Monthly Archives: April 2009

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Our Teacher’s A Troll, After Mary Rose

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS GOT HER HEAD CHOPPED OFF and OUR TEACHER’S A TROLL (NTS at Rothesay Pavilion) and AFTER MARY ROSE (Magnetic North at Howden Park Centre, Livingston) for Scotsman Arts 30.4.09
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Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off   5 stars *****
Our Teacher’s A Troll    4 stars ****
After Mary Rose   2 stars **

IT’S OFTEN THE FATE OF  National Theatres to be founded in an age of fervent debate about the nation and its future; and then to find themselves living and working in more complex times, when the range of themes they need to address is much less clear.  The National Theatre of Scotland came so late in the process that led to Scottish devolution – seven years after the Parliament itself, in 2006 – that it has largely taken this problem in its post-modern stride, developing a structure that  can sponsor a huge range of different events simultaneously.  And it has generated some massive main-stage hits that fully capture the complex spirit of the times, from the legendary Black Watch, to Dominic Hill’s magnificent Dundee version of Peer Gynt, which opens its first London run at the Barbican this weekend.

For all that, though, there’s something truly exhilarating about the sight of a top-flight national ensemble, in full voice, confronting a great text that wrestles with the character and history of the nation itself.  And that’s exactly what audiences around the Highlands and Islands are seeing now, in the NTS’s new touring version of Liz Lochhead’s superb 1987 play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off.   22 years on, it’s a text which still takes the breath away with the fearless theatricality of its cabaret style, and the sheer force of the glittering poetic links it forges between the fraught and unresolved politics of Scotland in the 16th century, and tensions over gender and religion that still haunt our society today; and this new production by Alison Peebles, who played Elizabeth of England in the original production, comes as close to doing it justice as any staging since then.

It should be said that for all its thrilling quality, this Mary Queen Of Scots is not flawless.  Above all, it lacks the deep, musical sense of rhythm in handling the final moments of both acts – and particularly the startling playground coda to the whole show – that would truly deliver the full value of the text to the audience.

Everything else about the show, though, is so brilliantly vivid, intense and intelligent that it becomes irresistible.   Kenny Miller’s design is a triumph, sandwiching the action between giant transparent crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in floor and ceiling, and dressing the two queens and the chorus, La Corbie, in fabulous post-modern reinterpretations of glamorous period dress, with perhaps the most breathtakingly stylish shoes ever seen on a Scottish stage.  And the performances are simply terrific, from Joyce Falconer’s terrifying, richly-feathered Corbie, through Angela Darcy’s superb Elizabeth, to Jo Freer’s fantastically elegant and aristocratic Mary, Lewis Howden’s thuggish Knox, and a powerfully wicked and sexy Bothwell in John Kielty.

The play’s politics, of course, remain contested, as they should.  But in asking what happened to Scottish womanhood in the course of our great and radical Protestant revolution – to gorgeousness, to sensual love, to elegance and adornment with a Scottish accent,  and to the power and beauty of female desire and imagery in our culture – Lochhead asks a question that remains unanswered, four and a half centuries on; and both her play, and this memorable production, not only evoke what was lost in that titanic struggle, but begin to restore it to us, through the power of a great contemporary imagination, and the magic of theatre itself.

This week’s other offerings are inevitably overshadowed by such a show; but Joe Douglas’s NTS production of Dennis Kelly’s Our Teacher’s A Troll, touring alongside Mary Queen Of Scots, certainly offers a vivid hour of drama for children over five, delivered with terrific commitment by the same fine ensemble.  For myself, I find Kelly’s modish anti-adult stance slightly tiresome; some Rothesay six-year-olds looked quite rightly baffled by the idea of an over-busy Mum with a horrible plastic face, who doesn’t even care that the new headteacher is a child-eating troll.  But the troll himself is a huge, magnificent and genuinely scary figure; and the story of how twins Sean and Holly reach an understanding with him is both subtle and salutary, particularly when delivered with the help of a fiercely-bashed miniature drum-kit, and the kind of junior rock’n’roll sensibility that has primary-school audiences roaring approval.

As for After Mary Rose, the latest show from Nicholas Bone’s thoughtful and enquiring Magnetic North company, there’s no doubting the good and serious intentions behind this modern reworking of JM Barrie’s chilling drama, written in the aftermath of the First World War.  Barrie’s theme is death, and the horrifying idea that there may be something worse than death; a howling, clutching oblivion that sometimes touches people then lets them go again, to return blighted and strange.

