difficult to hear his story, never mind to feel gripped by it.

And yet, behind all that, there’s a natural rhythm of life about Kiernan’s play that’s sometimes very moving. For all his muted vocal style, Stevie Hannan’s small, hurt face is the very picture of an adult man scarred by childhood loss; the wonderful Kate Dickie gives a superb performance as Doreen, so real it almost hurts. And there’s something brave, in a world of so much fashionable pessimism, about a show with a happy ending. Frank Capra had the guts to do it, after all, in It’s A Wonderful Life, the film that gives this play its title and its leitmotif; and so does Kiernan, in a modern Glasgow fairytale that’s deeply flawed, but nonetheless warms the heart.


Little Vikings Are Never Lost, Lost Property, Violent Night – Arches Live! 2008



Little Vikings Are Never Lost 3 stars ***
Lost Property 4 stars ****
Violent Night 3 stars ***

THE END OF week one at Arches Live!, and the theme is loss and bereavement. Jenna Watt’s new solo piece Little Vikings Are Never Lost is a touching 50-minute journey through the landscape of loss, inspired by a visit to Norway. On stage, there’s a stylised hint of mountains, fjords, forests, picnic stuff ; and in the heart of the childlike speaker, a game of hide-and-seek which turns out to be a quest for the memory of an adored, dead father. Watt is a charming and hugely inventive performer, both verbally and physically; and this is a beautifully-shaped story of the acceptance of loss, even if it could use some tougher content, and a style less self-consciously sweet.

Sacha Kyle’s Lost Property tackles the same theme through a more deliberately fragmented format, involving a combination of installation and performance that begins with comedy, as a scatty administrator takes us down into a shambolic basement Lost Property Office, and then ranges on through an increasingly powerful alternation of melancholy and absurdity, as a team of performers lead us through all the physical and cultural debris of the lost 20th century, strewn through a dazzling array of hidden Arches spaces.

And Gareth Nicholls’s Violent Night is a brave, circus-like dystopian vision of a 21st century culture hooked on pornographic and abusive sexual imagery, and on a self-destructive relationship with nature. Sadly, though, many of the late-night crowd seemed to see the horrific bullying of a superb Siobhan Reilly, as an abused young female performer, as a source not of sadness but of raucous comedy; and there’s something amiss with satire which only serves, for some, to reinforce the drastic loss of moral direction it’s trying to expose.


Punishing The Guilty Men: The Lorca Decision, The Financial Crisis, And The Timescale Of Justice – Column 20.9.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 20.9.08

IT MAY SEEM a long way from the cataclysmic crisis shaking the world’s financial markets; but this week, a small and highly significant tremor ran through the worlds of literary history and Spanish politics, when the family of the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca decided to withdraw their long-standing objection to the excavation of the mass grave where he is thought to have been buried.  Lorca was killed in August 1936, at the very outset of the Spanish Civil War, by members of General Franco’s right-wing militia, mopping up leftists and other dissidents around Lorca’s home city of Granada.  He was 38 at the time, a known homosexual, an artistic radical, and a political friend of the left; and along with a schoolteacher and two trade unionists, he was shot and thrown into the ground in an area where more than a thousand republican victims of Franco are thought to lie in mass unmarked graves.

The move to excavate the site is part of a long-term campaign to uncover the hidden history of the suffering of republican Spain during the Franco period, a campaign has been gathering momentum ever since the election four years of the centre-left government of Jose Luis Rodriguez  Zapatero, himself the grandson of a man killed by a Franco death squad.   But the movement remains profoundly divisive in Spain, where the political right still reveres Franco’s memory, and believes that his victims deserve little more than the terrified silence which shrouded their fate during the 38 years of the Franco dictatorship.   Let sleeping dogs lie, they say; and let Spain now look to the future.

The story of Spain’s long, unresolved argument over the legacy of the Civil War, in other words, is a particularly graphic example of the classic choice between real justice and a workable peace that  human societies often seem to face, in dealing with the wrongs of history; and it also reminds us just how far reports of the death of the right-left divide in politics have been exaggerated, over the last quarter-century.  Of course, our own  party politics, here in Britain, have become ideologically blurred and intellectually shambolic during that time; New Labour is arguably no longer a party of the left at all.

