Monthly Archives: November 2008

Homecoming 2009 And The Return Of Those Old Scottish Stereotypes – Column 29.11.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 29.11.08

AT THE TRAMWAY in Glasgow, this weekend, you can just catch the final performance of a show called Heer Ranjha (Retold).  It’s a re-working by a young Glasgow company of a traditional Indian folk-tale about two star-crossed lovers, the poor wandering musician Ranjha, and the lovely Heer, daughter of a wealthy landowner; only in this new version, Ranjha is a young Glasgow Muslim estranged from his family, and Heer is the much-loved daughter of an eminent “curry king”, the owner of Scotland’s most successful restaurant chain.  It’s not a perfect show.   But like Sanjeev Kohli’s current Radio 4 corner-shop comedy Fags Mags and Bags, it bursts with the energy of its effort to dramatise the lives of a whole new wave of Glaswegians, who – like every new wave of Scots throughout history – come to the city carrying with them whole new worlds of thought, imagery, and faith, new connections and conflicts.

And I thought about the special energy of Heer Ranjha again, this weekend, as the Scottish Government – on the weekend of St. Andrew’s Day – begins to ramp up preparations for Scotland’s 2009 Homecoming year, with the launch of two television adverts featuring a predictable bunch of Scottish celebrities singing a line each of Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia, in front of projected images of famous Scottish landmarks.  There’s no doubt that in these dire economic times, the Homecoming Year – which combines with the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, and is backed by at least £1 million of Scottish Government funds – could be the saving of Scotland’s threatened tourist industry, and a useful occasion for raising awareness of Scotland in its key target markets in North America.

But it only takes a single glance at those television adverts – or at the Homecoming 2009 homepage – to remind us that in launching a venture of this kind, the Scottish Government wades instantly into deep cultural, political and psychological waters, apparently without a full sense of the consequences.  On one hand, the modern SNP is fully committed to the idea of a multicultural, multiracial Scotland, which is welcoming to new migrants, and recognised for its good community relations; only this week, one expert expressed the view that Scotland could become a global model for civic integration between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Yet at the same time, the  SNP Government sanctions and supports an event which frames “Scottishness” as a kind of enduring blood-link with people of Scottish ancestry who have not lived here for decades or centuries, and which boasts a web site so loaded with cliched tourist-industry images of what Scotland has to offer  – golf, whisky, clans, ancestry, the kitsch version of Robert Burns, and “great minds” responsible for many inventions – that it reads like one of those stereotypes of Scotland that was already being angrily rejected and sent up by every piece of Scottish literature worth the name, as long ago as the 1970’s.  Of course, some of these cliches are useful as “unique selling points” in a crowded global tourist market, just as shamrocks and leprechauns are useful to the Irish.

But the moment those images move one step deeper than that into the public consciousness – the moment that modern Scottish citizens begin to feel obliged to embrace them as authentic representations of themselves – then they become profoundly reactionary, divisive and destructive.  Reactionary because they misrepresent modern Scotland, in all its huge diversity, energy and ambiguity.  Divisive because they turn back towards an idea of national community – mystical, eugenic, born in the blood – that hints at the exclusion of new Scots of all origins.

And destructive because nothing is more fundamentally damaging to a nation’s long-term self-confidence than the feeling that the nation itself is a thing of the past, a place of nostalgia and heritage, rather than of dynamism and creativity for the future; a damage compounded, in this case, by the immensely self-wounding implication that all the best of Scots left here decades ago, and that we no-hopers who remain will be going nowhere, until we get those superior ex-Scots back into the national fold again.

Well, enough.  I’m well aware that no-one in the Scottish Government literally believes such things, or means to insult the brilliant creative communities here – in science, in the performing arts, in literature, design, architecture, music – who have done so much to transform Scotland’s self-image over the last generation.  Small nations, though, are always at risk of being hi-jacked by external definitions of what they are; and in that respect, events like the Homecoming have to be handled with immense care, lest they become occasions of massive self-misrepresentation in the face of external pressure, and serious long-term psychological harm.