D. Jones’s thoughtful script takes large chunks of Barrie’s original drama, and reworks them so as to make space for some new scenes reflecting on the possible experience of Mary Rose’s soldier son, Harry, following her second disappearance.  But for all the potential of this idea, nothing about it seemed to be working as effective theatre, on its opening night at the fine new Howden Park Theatre in Livingston.  Claire Halleran’s tip-tlted island design looked good, on the spacious new stage.  But dramatically, the whole show – with a potentially impressive cast of six – seems cramped, static, slow, and derivative; and washed with a gloomy, self-conscious lyricism that says much less that Barrie’s original play, and hardly adds to its complex meanings at all.

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Our Teacher’s A Troll in Fort William and Skye next week, and on tour until 6 June.  After Mary Rose at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-9 May, and on tour until 23 May.

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A Drop In The Ocean

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DROP IN THE OCEAN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 29.4.09
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3 stars ***

IN 2007, veteran Wildcat star David Anderson won the Best New Musical Award on the Edinburgh Fringe for a remarkable show called Tir Nan Og, first seen in the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint season earlier that year.  It told the story of a woman poet who left her lover in Glasgow, and set out on an epic sea voyage around our 21st century planet; and now, to celebrate the 150th show in the Play, Pie and Pint series since 2004, Anderson has written some new variations on the idea of that same poet, and her adventures.

The result is a daft but glorious party of an event, staged as an undersea promenade in a bar at the end of the world, where the landlord – Anderson himself – is always calling last orders.  There’s a two-piece band, a professional cast of three –  featuring Pauline Knowles as the poet, George Drennan as various residents of the deep, and Onur Orkut as the poet’s lost lover – and a big chorus of lushly talented musical theatre students from the RSAMD.  There’s also some  atmospheric blue-green undersea design and lighting, and good-looking direction and choreography by Andrew Panton.

What’s missing, it has to be said, is any really strong sense of narrative or theme; this is more like a cluster of new and not-particularly-remarkable Anderson songs of the sea, than a true short musical in its own right.  But there are some haunting political and historical references, from the wreck of the Iolaire off Stornoway in 1919, to the pollution of the seabed today.   Knowles is in stunning form as the poet; and Oran Mor bursts with lunchtime life, as the kids from the RSAMD help celebrate another milestone for one of the most remarkable Scottish theatre initiatives of the past few decades.

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Back To The Thirties, As Britain Makes A Right Turn Towards Depression Disaster – Column 25.4.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.4.09
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DON’T LOOK NOW: but as someone with a bit of an interest in the history of the twentieth century, I am beginning to experience a frightening sense of deja vu.   Eighty years ago, after all, both Britain and the United States faced an economic crash as severe as this one; and in both cases, the collapse of a “bubble” in the stock market and the financial sector led rapidly to a sharp and painful decline in real economic activity – to falling prices, failing businesses, and unemployment for millions of previously hard-working citizens.

In the 1930’s, though, the two nations produced very different political responses to the crisis.  America turned sharply to the left, placing its faith in Franklin D. Roosevelt and his interventionist “New Deal”.   Britain, by contrast, moved sharply to the right, and stayed there throughout a grim decade of misery for many, starvation for some, and economic activity so depressed that many industrial areas wore a look of poverty and shabbiness into the early 1960’s.

And now, to my distress, I think I can see the same pattern beginning to emerge again, in the aftermath of Alistair Darling’s frighteningly frail crisis budget.  Following two terms of George W. Bush, America has just moved decisively leftward, electing a new Democratic President who both speaks with tremendous moral authority, and also seems unafraid of massive state intervention designed to keep the American economy moving, to prevent the worst extremes of social damage and division, and to make some structural shifts towards an economy better designed for a 21st century future.

But in Britain – well, just look at the situation in which we find ourselves, as Gordon Brown’s dying government is steadily torn to shreds by a Westminster media village now baying for change.  On one hand, we have a Labour government which has failed, both morally and practically, precisely because it made too deep a compromise with unregulated capital markets.  On the other, we have a Conservative opposition, now almost certain to win the next Westminster election, which is supported, in its bid for power, by a growing roar of right-wing commentary which evidently sees the coming of a new Conservative government under crisis conditions as an opportunity for once again hacking back the British public sector, while leaving high earners, in particular, to dispose of their income as they please.