But it still seems to me that if you scratch the surface of any European or American over the age of about 25, you will find a broad presumption towards the left, or towards the right: that is, broadly speaking,  towards a positive view of human nature and a chronic mistrust of the profit motive, or towards a dim view of human nature and a chronic mistrust of government.   And for those of us who have remained on the centre-left throughout the last 25 years, and have been consistently appalled by the obvious psychological and social inadequacy of the dominant market ideology, the current crisis of capitalism presents a huge temptation to gloat; to say I told you so, and to demand – like victims of some economic war-crime – that the financial lords of the universe be made to pay for their colossal greed, and their  blatant blind eye to years if not decades of unethical and unsustainable trading practices.   Alex Salmond’s outburst, this week, against the nameless market “spivs” who brought down the Bank of Scotland  is, in that sense, altogether typical of the general left-wing tenor of Scottish bar-room conversation on the subject; and indeed, would have been typical on many occasions since 1979.

But the truth is that for all our dissent from the dominant ideology of the age just past, we on the centre left now find ourselves approaching this crisis with no meaningful political vehicle for our views, and nothing remotely resembling an alternative programme in place.   The New Labour project sold its soul to the idea of the market, and may now never recover.  The Communist Party has gone, the Liberals are running scared of southern Tory voters, and Tommy Sheridan and his crew have imploded through sheer personal indiscipline.  And under these circumstances, the hounding of the major financial and political evil-doers of our time, and the raking over of the remains of the millions of individuals and communities trashed by their self-serving ideology, seems like a dangerous distraction from the task in hand.

For what is needed now, it seems to me, is neither anger nor vengeance, but a plan; a Rooseveltian New Deal – although alas, there is no Roosevelt in sight – which puts the idea of a sustainable and just society back at the centre of our politics, which offers some prospect of saving our natural environment from meltdown, and which gathers strength from the fact that it clearly serves the interests of the majority of ordinary citizens.
Yesterday, The Scotsman asked ten powerful questions about the collapse of HBOS, beginning with the one about how Scotland came to lose its oldest banking institution, after 300 years of history.  But the true answer is that almost thirty years ago, we opted – or allowed our leaders to opt – for a system which increasingly attached no meaning to words like “old”, or “institution” or even “Scottish”; which saw short-term cash values, and the maximising of them, as the only significant measure of worth, across the planet.  So let us not make that mistake again; let’s try to learn something, and start anew.   And then maybe, thirty years down the line – like Spain, now more thirty years on from the death of Franco – we will be able to begin to talk about justice; and about telling the whole truth of the age we have just lived through, in the hope of some kind of  reconciliation.


Cria, Chronicles Of Irania, Foot Washing For The Sole – Arches Live! 2008


JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHRONICLES OF IRANIA, CRIA and FOOT WASHING FOR THE SOLE at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 20.9.08

Chronicles Of Irania   4 stars ****
Cria    3 stars ****
Foot Washing For The Sole  4 stars ****

HERE IT COMES, snaking through the tunnels and exploding out of the basements; it’s the 2008 Arches Live! festival, an 11-day bonanza of 20 micro-shows, installations and events designed – as ever – to blast an autumn wind of change through the grass roots of Scottish theatre.  The programme began, on Thursday night, with a series of pieces by artists already well known to Arches audiences; and what emerged, by chance or design, was a sustained cry of protest against the stubborn survival of certain old-fashioned kinds of patriarchy, and the religious cultures that sustain it.

Maryam Hamidi’s Chronicles Of Irania, for example, is a blazingly vivid 45 minute encounter – complete with carpets, cushions, and tea – with a woman of “Irania”, a mythical version of Iran, first seen on the floor writhing in agony in her enveloping black burqa, after her violent husband has thrown acid in her face.

Then, like a sturdy butterfly from a chrysalis, she bursts forth in shining traditional costume and begins to tell us stories; beautiful but sinister creation-myths about the necessary subjection of women, a long tale with finger-puppets about the failed rebellion of a courtier’s wife, and – in a sudden dark shift of tone – snapshot tales of contemporary oppression, and of a gay son put to death.  What emerges is a brave, deliberately self-fragmenting narrative about the traumatic transition from a vividly oppressive traditional culture into some kind of modernity; and like a difficult birth, it’s a tearing, agonising experience, both exhilarating and frightening.