Scotland now should have the cultural confidence to keep its dignity in the face of these pressures, to resist the couthy tartanising of our great and radical national poet, to stage Homecoming events that emphasise modern ideas about citizenship as well as old-fashioned notions of kith and kin, and to steer a safe path towards the kind of inclusive future that offers the best defence against the violence visited this week on the people of Mumbai.  But when I look again at that Homecoming website – and at that television advert full of well-buffed white faces, standing in front of historic monuments – my heart misgives a little.  Much blood, sweat, toil and tears has been spent, since the 1970’s, in the effort to create a new idea of Scotland, post-modern, complex, creative, subtle, outward-looking.  And yet still, it seems that all that effort counts for little, in the face of the big bucks of the global market; and its relentless demand for golf and tartan, and the stuff it insists on calling Scotch.


Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, Heer Ranjha (Retold), The Bones Boys


JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOBODY WILL EVER FORGIVE US at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, HEER RANJHA (RETOLD) at the Tramway, Glasgow, and THE BONES BOYS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 28.11.08

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us  4 stars ****
Heer Ranjha (Retold)   3 stars ***
The Bones Boys  3 stars ***

IN THE BADLANDS of a society that has lost most of its core beliefs, one of two things can happen.  People can turn their violent anger against those they hold responsible for their sense of powerlessness and loss; this is what happened in Gregory Burke’s superb debut play Gagarin Way, directed by John Tiffany at the Traverse back in 2001.

Or, more commonly, they can turn that violence on themselves, gradually drinking and drugging themselves to death, out of a dull sense that their lives have no value.  This is the story of Paul Higgins’s debut play Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, the last in the series of four NTS/Traverse Debuts at the Traverse; and if John Tiffany’s production never looks like reaching the heights of Gagarin Way, it nonetheless retains some of that wild, surreal energy, the sense of a people raking through the ruins of all the dreams and theologies that once offered them hope, and finding that little remains.

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us is set in Wishaw, in the living-room of a hysterically dysfunctional ex-Catholic family (the Lanarkshire Royles, if you like), of wehom only the mother – brilliantly played by Susan Vidler, with a sharp-faced righteous misery – retains any religious faith.  The younger son, Patrick, has just returned from the seminary for trainee priests, having decided that he no longer believes in God.   His elder brother Johnny, at 25 or so, is already a debt-ridden wreck.   His little sister Cath (the excellent Carmen Pieraccini) is plagued by stress-induced eczema.  And Gary Lewis turns in a towering performance as their father, an intelligent but devastated brute of a man whose bombastic assertions of power – and occasional bizarre rhetorical flights into romantic poetry and advanced political thought – only act as a smokescreen for his violent, self-destructive alcoholism.

In the first act, Higgins has huge fun setting up this larger-than-life cast of characters; later, the tone and narrative flag a little, as the play’s wrecked violence moves beyond a joke.  But in the closing scene – with help of sharp performances from all five actors – Higgins succeeds in pulling the play together brilliantly, with a final fierce assertion of faith not as an expression of certainty, but as the voice of doubt itself, groping for some sense of meaning and redemption in a dark world.  As in the previous two plays in the Debut season, there’s a faint sense, here, of that voyeuristic middle-class fascination with imagined underclass lives that has often been such an irritating feature of the work of the Royal Court Theatre.  But in Higgins’s play, the comic and surreal energy is just fierce enough to hold stereotypes at bay; and in Sam Holcroft’s schoolroom nightmare Cockroach, the first of the four plays, this Debut season has produced at least one huge dramatic talent, blazing with promise.