The self-pitying roar of the media elites when threatened with measures like the new higher tax-rate for those earning more than £150,000 a year is, of course, one of the most unintentionally hilarious features of British public life; it is particularly entertaining to hear them dismissing this measure as an “attack on talent” at precisely the moment when most of Britain’s well-paid boss-class have been revealed as having no talent at all, except for paying themselves excessive sums.   But the influence these people wield in shaping public opinion is not funny; and neither is the fact that they now have their friends in the totally discredited credit-ratings business – the ones who detected nothing wrong with so many failing banks – threatening the whole British people with the loss of our collective triple-A status, unless we elect the kind of government they like.

Now of course, any new government coming to power in Britain over the next 15 months will have to make deep public spending cuts.  But it seems to me a recipe for disaster to have those cuts made by a party, and a rabble of privileged supporters, who are so profoundly historically indifferent to the fact that the arguments against cutting public expenditure at the height of a depression are almost as powerful as those for doing so, from the straight moral argument that it is simply wrong to make the some of the most vulnerable people in our society pay the price of  economic depression, to much more complex arguments about the way in which, in advanced economies, public and private sector investment works together to sustain economic creativity.   But when the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are in full cry for a new age of austerity in the public realm, and low taxes for the suffering rich, then the crucial British swing voter, that unlovely combination of avarice, ignorance and snobbery, is notoriously unable to resist their call.

Except, of course, in Scotland; for if Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling want to survey the whole picture of the ruin they have wrought, then they might as well add, as the cherry on the cake of their misery, the probable wreckage of the Union between Scotland and England.  For deep psychological and cultural reasons, the vast majority of Scots will never take the negative view of public spending so easily embraced by the Telegraph, and so ingrained in the DNA of the Conservative Party south of the border; and for  that reason, when a new Cameron government begins to implement draconian cuts, their actions will, over a few years, almost certainly create unsustainable levels of conflict between Holyrood and Westminster.

Of course, under such difficult economic circumstances, this will not be a particularly happy ending, even for the SNP.   But if the lessons of the 1930’s and 1980’s have been forgotten in the heartlands of British politics, they have not been forgotten in the places, including Scotland, where the decisions made in those years inflicted most pain.  The new generation of Tory opinion-makers in London may be looking forward to a new age of sado-monetarism, in other words.  But now, they embrace that option at the risk of losing Scotland to a resurgent SNP.  And when and if that happens, they are likely to be very angry indeed.  Angry  enough, for instance, to take away Scotland’s chance of a triple-A rating; and to make sure we don’t get it back, for a couple of generations at least.

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Behaviour Week 2: Bullet Catch, Gregor McGregor, The Bagwell In Me

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BEHAVIOUR: WEEK 2 at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.4.09
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Bullet Catch  4 stars ****
Gregor MacGregor   3 stars ***
The Bagwell In Me  3 stars ***

WHEN ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Jackie Wylie launched her new Behaviour festival at the Arches, she promised a feast of work that would not only crash the boundaries between art-forms, but would challenge the idea of any fixed distinction between behaviour on stage, and the kind of performance we all put up with friends, colleagues and lovers,  every day of our lives.  And in this final week of the event,  she delivers a cluster of shows that fulfil that remit to perfection.

Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch, for instance, patrols the boundary between straight theatre and a pure showbiz conjuring act.  With the help of a dazzling assistant recruited from the audience, he performs weird tricks involving cards and floating tables, and finally prepares to attempt the most daring of all, the trick where the illusionist catches a bullet between his teeth.

The real complexity of Drummond’s show, though, lies in his exploration of a further boundary, the one between the conjuring trick and real life.  Many illusionists have died trying to perform the “bullet catch”.  And in considering the fate of one of them, wh died on stage in 1909,  Drummond leads us into a startlingly deep reflection on the mysterious relationship between performance and despair, and between the intense life of the stage, and the sudden blackness of death.

Al Seed’s latest show is a far less polished work than Bullet Catch, but no less interesting.  In a radical departure from his usual physical theatre, Seed and his partner on sound and visuals, Guy Veale, take the format of the simple lantern lecture, and turn it into an astonishing meditation on the power of imagination to shape and change reality, and to build new futures.  Seed’s subject is Gregor McGregor, a crazy Scottish adventurer of the early 19th century, who reinvented himself as the ruler of an imaginary Central American kingdom, persuading many gullible investors and migrants to invest in his non-existent realm.  Seed takes this story as inspiration for a dazzling series of thoughts and images about utopian thinking in general, about investment as a gesture of imagination, and about how nations are dreamed of and made.   It’s a potent topic for these times, in Scotland and elsewhere; and although Seed’s script still seems like a first draft, read from rough printout, the potential of this show is immense.