The latest show from writer Megan Barker and director Neil Doherty is inspired by the 1976 Carlos Saura film Cria Cuervos; so here, the patriarchal setting is Spain in the dying days of  Franco, and the household of a leading military man whose youngest daughter has observed both his emotional cruelty and his sexual hypocrisy.  It’s hard to see exactly what Barker’s slow-moving, almost Ibsen-like 75-minute reflection on this story adds to one of the greatest of all European films; but the show is beautifully performed by Doherty’s four-strong cast, in a deep arch tranformed by designer Kirsty Mackay into a powerful evocation of a domestic setting shaped by wider political realities.

Adrian Howells’ Foot Washing For The Sole, finally, is partly  inspired by his recognition of how far all three of the great patriarchal religions – Christianity, Islam, Judaism – tend to betray their own highest spiritual values; and by his desire to affirm one of the most simple and loving of all universal spiritual gestures, the washing of feet.   The one-to-one experience of having one’s feet washed, massaged, anointed and kissed by Adrian is not only beautiful and comforting, but infinitely thought-provoking; as if somehow, our thoughtless abuse of our own feet, as our main point of contact with the earth, were a metaphor for our whole maladjusted relationship with the universe, briefly put right here by the mystical power of touch, and of love.


Macbeth, One Giant Leap, Fleeto


JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACBETH at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, ONE GIANT LEAP at the Caol Community Centre, Fort William, and FLEETO at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 19.9.08

Macbeth  2 stars  **
One Giant Leap   4 stars ****
Fleeto    4 stars ****

WHEN IT COMES TO reviving the great plays of Shakespeare -or any other classic writer – there is just one unbreakable rule.  Theatre companies have an absolute obligation – to their audiences, and above all to the play itself – not to tangle with these great texts unless they have some compelling artistic reason to do so; a reason which at least gives their production a chance of emerging as a work of art in its own right, rather than a routine re-enactment of a familiar  text, guaranteed to bore and alienate all but the most committed audiences.

And it’s because it lacks any trace of that passionate, living relationship with the text that Lucy Pitman-Wallace’s production of Macbeth, which opens the 2008-09 season at the Royal Lyceum in a major co-production with Nottingham Playhouse, is such a grave disappointment.  Pitman-Wallace’s main motive, in putting together her production, seems to have been to avoid any facile updating of the story to modern times; and certainly, recent updated productions like Out Of Joint’s chilling African Macbeth represent a hard act to follow.

So she sets the play in the kind of school-history version of 11th century Scotland every child could once recognise; dun-coloured mediaeval costumes, a set evoking the fortified palisade of a castle, kings and queens in little golden crowns sitting on high wooden thrones.  As the story begins to unfold, though, it soon becomes clear that beyond this vague commitment to retro mediaevalism, the production has no other idea to bind it together; and the result is a rag-bag of a show, an increasingly odd combination of the quietly compelling and the embarrassingly inadequate.  The always thoughtful Liam Brennan, in the leading role, conducts his own private, pensive, beautifully-articulated love-affair with some of the greatest stage poetry ever written; and some of the other actors – notably Sam Heughan as Malcolm, and Jimmy Chisholm in a range of roles – show a similar exquisite awareness of the power of the verse.

Elsewhere, though, there are moments of vintage coarse Shakespeare and unintentional comedy.  The whining, bbe shrouded witches, for example, are astonishingly amateurish and unfocussed; Lucy Osborne’s cramped, cluttered set is ill-conceived beyond words.   For the heroic efforts of some key actors, and their sensitivity to the text, this show deserves some respect.   But as a well-resourced new interpretation of what is perhaps the greatest play in the English language, produced jointly by two of the UK’s major reps, it completely and dangerously fails to make the grade; and it suggests something seriously wrong with the creative process at both theatres.

The last time Scotland’s brilliant children’s company Wee Stories tackled Macbeth, they took less than 90 minutes not only to perform a respectable chunk of the play, but also to confront the vexed question of the conditions in which it was written, and the pressure on Shakespeare to produce a version of Scottish history that would flatter the dynastic pretensions of his new monarch, King James VI and I.