The traditional Indian tale Heer Ranjha is also about the political of class; but here, the theme is worked out through the story of two classic star-crossed lovers, the poor wandering musician Ranjha, and the beautiful landowner’s daughter Heer.  Ankur Productions’s ambitious new Tramway version – written by leading young British Asian writer Shan Khan – sets the story in contemporary Glasgow, where Ranjha is a poor Muslim boy estranged from his oppressive family, and Heer is the daughter of a wealthy curry king, owner of Scotland’s most successsful chain of restaurants.

The truth about this shift in location is that it raises so many complex issues – not only about the relationship between Heer and Ranjha, but about the overall position of Asians in British and Scottish society – that they can hardly be handled within the framework of the story.  While the lovely Nalini Chetty looks poised and believable throughout as Heer, the texture of the script is often jerky and graceless, and Taqi Nazeer, as Ranjha, sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of different meanings carried by the character.   In  its favour, though, this show has huge emotional courage and energy, some superb Bollywood-influenced dance-sequences for its big cast of extras, and a burning determination to create space on stage for the tense and vivid life of Scotland’s Asian communities; and for all those reasons, Daljinder Singh’s production is a theatre event to welcome, and enjoy.

As for a more traditional kind of Scottish heritage – well, it’s almost St. Andrew’s Day, and Oran Mor celebrates with a lunchtime co-production of Colin MacDonald’s The Bones Boys, the short tale of two 8th century Northumbrian monks who flee north towards Scotland with the bones of the saint, after their abbey is attacked.  Eardwulf , at 30, is a middle-aged sensual sceptic, fond of breaking his vows with comely local wives; Osred is a young prig, full of pious belief.  But in the end – in a transition movingly conveyed by Mark McDonnell, as Eardwulf – it’s the older man who finds the courage and faith to sacrifice himself.

Co-produced by BBC Radio Scotland, and jointly directed by Marilyn Imrie and Rosie Kellagher, the play never quite shakes off its radio identity; the hooded figures who float and chant around the stage might as well have been on tape.  But McDonnell’s performance has something to say, in the end, about the special value of faith that lives alongside a healthy human scepticism and disbelief.  And in that sense, this play is not a bad companion-piece to Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us – rude, cynical, and often irreligious, but still searching for meaning, all the same.

Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Heer Ranjha at the Tramway, Glasgow, and The Bones Boys at Oran Mor, Glasgow, all until tomorrow, 29 November.


Play Part 4 – A Time And A Place


JOYCE MCMILLAN on PLAY PART 4 at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.11.08

3 stars ***

AT THE CORE OF this latest Arches work-in-progress, there’s an image of a man in a suit with a briefcase, walking barefoot along the top of a wall.   It turns out that he is just playing; and after a demonstration of similar breakaway behaviour by suited men on Saturday afternoon in Buchanan Street, this short evening show takes four talented young Glasgow performance artists into the playroom for an hour, to experiment with the kind of behaviour adults in our culture are supposed to leave behind.  There’s shouting and stamping and silly games, friendships and fallouts, and a terrific exhibition of throwing things about.  The effect is sometimes tedious, and sometimes brilliant and thought-provoking, notably when the show boldly explores the badlands between some forms of “play”, and outright sadistic bullying.

The show’s main problem is that it looks like a tentative, nursery version of the kind of “happening” that was such a strong feature of cutting-edge 1960’s culture; back then, performers were confidently asserting their right to play as adults, rather than simply reverting to the childlike personas adopted by three of the four performers here.   But Julia Taudevin generates some bleak, perfect moments, notably as a boozed-up mother-figure. The other three performers – Jenna Watt, Kieran Hurley and Helen Cuinn –  are full of bright performing ideas.  And all four produce heart-stopping, beautifully-written short monologues about innocence and the death of it, which offer a tantalising glimpse of their true potential as grown-up performers.


Fred, Ginger, And John Sergeant: Dancing In The Depression


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 22.11.08

WHEN I WAS A SCHOOLGIRL, growing up in the 1960’s, there was nothing I liked better on a wet Saturday afternoon than to settle down in front of the television to watch an old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie.   It wasn’t just the soft-focus black-and-white beauty of the films themselves – although they are very classy pieces of work, with terrific dance sequences, and fabulous songs by composers like George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and  Irving Berlin.