As for Ann Liv Young of New York – well, like her previous work at the Arches, her latest show looks like a slow-mo collision between a 1960’s New York happening and a modern gents-only club night, with a mix of serious identity politics thrown in.  In a u-shaped dressing-room of a performance space, Ann Liv delivers a barrage of loud song, raunchy dance, full-on sexual imagery and constant self-interruption; if you want to see the idea of “interrogating performance” made flesh, this is it.

Somewhere in there, though, is a strong spine of thought about the triangular relationship between the first US President George Washington, his wife Martha, and their black slave Oney, all reimagined for the age of President Obama; and those who think there’s no serious thematic intent behind Ann Liv’s crotch-shots, her nudity, her deliberate narrative nonsense, and her ferocious assault on the sexual secrets at the heart of American culture, may be making the mistake of their lives.

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Copenhagen, Too Clever By Half, Wuthering Heights

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on COPENHAGEN at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, TOO CLEVER BY HALF at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Tamasha at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow) for Scotsman Arts 23.4.09
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Copenhagen   4 stars ****
Too Clever By Half   3 stars ***
Wuthering Heights   4 stars ****

IN 1924, THE YOUNG GERMAN PHYSICIST Werner Heisenberg arrived in Copenhagen to work as a postgraduate student with his great Danish colleague and teacher, Niels Bohr.   What followed was a thrilling half-decade of work that transformed the science of physics forever, as Bohr and Heisenberg, together with colleagues across Europe, began to formulate the cluster of mind-blowing theories – on uncertainty, on wave and particle theory, and on the famous “observer effect” in experimentation – that form the basis of modern quantum physics, and radically challenge most of our assumptions about the stable nature of “scientific truth”.

And it’s this newborn sense of uncertainty – of strangeness, subjectivity and mystery at the very heart of mathematics and science – that drives Michael Frayn’s magnificent 1998 play Copenhagen, which reflects on a moment of huge stress in Bohr and Heisenberg’s relationship, seventeen years on.  By 1941, the Second World War was at its height. Denmark was under increasingly harsh German occupation, Heisenberg was in charge of the Berlin research project which could have given Hitler his first atomic bomb; and at that point, mysterously, Heisenberg left Berlin to visit Bohr in Copenhagen, in search of – well, what?  Moral permission to continue his research?  Absolution for the horror that might result?  Or a firm instruction, from his old mentor, to walk away from his work, regardless of the cost?

All that is known about the meeting is that it ended in a fierce quarrel between the two men; but in his great play, Frayn marshals all the new vocabulary of modern particle physics, both in his text and in the looping, colliding structure of the drama, to reimagine – not once, but four times, in ever-tightening spirals – exactly how that meeting might have gone, and how it may have changed the whole course of human history.  Sixty years on, the ghosts of Bohr and Heisenberg – and, crucially, of Bohr’s intelligent and supportive wife, Margrethe – gather to  remember the events of the evening; they never achieve a final version, but they leave us with a powerful, thrilling, and at times almost mystical sense of how tiny shifts of time, chance, decision or fate, can have an impact literally beyond calculation.

Tony Cownie’s new Royal Lyceum production of the play is competent, enjoyable, and a touch unambitious.  Vocally, it inhabits prissy standard-British-rep territory, as if it were unthinkable that the city of Edinburgh – home of the scientific Enlightenment – could have a distinctive voice in which to tackle this play; structurally, it sometimes seems to use Tom Mannion’s sheer physical energy, in the central role of Bohr, as a substitute for analysis.

At its best, though – on Neil Murray’s delicately suggestive set – it achieves the rich, thoughtful, and mysterious atmosphere of an old JB Priestley time play, or a good British movie of the 1940’s.  Mannion is a strong and intensely lovable Niels Bohr, full of the joy of intellectual endeavour; Sally Edwards holds the ring beautifully as Margrethe; and Owen Oakeshott warms steadily to the role of Heisenberg.  And as ever, Frayn’s play represents a thrilling demonstration of the power of the word on stage.  Just when we thought that dependence on language in theatre had become hopelessly old-fashioned, here comes the wordiest play imaginable; and mysteriously, it blazes with life.