So it’s joy to discover that Wee Stories’ latest community-hall  touring show One Giant Leap – co-produced with the National Theatre Of Scotland – brings the same fierce, unpretentious intellectual energy to bear on the history of humankind’s relationship with the stars.   The 75-minute story begins with Wee Stories’ usual air of improvised casualness, as Iain Johnstone,  as an ordinary post-modern guy facing his 50th birthday, starts to help his son with a school project about the moon.

It gradually builds, though, into a tremendous small-scale history of ideas; and what emerges is an impassioned 21st-century elegy for the age of enlightenment, that traces the relationship between humanity and the heavens from the earliest days of Greece and Rome, through the religious oppression of the Dark Ages, to the thrilling age of modern scientific investigation and progress which, forty years ago, finally took men to the moon, and to the realisation that our jewel-like earth, as seen from space, represented our best hope of paradise all along.

The script still needs some trimming and stabilising, particularly around its angry, over-verbalised ending.  But the simple action – delivered with co-creators Andy Cannon and David Trouton, on a stage full of jumbled books and props – is backed by a dark screen capable of small but startling visual effects.  And there’s something about that collision between basic poor theatre and unobtrusive technology that sums up the whole magic of Wee Stories; one of the least showy companies around, and yet one of the most quietly ambitious, when it comes – even on a damp night in Fort William – to leaving your audience shaken, stirred, and changed for good.

There’s plenty of quiet ambition, too, in Paddy Cunneen’s Fleeto, a 2007 Oran Mor lunchtime production now revived by V.Amp for a short tour.   Designed to bring the intensity of Greek tragedy and Shakespearean verse to bear on the story of a modern Glasgow knife crime, this slightly expanded version has already generated some public debate about whether it makes mythical heroes of young knife-carrying thugs, or goes right to the bloody heart of the tragedy that rips through the lives of victims and their families.  Whatever your verdict, though, this remains a hugely powerful show; and it features a superb trio of performances from Stewart Porter as a hard-bitten Glasgow policeman, Alison Peebles as the grieving mother of the victim, and a superb Jordan McCurrach as the young man with a knife in his hand, but only painful confusion in his heart.

Macbeth at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 11 October.   One Giant Leap at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye, tonight, Kingussie tomorrow, and on tour until 11 October; Fleeto at St. Andrews and Irvine tonight and tomorrow, and on tour until 18 October.


Sweet Home Balmaha


JOYCE MCMILLAN on SWEET HOME BALMAHA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 17.9.08

4 stars ****

A COUPLE OF WEEKS ago, Ian Pattison of Rab C. Nesbit fame gave us an Oran Mor lunchtime show that was perfectly structured to go the comic distance, but ruined by the nasty texture of the writing.  This week, by contrast, the triple writing team of Chewin The Fat’s Tom Urie, Matthew McVarish and Donald Cameron produce a play-with-songs that has barely any structure, and no ending at all; but that sparkles with such a jolly, life-enhancing level of verbal and musical wit that it’s completely irresistible.

The scene is set in the grubby Balmaha pub owned by one Billy Prestwick, an ageing fortysomething ex-rocker and one-man obesity crisis who still knocks out the odd song, while overdosing on his own high-fat bar snacks.  The twin pillars of his none-too-glamorous existence are his son Elvis, who has his own musical ambitions, and his lovely sharp-tongued barmaid Heather, who seems to be half in love with him, but who expresses her feelings by abusing him roundly at every opportunity.

The plot barely moves at all, as Elvis and Heather argue with Billy and each other about whether to stay or go.  But the quality of the post-modern banter is world-class, covering everything from nutrition and migration to celebrity culture with effortless cheek and flair; and it’s delivered with near-perfect timing – despite a few first-day glitches in Maggie Kinloch’s beautifully-pitched production – by a five-star cast featuring Urie as Billy, McVarish as Elvis, and the gorgeous Kathleen McDermott as Heather.  It has to be said that the play’s complete lack of a conclusion spoils the party a little, and lets all three characters off the hook. But on a wet holiday Monday, the packed Oran Mor crowd loved it all the same; and with good reason.


The New Creationism, The New Atheism, And The Sleep Of Reason – Column 13.9.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.9.08

AT THE BEGINNING OF THIS YEAR’s Edinburgh Festival, a great debate was staged at the Usher Hall.   The proposition was that “The New Europe Should Prefer The New Atheism”; the speaker for the motion was the columnist Christopher Hitchens, who blames religion for most of the evils of the 21st century world.  And it was strange, on a drenchingly wet Saturday morning, to see the old concert-hall filled with what seemed like a mixture of diehard academic atheists, and slightly eccentric religious types   convinced that their own account of reality should obviously be shared by all.