It was also the sense of excitement and magic they held for my parents’ generation, who, as teenagers themselves, had  watched these films through the depths of the 1930’s Depression, and had seen them as a beacon of hope, romance, and lighthearted loveliness in a bleak decade.  Fred and Ginger first worked together in 1933, the same year that saw the release of the first great Busby Berkeley spectacular, 42nd Street.   And through all the grim years of soup kitchens and hunger marches, dustbowl deprivation and federal work programmes, the glittering image of couples whirling together across shining floors – or of great chorus-lines moving as one through a wonderland of mist and feathers – seemed to play a key role in lifting hearts, offering people a temporary escape from their troubles, and rekindling  their faith that life would one day be good and carefree again.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that as economic depression returns to haunt us, the image of couples dancing once again looms large in the public mind, and arouses strange passions.  Admittedly, John Sergeant – retired BBC political correspondent extraordinary – is no Fred Astaire; nor was his partnership with lovely Strictly Come Dancing professional Kristina Rihanoff  ever likely to achieve Fred-and-Ginger levels of harmony.

For all that, though, Sergeant’s presence on what was already a hugely popular television reality show seems to have triggered a profound public response.   Just as the show itself reminds us of the fun, the exhilaration, the sheer in-the-moment physical pleasure of dancing together in couples or in groups, so Sergeant’s tubby but genial appearance on the floor suggests  that this pleasure is not confined to the young and beautiful, but can belong to everyone.  So it’s small wonder that when he decided to leave the show, millions of viewers around the country felt strangely bereft and angry; as if they themselves had been cold-shouldered off the dancefloor of life for failing to conform to the slim, superfit image achieved by professional dancers, and also aspired to – with some success – by almost all previous celebrity contestants on Strictly Come Dancing.

There are, of course, some worrying aspects to the John Sergeant affair, not least the rank confusion it betrays over whether reality shows like Strictly Come Dancing represent substantive tests of character and ability, or just superficial public popularity polls.  As previous contestants like Carol Smillie will testify, competing seriously on Strictly Come Dancing is hard work; to look half-way decent on camera performing complex ballroom routines, the celebrities have to put in gruelling hours of practice.

So to see all that blood, sweat and tears being effortlessly sidelined by the sweetly elephantine Sergeant, who reputedly read a newspaper through most of his practice sessions, must have been as galling for the other contestants as for the judges.  And the viewers’ active preference for his half-baked performance, over those which actually showed some effort and competence, can be read as another example of the weird and self-destructive dumbing-down of a culture which seems, of late, to have taken an increasing dislike to its own past achievements, and to have come to resent the whole notion of specialised professional skill as somehow elitist, snobbish, and fraudulent.  In the 1930’s, cinema audiences were happy to be wowed by world-class dancers, projected like gods and goddesses on huge screens.  Today, though, audiences want to see themselves up there on television; or they want to know the reason why.

On balance, though, I think I’d rather take a positive view of the John Sergeant fuss, and interpret it as signalling the return of an aspect of ourselves that has been suppressed for more than a generation, through all the long years of graceless, zombie-like solo dancing in clubs and on disco floors; years when the  breathing, imperfect, sexy reality of couples dancing together was routinely replaced by the voyeuristic spectacle of scantily-clad girls gyrating alone in flickering strobe-light, while men flung themselves into autistic private worlds of movement.  For if that was the dance of the age of individualism, then now it seems as if we are returning – little by little, and step by step – to an idea of dance that once again reaffirms our mutual dependence on one another, and our near-magical capacity for generating new life through partnership and harmony.  It’s been happening for a decade or more, in a quiet way, in salsa clubs and tango classes up and down the land; and now, it’s breaking the surface, in a wave of national obsession with a silly reality show that somehow touches our hearts and souls.