Andrew Dallmeyer’s new short play Too Clever By Half – this week’s offering in the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint season – also reflects on the power of the human mind; but it appproaches the borderlands of modern science in the wacky and satirical spirit of a Karel Capek or a Woody Allen, rather than in Frayn’s more measured style.  In a biological research institute, two scientists in siren suits – Monica and Gavin – are locked into an isolation room after the leak of a lethal virus.  The voice on the intercom tries to reassure; but it soon seems that the two are on their way down to dusty death, until a sudden mutation of the virus restores them to health, and endows them with superhuman mental, spiritual and creative powers; speaking in iambic pentameters and dreaming great dreams, the two become dangerously free spirits.  Ross Stenhouse and the wonderful Morag Stark have great fun projecting Dallmeyer’s old-fashioned futurism, for all its worth; and there are some interesting visual images to admire, in the frequent moments when the script lapses into stodgy social commentary, or outright daftness.

If you want evidence that it’s not only political and economic power that can move sharply from west to east, though, then you could do much worse than race to the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, where Tamasha Theatre Company and Oldham Coliseum are presenting their no-holds-barred Bollywood musical version of Wuthering Heights, set not on a blasted heath in Yorkshire, but in the sun-parched deserts of Rajasthan.

Endowed by songwriters Felix Cross and Sheema Mukherjee with a dozen songs in a mind-blowing collision of musical styles – half raga, half Andrew Lloyd Webber – the show has its awkward and cheesy moments.  But for sheer, passionate understanding of the romantic impulse, and of the nature and tragedy of the doomed romance between Krishnan and Shakuntala (the Rajasthan Heathcliff and Cathy), this show knocks the recent jokey and apologetic British touring version into a cocked hat.  It’s not subtle, and it’s far less obsessed than Emily Bronte’s original with the filtering of the narrative through the eyes of various observers.   But it delivers the basic stuff of the story with a style and dauntlessness that Bronte herself would surely have admired; as well as with a series of joyful tributes to the great western musical tradition, and a range of colour and light to lift the heart, on a cold Glasgow evening.

Copenhagen at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 9 May.  Too Clever By Half at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 25 April.  Wuthering Heights at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 25 April.

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Look Mummy I’m Dancing

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOOK MUMMY, I’M DANCING (Vanessa @ Tramway, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 21.4.09
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4 stars ****

IN THE 1940’S, SHE was born a boy.  In the 1970’s, she became “Belgium’s first transsexual”.  And today, she’s a good-looking  61-year-old actress, reflecting in her solo show on the life she has lived, and on the pain of a childhood spent trapped on the wrong side of the gender divide; a pain that also affected her loving parents, struggling in their different ways to cope with the truth.

The theatrical style Vanessa Van Durme uses, in her 90-minute monologue, could hardly be simpler.  She wears a simple pink slip; she moves around a stage furnished only with a table and two chairs, and two large old-fashioned dolls, one male, one female.   And if there are wider issues about transsexuality to be addressed, Vanessa approaches them only indirectly; there’s no meditation here on why transsexual motifs now feature so widely in some areas of our culture.

But whether the story of Vanessa’s transsexual life simply represents the newly-found voice of a long-silenced minority – or works as a metaphor for the long and often painful journey towards the truth of ourselves that so many of us have to make – it leads us through some brutal and bloody territory, both physical and social, without once losing its rare combination of frankness and grace.  And in the end, there’s no resisting the mixture of sharp intelligence, raunchy humour, and inner sweetness of spirit that makes Vanessa such a compelling performer; and brings her story to a memorably calm and healing conclusion, full of love.

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Whistleblowers Pay The Price For Two Decades Of Bad Management – Column 18.4.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 18.4.09
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A DECADE AGO – or perhaps a little less –  I was invited to a place in the quiet, suburban heart of West Germany to talk to a group of regional civic servants about the changes taking place in the system of British government, notably the coming of devolution.  They weren’t glamorous types, these officials from the region of Hesse; most of them were bookish-looking men in sports jackets, and there were relatively few women.