Now as someone who had the good fortune to be brought up in the liberal wing of the Church of Scotland, I should make it clear that I cannot side with either of these groups.   The atheists, for example, make a profound category error when they imagine that religion “causes” wars.  Any serious analysis of, for example, the Northern Ireland conflict, shows that what religion actually does is to provide a moralistic gloss for classic political disputes over territory, resources, social justice and national identity; and so long as those grievances remain, the wars will persist.  In dismissing religion as an invariable force for evil, such atheist thinkers also utterly ignore the thousands of unsung and unspectacular situations – from the Iona Community onwards – in which true religious understanding actually serves to promote peace, and human development.  And it is impossible to be an intelligent student of either Islam or Protestantism without noting the connection  between the emergence of those radical religious traditions, and the evolution of free scientific inquiry as a key element of world culture.

If militant atheists are foolish, though, in their failure to recognise enlightened forms of religious thought, their misjudgment pales to insignificance compared with the strange belief-systems of religious fundamentalists of all faiths.  The American debate over the teaching of religious creationism in schools has, of course, been given fresh life over the past few weeks by the emergence of Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice-Presidential candidate, who believes that the Bible story of the creation should be taught in science classes alongside the theory of evolution.

But as if to bring the debate home to a British public often contemptuous of American religious attitudes, this week Mrs. Palin’s views were echoed by Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at Britain’s premier academy of science, the Royal Society.   Professor Reiss argues that science teachers – as opposed to specialists in social and moral education – should be teaching school students about the debate between evolutionary theory and creationism, because otherwise they risk alienating the 10% of pupils who come from strong faith backgrounds.  He is, in other words, one of those scientists who are prepared, in the interests of an eccentric minority of parents, to sell the pass on the proper teaching of their own subject; and to perpetuate one of the most shocking conceptual confusions of our times.

For let’s be clear; it cannot possibly be of benefit to any pupils, of any background, to encourage them to confuse the material of religious faith and myth with the material of scientific theory.  The Christian creation myth, for example, is a beautiful and useful symbolic evocation of humankind’s ultimate dependence on God, and of the high responsibility we bear towards other species; as such, it is full of poetic and moral truth, and is despised only by the arrogant and the unimaginative.

But only the seriously unintelligent – or the deliberately dumbed-down – could fail to grasp that this kind of myth belongs to a different order of reality from the scientific inquiry that tells us how the material universe works, and how we can intervene in it.   Religious myth cannot tell us how the physical world functions; and by the same token, scientific inquiry cannot give us moral guidance on how to use the power it puts in our hands.  If humankind is to have any chance of thinkiing its way out of its present crisis, in other words, we need to show profound respect for both forms of discourse, and to be scrupulous in understanding the difference between them; and under these conditions, people like Professor Reiss and Mrs. Palin, who seem unwilling to make that distinction, are playing an astonishingly dangerous political game.

It is true, of course, that the sharp distinction I have drawn between science and faith is also now subject to constant debate and re-evaluation.   Under post-modern conditions, the idea of scientific fact as something completely objective has been rightly questioned; just as the basic liberal tenets of post-enlightenment politics have been challenged both by the new barbarians of the right, and by some useful idiots on the left.

But the fact that these enlightenment values have been laid open to question does not mean that they have been proved wrong.   On the contrary, every alternative proposed so far – from extremist religious belief to the relativist blathering of those who believe there is no such thing as society or truth – is blatantly worse.   Faced with a man who argued, after Descartes, that there was no way of proving that the material world really existed, Dr. Johnson once kicked his foot hard against a stone, until it hurt; and said, “I refute it thus.”  Confronted with militant creationism, I look at the fossils in the rock, and the carbon dating of them, and, like Samuel Johnson, I refute it thus.  And I do this not because I despise religion, but because I care too much for both religion and science to accept one as a bogus substitute for the other; or to collude with those dangerous reactionaries who are now promoting exactly that confusion, the better – in the deep sleep of reason – to bamboozle their way to power.