As for Sergeant’s role as what one columnist called a “Silver Spartacus”, a standard-bearer for the ageing, the plump, and the less-than-physically-perfect, let’s just say that we’ll know that something truly radical is happening, in the world of body-image, when a woman contestant as old and as unfit as Sergeant is embraced with the same public affection and approval.  But for the moment – well, there may be troubles ahead, as Fred sang to Ginger in the 1936 Irving Berlin classic Follow The Fleet.  But while there’s moonlight, and music, and love and romance, let’s face the music, and dance.


Four Men And A Poker Game / Under My Skin


JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOUR MEN AND A POKER GAME at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and UNDER MY SKIN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review, 21.11.08

Four Men And A Poker Game  3 stars ***
Under My Skin   3 stars ***

IN CREDIT CRUNCH BRITAIN, ROGUES’ GALLERIES of bankers’ faces parade across the front pages of the newspapers, underlined by details of grotesque multi-million pound bonuses pocketed over the last half-decade.   Meanwhile, millions of ordinary people across the land face the possibility of unemployment, poverty and misery, because of a crisis not of their own making.  In these times, in other words, it’s not difficult to understand the impulse that might lead a bunch of life’s losers to want to heave one of life’s winners clean over the rail of the economic ship; and easy, for the same reason, to sense the huge potential in Metis Arts’s new staging of the great Bertolt Brecht short story Four Men And A Poker Game, co-produced by Northern Stage in Newcastle, and playing this week at the Tron Theatre.

Written in Weimar Berlin in 1926, at the height of the last crazy economic boom that soon crashed into depression, Brecht’s story is set aboard a ship making the 48-hour journey from Havana to New York.  Aboard are four men who have recently triumphed in a sporting championship in Cuba; three of them through talent and effort, the fourth partly because of his outrageous good luck.  The four begin to play poker; and although the lucky man, Johnnie, is no good at the game, he keeps winning until the the others have lost everything, including their homes, the shirts off their backs, and – in one case – a crucial date with a girlfriend.  In a few brief brush-strokes, Brecht shows how this sudden grotesque imbalance of wealth destroys the human relationship between Johnnie and his companions.   No apology he can offer, and no act of generosity he can attempt with his newly-won wealth, has any impact on their growing resentment and hatred; and like the engines of the ship as it powers towards New York, the story thumps and drives towards a cold, inevitable conclusion.

Zoe Svendson’s staging of the story – as a solo performance by actor David McKay, with live piano accompaniment from composer David Paul Jones  – offers a tantalising mixture of irresistible power, and strange, avoidable disappointments.  The setting – under low metal lampshades, in the smoky space of the Tron’s Victorian Bar – is brilliantly evocative of the sleazy, late-night atmosphere of a tense 1920’s poker game.  Jones’s score is something of a masterpiece, combining his trademark romantic lyricism and lush sense of melody with a touch of bar-room blues, and wonderful, sinister bass notes of looming conflict and terror; David McKay’s performance has a memorably desperate edge, his face etched full of the tension of men on the brink, struggling for survival in the economic jungle of 1920’s America.

Where the production falters, though, is in matching the music and dynamism of the text to the energy of the score.  The text itself is a shade flat and fragmented, as if based on a none-too inspiring translation.  Vocally, McKay’s performance seems uncertain and fragile, groping for a rhythm and authority it rarely finds; and his movements around the room often seem awkward, rather than kinetically linked to the movement of the story.  There’s something to be said for this dislocating effect, of course; it holds the audience at a distance, in classic Brechtian style.  But there are moments when the sense of missed beats and rhythms seems unintentional and inept, rather than deliberate; and that feeling  of insecurity and wavering energy in the performance diminishes the impact of what is, in every other way, a memorably atmospheric piece of theatre, timely, unsettling, cold, and true.