But as they broke up into groups, and began an exercise in producing suggested solutions to imaginary service delivery problems, I began to notice something attractive and unfamiliar about their body language and style of argument.   It was simply that they didn’t look nervous, or afraid of saying the wrong thing.  Their eyes did not slide anxiously from side to side, looking to see which way the most powerful members of the group would jump; they seemed to focus on the problem, rather than on the institutional politics of the situation, and in no time at all came up with some pretty convincing answers.

They seemed, in other words, fundamentally different from their British counterparts of that time, already destabilised by a decade of permanent institutional reform, in which old yardsticks of service and effectiveness had been constantly replaced by new systems and language, imposed by an increasingly unsympathetic generation of mamagers.  And now, we in Britain seem to have become resigned to a situation in which such frontline workers routinely see management, their attitudes, and their culture of instinctive bureaucratic self-protection, as an obstacle to the real delivery of the services they are supposed to provide.

And so I suspect that I can’t have been the only person to feel a despairing lurch of recognition, on Thursday afternoon, when I heard the news that NHS whistleblower Margaret Haywood, who filmed under cover for the BBC’s Panorama programme in the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton in an effort to expose lamentable standards of nursing care for the elderly, had been struck off the register of qualified nurses by the establishment watchdogs at the Nursing and Midwifery Council, on grounds of breach of patient confidentiality, and of prioritising her filming activities over proper patient care.

Now there is no question that Margaret Haywood had a case to answer, on both counts. Yet there were massive extentuating circumstances, both in Ms Haywood’s previous unsuccessful efforts to raise concerns through official whistleblowing channels, and in the BBC’s rigorous approach to obtaining consent from every individual shown before transmission.  And to millions, the NMC’s decision to impose the harshest penalty at its disposal will therefore seem to epitomise everything that has gone wrong, over the last generation, in a British public sector now riddled with this kind of knee-jerk authoritarianism and blank-eyed rulebook management.

Time and again, in recent years, I’ve heard committed public sector employees describing how they are being driven to depression – or premature retirement – by a culture in which regulations that were initially intended to protect service users, are increasingly used by management to marginalise dissent and silence internal debate.  And the results – well, I think we can see them in legions of decisions as poor as the one the NMC made on Thursday: decisions which can’t see the wood for the trees, and which are dominated not by the common-sense application of serious principle, but by the blinkered pack mentality of full-time bureaucrats and overpaid elites, whether private-sector bankers, or public-sector bosses.

Now of course, as we live through these final decaying months of New Labour rule, many people will tend to cling to  David Cameron’s view that what we need is “change”; and that when we get a new party in power and new faces in Downing Street, all these abuses will somehow become things of the past.    But in truth, it seems to me that both of the major UK parties have been equally complicit in creating the culture of bad, coercive  management that now weakens many parts of the British public sector, and – so it seems – major parts of the private sector too.  The Thatcher and Major governments of the Eighties and Nineties  wasted money on introducing pseudo-market structures where they were clearly inappropriate; and in their instinctive hostility to public employees, they deliberately created the vacuum of trust into which so many layers of pettifogging management have moved, to monitor and badger frontline workers.  The Blair and Brown governments have made matters worse by throwing money at these flawed structures without challenging them, and by putting extra regulatory weapons in their hands.

And now, at this point of crisis in the nation’s affairs, neither major UK party – nor, for that matter, the SNP –  seems to have even the ghost of a serious policy for rooting out this culture of control-freak overmanagement, and enabling our essential public services to re-focus on their substantial goals and activities.  The Tories say that we should cut public spending; although under current conditions, that would almost certainly mean management protecting their own positions, while slashing front-line workers and service delivery, with desperate consequences for the most vulnerable in our society.  Labour says nothing much at all, except that the Tories are wrong.

And none of them, heaven help us, seems to possess that indispensable tool of effective practical politics: an analysis which would fully explain to us how we reached this point, where a nurse can be struck off for trying to expose the systematic neglect of her patients, while those responsible for the neglect go largely unchallenged; and which would therefore give us some idea of how to go about fixing structures which are so obviously unfit for purpose, and which – under current economic pressures – may soon become too badly broken to survive.

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Venizke

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on VENIZKE (Victoria/Campo at the Tramway, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 18.4.09
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3 stars ***

IN MANY WAYS, I wish I could tell you that this latest show from the acclaimed Belgian avant-garde companies Victoria and Campo was a piece of nonsense, deserving of no notice at all.  I wish it because this show has perhaps the most deeply dislikeable first half ever seen on the Tramway stage, involving a half-hour self-obsessed monologue of roaring, camp complaint about the state of contemporary theatre in Europe, and a series of truly revolting and depressing confessions of sexual decadence.