This week’s show in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season at Oran Mor also offers a glimpse of the sleazy underbelly of urban life, and of its unforgiving power-relationships.   In Ali Muriel’s Under My Skin, though, the chosen dramatic method is surreal comedy, edging boldly towards tragedy, as the story reaches its climax; and if the balance between the two sometimes wavers, particularly in the early scenes, the play closes on a brilliantly-held note of pity, sorrow, and grown-up humanity.

The play is set in a city mortuary, where a classic hard-bitten cop, DCI Kane, is brooding over the body of a prostitute called Shona, whom he has just found dead in her flat.  In one of the play’s more improbable moments, he bullies a gormless junior doctor to start an illegal autopsy; meanwhile, the body on the table begins – in Kane’s mind at least – to sit up and talk, and to give her own view of the relationship between herself and Kane during her lifetime – a relationship which now gives him a desperate vested interest in not believing that she killed herself.

Kane’s interaction with the young doctor is probably the aspect of the play that works least effectively; the combination of Kane’s violence and the doctor’s feeble response is neither very convincing nor very funny, unless you take the facile cop-show  view that corner-cutting police inspectors are always in the right.

When it comes to the dialogue between Kane and the corpse, though, the play begins to mature by leaps and bounds, funny, tender, and chillingly bleak.  In Roxana Silbert’s fine  production, John Kazek and Gabriel Quigley turn in a superb pair of performances, full of affection and hurt, anger and humour, and a final stoical acceptance of oblivion that is intensely moving.  “No happy endings for f**k ups like us,” they say, as Kane carries Shona’s beloved corpse off to the river; but they manage a touch of real poetry, as they go into the dark.

Four Men And A Poker Game at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and Under My Skin at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until tomorrow, 22 November.


World Heritage Status And Edinburgh’s Economic Future – Column 15.11.08


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 15.11.08

TO NAPLES, this week, to see the organisers of the city’s new international theatre festival preparing for the second edition of their event, the Napoli Teatro Festival Italia.  Scheduled for next June, this second festival will involve three Scottish theatre companies in creating brand-new work for the occasion; hence my visit.  But it doesn’t take long, in conversation with the Festival’s director Renato Quaglia, to sense just how much hope is invested in this international Festival, as a catalyst for changes that go far beyond the world of theatre.

Launched at a particularly grim moment in the history of Naples – when the city was embroiled in an intractable two-year crisis over a failed rubbish collection system, and further damned, in the eyes of the world, by the global success of Roberto Saviano’s sensational book and film Gomorrah, about the continuing grip of organised crime on the region – the Festival aims, first of all, to provide a meeting-point between the vibrant cultural life of Naples and the best the world has to offer.  But it also wants to act as a beacon for new, transparent and accountable ways of working, in a region plagued by secretive power-structures; and therefore as a transforming force in the life of a city that suffers an appalling reputation, in the rest of Italy, for crime and corruption.

So Naples begins the long, familiar process of using a brave cultural initiative to transform its inner life, and haul its global image up by the bootstraps.  And once again, sitting in Renato Quaglia’s little office, I reflect on the colossal stroke of luck, sixty years ago, that gave Edinburgh such a magnificent head-start in the business of development through culture and heritage; and enabled Scotland’s capital city to emerge as the first great Festival City of the postwar world, a recognised world centre of culture and history, and a magnet for visitors from every corner of the globe.

So it is more than depressing to return to Edinburgh – past the great airport signs advertising the beauty of Princes Street and the Castle, and our status as a World City of Literature – to discover the local body politic in the middle of a graceless spat over the value, or lack of it, of the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The row has been bubbling along for several months, ever since UNESCO expressed concern about one or two of Edinburgh’s planned city centre developments; and it has reached a climax, over the last few days, with the visit of a UNESCO delegation to some of the sites in question.