But, dammit, I’m afraid that’s not all there is to it.  For a start, wherever the script of Venizke irritates and disgusts, there’s something in the show’s design, music or dance – delivered with deceptive casualness by a brilliantly varied company of four women and two men – that’s strong enough to bring real tears of regret and exhilaration to the eyes, like shreds of creative energy or beauty pulled from the wreckage of a rotting civilisation; a glimmering model of the Eiffel Tower, a fabulous piece of wild choreography, a magnificent playlist that ranges from French chanson to Janis Joplin and Nirvana.  And around half-way through its two-hour length, after a brief, eloquent pause,  this show begins to gather its ideas into what gradually becomes a moving and boundary-pushing exploration – from the death of Jade Goody to the high style of Amy Winehouse –  of the meaning of fame and performance, in a society where so many now feel that their fate is either celebrity, or oblivion.

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Waiting For Godot, Town Bloody Hall, The Library, Djupid (The Deep)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAITING FOR GODOT at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, TOWN BLOODY HALL and THE LIBRARY at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, and DJUPID (THE DEEP) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 16.4.09.
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Waiting For Godot   5 stars *****
Town Bloody Hall   4 stars ****
The Library   2 stars **
Djupid (The Deep)   4 stars ****

LIFE IS A CABARET, old chum.  Or a maybe it’s a music hall turn, desperately tap-dancing in the dark; or a seventy-year performance in which we steadily construct a series of identities; or, in this age of bite-sized therapy, just a series of behaviours that shape our minds, rather than vice versa.  It’s been a dazzling week in Scottish theatre, from the heights of  a magnificent all-star Waiting For Godot at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh, to the labyrinthine depths of the Arches in Glasgow, where director Jackie Wylie’s new Behaviour Festival burst into life with a series of short, sharp shows from the cutting edge of theatre.  But what all of these shows have in common is a shared interest in the link between performance and life itself: and it’s perhaps because they bring to the play such a long and rich experience of both, that the all-star cast of Sean Mathias’s great production of Waiting For Godot, now on a pre-London tour of the UK, are able to make such a warm and richly human piece of popular theatre out of a text often dismissed as difficult and obscure.

Originally set at a bleak crossroads, where two old tramps wait for a Mr. Godot who never comes, Samuel Beckett’s great 1953 absurdist classic is gently transferred, in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s memorable design, to the stage of a ruined or bombed-out theatre.  And here, Mathias assembles the kind of vintage cast of which most directors can only dream.  Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who play the bowler-hatted double-act Vladimir and Estragon, are both close to their threescore years and ten.   Ronald Pickup – in stunning form as the passing servant Lucky, routinely abused beyond endurance by his wealthy boss, Pozzo – will be 70 this year; Simon Callow, who plays the roaring, impossible Pozzo, is 60.  Yet all four are still full of life.  And their performances are full of a rich, enduring wisdom about how we find our sense of ourselves reflected in the eyes of others; and how – whether we are professional actors or not – we fear the ultimate oblivion of not being recognised, not being seen.

It’s one of the great features of Beckett’s play that despite its abstract style and setting, it never seems detached from the experience of the increasingly godless century in which it was written; and for all her youth, Arches award winner Nic Green has that same ability both to engage with history, and to set about transcending and transforming it through performance.

Her award-winning show, Town Bloody Hall, is the middle section of a feminist trilogy about where women are today, 39 years on from the publication of The Female Eunuch.  Inspired by a film of a famous debate which took place at New York Town Hall in April 1971 – in which a panel of four feminists, led by Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston, led a kind of conceptual revolution against the male Chair of the event, Norman Mailer – Green’s piece uses improvisation, political reflection, reminiscence, gesture, music and dance, all devised and delivered by a superb young company of five, to create a complex contemporary response to the event.  There’s a shade too much repetitive dance and movement for my taste.  But at its best, this passionate ensemble response to one of the great revolutionary moments of the past century is shudderingly powerful; and full of an aching sense of the freedoms still unwon, and of untold possibilities of joy and fulfilment still just beyond our grasp.