The gist of the argument is that some in the business and development community have begun to tire of the World Heritage business, and the additional planning delays it can entail; and to resent the role of UNESCO in – as it were – telling Edinburgh to put heritage and history before much-needed  economic development.  With hard times ahead, they argue, Edinburgh will be left behind unless it is free to build large-scale commercial developments across the city; and will risk becoming a museum-piece of a place, doomed to picturesque decline.

To say that this is an unsubtle argument, though, is to put things politely; in fact, it is heartbreakingly shortsighted, particularly at this moment in the city’s economic history.  In the first place, the PR disaster surrounding the loss or deliberate surrender of World Heritage status would do incalculable damage to the unique and powerful global image of the city; damage that could, over the long term, begin to undermine every aspect of Edinburgh’s relationship with the wider world, from tourism and higher education to efforts to attract inward investment.

In the second place, it would be madness to make such a sacrifice at precisely the moment when the engines of retail and commercial development are shuddering to a halt.  In a recession, culture and heritage strengthen their appeal, while banks go bust, and new office developments lie empty;  if HBOS leaves Edinburgh, in other words, we will need our Festival and our tourist industry more than ever before, not less.

And finally – and most importantly – the whole argument is based on a false dichotomy; that is, on the shallow and ill-informed idea that heritage and history are the opposite of dynamism and modernity, when in fact, in all the best cities, the two go hand in hand.  There are dozens of forms and ideas in modern architecture that work superbly with the traditional shapes and colours of Edinburgh; the city can and will accommodate new towers, new hotels, new palaces of commerce, like the handsome Saltire Court at Castle Terrace.  But as we should have learned, following the construction of the brutal St. James Centre, there are developments which move from boldness to crassness, and from functionality to sheer ugliness; and if our World Heritage site status obliges Edinburgh to conduct a more detailed and intense debate about where those dividing-lines lie, then that can hardly be a bad thing.

In that sense, World Heritage status is not a limitation, but a challenge, an invitation to create forms of the new that work with the past, rather than destroying or standardising it.  Even in tough times, I sense that Edinburgh contains enough creative talent and energy to meet that challenge, many times over.   But it will only be met if our civic leaders and most influential citizens get their act together, and begin to generate a vision of Edinburgh as a city smart enough to reject the false idea of a war between past and future; and enlightened enough to demand, instead, the kind of creative synthesis of tradition and modernity that is not only beautiful but empowering, and strong enough to endure, even in the hardest of times.


The Dogstone, Nasty Brutish And Short, A Streetcar Named Desire, An Ideal Husband


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DOGSTONE and NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at Perth Theatre, and AN IDEAL HUSBAND at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Review, 14.11.08

The Dogstone 3 stars ***
Nasty, Brutish And Short 3 stars ***
A Streetcar Named Desire 4 stars ****
An Ideal Husband 3 stars ***

WHEN THE GOOD TIMES ROLL, audiences sometimes seem to enjoy the shock of being forced to confront life at its ugliest; it’s not for nothing that Sarah Kane’s gruelling war story, Blasted, became one of the iconic western plays of the 1990’s boom years. In an economic depression, though, it’s time for a touch of magic and romance; which is perhaps why the latest double-bill in the Traverse/ National Theatre of Scotland Debuts season looks a little out of time, this autumn, while David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s small-scale romantic comedy Midsummer, playing downstairs in the studio, seems to have caught the mood of the moment to perfection.

Brought together by Traverse director Dominic Hill in a diptych of misery and gathering gloom, Kenny Lindsay’s The Dogstone and Andy Duffy’s Nasty, Brutish And Short must be two of the most downbeat shows ever staged at the Traverse. In The Dogstone, a sixteen-year-old boy called Lorn watches his estranged Dad drink himself to death in Oban; the play is essentially a 75-minute monologue in the voice of the boy, interrupted by dialogue between him and his father. Lindsay tries hard to vary the pace and mood, suggesting the possible redemptive power – or destructive unreality – of the old legends of Scottish pre-history that Lorn’s Dad once used to tell him; and the play draws poignant performances from Scott Fletcher and Andy Gray. In the end, though, the sheer lack of dramatic action, or of any tension in a plot that is never heading anywhere but down, turns this into a leaden piece of theatre, weighed down even further by the dimly-lit squalor of Naomi Wlkinson’s minimal domestic set.