The second Arches award-winning show, Sacha Kyle’s The Library, seems lightweight by comparison.  Set in a library where various lost souls dream, study, suffer and indulge in erotic fantasies, the show tours the horizon of a familiar twentysomething inner landscape, marked out not in politics or geography but in reassuring cultural landmarks, from old Brando movies to Jim’ll Fix It.  Some interesting themes glimmer through the detail, from the joyless tyranny of modern higher education, to the way education and book-learning divide families and become instruments of class.  But to say that Kyle  fails to bring the themes together in a satisfying whole is to put things politely.  And the final effect is often ike a twentysomething version of Radio 4 comedy at its most irritating; self-absorbed, apolitical, culturally narrow, and full of shallow comic gestures that lack any real humour or wisdom.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the Icelandic writer Jon Atli Jonasson – with director and translator Graeme Maley, and star actor Liam Brennan, in superb form – offer a simple, compelling and unforgettable a confrontation with the last things of life and death.  Djupid (The Deep) is a 40-minute monologue for a young fisherman who, in the midst of a typically unresolved life, finds his ship sinking under him, and nothing ahead but a probable icy death.  Jonasson’s award-winning play moves brilliantly from the absurdity of life to the pain of losing it, from the trivial to the most profound.  And coming barely more than a week after the latest North Sea disaster, the play also reminds us of the knowledge of loss that binds together all the peoples of the seagoing north; the enduring sense that in the end, life’s last moments may have to be lived alone in cold and dark, with no witness or audience at all, except the god in which so few of us still believe.

Waiting For Godot at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 18 April; Town Bloody Hall and The Library at the Arches, Glasgow, until 18 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 22-25 April.  Djupid (The Deep) at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 18 April, then on tour to Aberdeen and Dundee, 27-30 April.  Joyce McMillan’s full review of Waiting For Godot appeared on Tuesday 14 April.

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Waiting For Godot

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAITING FOR GODOT at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 14.4.09
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5 stars *****

IT’S OFTEN SAID THAT fame is a dangerous and fickle thing, and that our society has an unhealthy obsession with the whole business of celebrity.  But if you want to see an example of well-earned fame being used in the most creative and life-affirming way possible, then the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh is the place to be this week.  For there you will see not just two but four mighty stars of British acting – Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in the leading roles, Simon Callow and Ronald Pickup offering superb support – using all their charm and charisma, all their power to command audience attention, and all their magnificent showbiz and storytelling skill, to draw a huge audience towards Samuel Beckett’s great, intractable absurdist classic Waiting For Godot, and to convince them that this iconic play – in which, famously, “nothing happens, twice” – has something to offer to every one of them.

It’s not that Sean Mathias’s production is built around a completely new approach to the play.   Ever since its earliest performance, Beckett’s study of two old tramps waiting in a barren landscape for a Mr. Godot who never comes has been seen as a tribute – at least in part – to the music hall and silent comedy traditions Beckett loved, and to great comedy stars and double-acts from Charlie Chaplin to Laurel and Hardy.  And here, that idea is made flesh in an astonishing set by Stephen Brimson Lewis, beautifully lit by Paul Pyant, which turns Vladimir and Estragon’s bleak crossroads into something like the stage of a bombed-out theatre, all crumbling plaster, drifting clouds of dust, and holes in the stage.

In some ways, it’s a risky strategy; there’s nothing more tedious than drama in which theatre examines itself.  But given the sheer quality of the acting in this production – its tenderness and grace, its bursts of savagery and buffoonery, and the extraordinary, bleak presence of Ronald Pickup as Lucky, the passing servant routinely brutalised beyond endurance by his fat aristocratic boss, Pozzo – there’s no chance of the play’s deeper resonances going unheard, amid the echoes of music-hall comedy.  Instead, the ruined theatrical setting becomes a powerful metaphor for the transience of all life’s warmth and brightness; and the two tramps’ little bursts of well-tried comic business shine like monuments to the human spirit, to our endless desire to perform, and to find reasons for going on, in a universe where, perhaps, no-one is watching at all.

Patrick Stewart is infinitely charming and watchable as the more assertive Vladimir, performing, cajoling, refusing despair; McKellen has moments of pure comic genius as the more vulnerable and venal Estragon.   And when Simon Callow’s roaring Pozzo and Pickup’s unforgettable Lucky join them on stage, the effect is astonishing; like watching some mighty ensemble of musicians play one of Beethoven’s difficult late quartets, and somehow make those great meditations on the deepest truths of human existence seem like music for everyone, as rich, complex, absurd, incomprehensible, beautiful and transient, as human life itself.

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