The Dogstone looks like an upbeat and purposeful piece of work, though, alongside Andy Duffy’s Nasty, Brutish and Short. Set by Wilkinson and Hill in some dystopian dump where the characters live with their feet in two inches of cold water, and everyone talks in a Taggart-style stereotype of a Glasgow accent, this is a nightmare hate-triangle of a play, in which a violent and bullying older brother, Jim, wades brutally into the fragile relationship between younger brother Luke – just out of mental hospital – and his new girlfriend Mary Jane, a helpless and childlike teenage mother.

The play has a certain primal power, particularly towards the end; and Ashley Smith gives a harrowing performance as the battered Mary Jane. In a culture saturated with sadistic porn, though, there’s something chillingly voyeuristic about the way this play forces the audience to watch the relentless bullying and eventual rape of Mary Jane; and something reactionary about the way it distances that violence from the audience by adopting such a familiar caricature of a working-class Glasgow voice. In the end, it’s hard to tell whether Duffy is asserting a bred-in-the-bone male brutalism that he sees as inevitable, or demanding change in a society which passes misery on from generation to generation. And in this case, the ambiguity is not so much interesting, as deeply depressing.

America’s great 20th century playwright-poet Tennesee Williams was no slouch himself when it came to acknowledging the ugliest aspects of life, including insanity, loneliness, rape, rejection, and the abuse of children. Yet Williams’s world is one in which – as in real life – misery always comes entwined with a contrasting sense of beauty, glamour, music and yearning; and Ian Grieve’s new Perth production of his 1947 masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, offers an object lesson in how the tragedy and horror of the play is heightened, rather than masked, by giving full rein to its sensual richness.

Grieve sometimes indulges in sensory overload, in a production committed to using everything from overhead cameras to scratch-and-sniff technology to evoke the sights, smells and sounds of the New Orleans quarter where the play is set. But Trevor Coe’s set is beautiful, and Amanda Beveridge makes a poignant, spirited Blanche Dubois. And although this is not the most profound version of Streetcar you’ll ever see, it is memorably vivid, straightforward and heartfelt, to the end.

As a committed aesthete, Oscar Wilde was not interested in ugliness. Even his most evil-minded villains come gorgeously dressed; and it’s precisely because the sheer style and elegance of the life he portrays now lies far beyond our reach that Oscar Wilde’s medium – the dazzling, aristocratic drawing-room comedy – has come so completely to dominate his message about the corrupt underpinnings of polite society.

It’s therefore good to report that Sir Peter Hall’s much-admired touring production of An Ideal Husband manages to look like a gorgeous series of illustrations from a 1890’s fashion magazine, while not quite losing sight of its rather tense and entertaining story about a highly moralistic politician, Sir Robert Chiltern, who has founded his fortune on a spot of deft insider trading, and is now in danger of being exposed.

The production certainly seems creaky in places, and many of the actors are much too old for the parts they play. But Kate O’Mara and Carol Royle turn in a terrific, intelligent and well-tuned pair of performances as blackmailing wicked lady Mrs. Chevely, and her lovely and virtuous adversary, Gertrude Chiltern. And the overall message seems to be that everything changes, and nothing does; that the manners of the 21st century British boss class could hardly be more different from those portrayed here, but that the ups and downs of life in the Westminster village – the scandals, the reshuffles, and the roaring ambition – have barely changed at all.

The Dogstone and Nasty, Brutish And Short at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and An Ideal Husband at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, all until tomorrow, 15 November. A Streetcar Named Desire at Perth Theatre, until 22 November.