Monthly Archives: April 2009

Orgy Of Tolerance

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ORGY OF TOLERANCE (Jan Fabre at the Tramway, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 13.4.09
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4 stars ****

AT THE CORE OF Jan Fabre’s latest piece of total theatre, there lies one single, obsessive image: the idea that the force which drives our consumer society is a horrible, lonely, narcissistic and abusive  perversion of sexual energy.  In Fabre’s nightmare vision of our society, no orifice remains unplumbed, no ridiculous perversion  of human creativity goes unmocked, as in seventeen or eighteen scenes – always scathing, sometimes horrific – his nine magnificent dancer/actors lead us through scenes that range from a horrible masturbation Olympics with stop-watches and bullying trainers, to a scene of torture, with images from Abu Ghraib, watched by a voyeuristic couple from their comfortable sofas at home; the big Chesterfield, the expensive sofa from which we watch and consume the world, is the show’s design leitmotif.

The structure of the show sometimes looks like a Sixties happening; but the mood – and the occasional ferocious song – has a neo-punk late-1970’s energy that’s all roaring metallic beats, raging disgust, and political minefields; there’s a dangerous sense, sometimes, that even honest racism is aesthetically preferable to oppressive cosumerist tolerance.  And at the end, there’s a dizzyingly brilliant five minutes of what looks like wild, free dance, in a grown-up style similar to the fabulous anarchy of that great teenage Belgian show Once And For All…, due at the Arches today.  This show is not a comfortable experience, or a nice one.  But in Orgy Of Tolerance, something happens; and our understanding of our own society moves on, albeit it into places that millions would rather ignore.

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Right About Religion, Wrong About Himself: An Easter Message To Tony Blair – Column 11.4.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.4.09
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WHEN I FIRST HEARD of the setting up of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, my heart sank towards my boots; but not, perhaps, for the reasons you might expect.  Inaugurated soon after our ex-Prime Minister left Downing Street in June 2007, theTBFF (as the Blair website calls it) aims to promote respect and understanding both about the world’s major religions, and between them; it also wants to promote the core values of the major faith traditions, which it identifies as respect, justice and compassion, and to develop their capacity to work together as a force for good in the world.

Now in the age of Richard Dawkins, and of the new militant atheism of many western intellectuals, this is, of course, a controversial project.   Many progressive people in Britain now see it as self-evident that religion is always a negative force in human affairs, irrational, backward-looking, full of dangerous talk of holy war, and usually patriarchal to the point of bigotry; nor does the ex-PM win much support from those better disposed towards traditional religion, who tend to despise Blair’s form of inter-faith liberalism on principle.

The other day, for example, the ex-Prime Minister provoked a wave of media derision by giving an interview in which he exhorted the church to reconsider its views on homosexuality, and suggested that Roman Catholic churchgoers are far more liberal in their attitudes to it than the official position of their church would suggest.  Commentators of the left ranted against the hypocrisy of a man who first joins a homophobic church, and then imagines he can change it.  Commentators on the right roared that Blair might have been able to make the Labour Party ditch its principles, but he wouldn’t be able to pull the same trick with the Catholic Church.  And all seemed to agree that this new God-bothering Tony Blair is a bit of a buffoon, using his global fame to project his own confusions, and his own form of liberal arrogance, onto a world stage where they are likely to be greeted with derision.

The problem for me, though, is that I have a suspicion that on this occasion, Tony Blair is right, in at least three ways.   First, he is right to maintain that the idea of religion as a uniformly malign force in human history is a caricature, and a completely inadequate account of the many different ways in which faith communities work within their societies; there is clearly something wrong with an analysis which completely rejects the progressive, educational, caring and democratic elements of various religious traditions – like the work of the Iona Community in Scotland – on the grounds that it is somehow tainted by the hate-mongering of crazed religious fundamentalists.

Then secondly, Tony Blair is right to argue that the Catholic church, among others, needs to start making clear distinctions between the fundamental values of love, peace, hope, compassion and redemption which give faith its enduring appeal, and those old social customs, habits and bigotries which have somehow become confused, over centuries, with the idea of morality.  Tony Blair is right to suggest that the basic principles of justice and compassion should win out over the old cultural tradition of homophobia; just as liberal Muslims are right to reject the idea that the teachings of the Prophet are somehow inevitably linked to the vicious oppression of women, and the denial of their full humanity.

Then thirdly, Tony Blair is right to argue that if there is to be any brighter future for this planet and its people, then it is important that the major faiths, with their billions of followers, learn how to work together to that end.  The difficulty, though, is that even if he is right three times over, Tony Blair is still wrong enough to risk wiping out any potential positive value of his Foundation’s work.

He is wrong, for example, to indulge in careless talk about how the Catholic Church must change because “times have changed”.   A shallow acceptance of some vague notion of modernity is never a good reason for a faith tradition to change.   A failure to uphold its own best principles is a good reason for change, on the other hand; and the only one worth raising in this kind of public discussion.

And then finally, Tony Blair is profoundly wrong to imagine that he himself can really assist the aims to which his Foundation subscribes, by adopting some kind of leadership role.   In the currently unfolding row about MP’s expenses, we are constantly being told that the inhabitants of the Westminster village just don’t “get it” about how unpopular they, and their working arrangements, now are.  And in the same way, it seems that Tony Blair still does not “get it” about how far he is seen as a discredited leader, a man who misled himself and the nation, who made a fool of his country in his abject relationship with the US presidency, who has too much innocent blood on his hands for comfort, and who is likely to do damage to any cause he embraces too closely.

Personally, I am not among those who call for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes.  But I do believe that the least we can expect from him, now, is a decade or so of humility, and relative silence.  One of the most valuable things about any surviving religious tradition in our noisy society, after all, is what it has to teach us – at Easter, and through the year – about the ancient spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, retreat, and silence.  And if Tony Blair were now to pray more, talk less, and stay well out of the public eye, the future he wishes to see might, in the end, have a better chance of coming to pass.

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Quelques Fleurs

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on QUELQUES FLEURS at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 9.4.09
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3 stars ***

FOR SOME reason no doubt connected with its use of a strong Scots idiom, Liz Lochhead’s heartbreaking 1991 double monologue Quelques Fleurs, playing at Dundee Rep in a series of simple platform performances, is described in the theatre’s brochure as a “comedy”; which perhaps accounts for the muted response from an audience taken unawares by the play’s complex double monologue structure, and by the darkening tragedy of its narrative arc. Over 75 minutes or so, Quelques Fleurs charts the final crisis in the dying relationship between fortyish oil-worker Derek – returning to Glasgow for Christmas on the train from Aberdeen – and his wife Agnes Verena, a woman who, back home, tries to fill the barren void where her unconceived children should be with a rising chorus of empty consumerist babble.

It’s to the credit of Robert Paterson’s production – starring this year’s two Rep graduate apprentices, Gemma McElhinney and Alan Burgon – that it never tries to sweeten the pill of this quietly devastating account of the agony of childlessness. The production’s main problem lies in its failure to match the near-operatic demands Lochhead’s text places on the actress playing Verena; despite her best efforts, Gemma McElhinney is finally just too young to convince in the immensely complex role of Verena, particularly when grappling with avalanches of consumerist detail now 18 years out of date. But Alan Burgon, as Derek, achieves an astonishingly mature and moving portrait of a man staring into the oblivion of a sterile marriage, and trying to make the best of it. And although this is obviously a play of its time, at the height of Scotland’s oil boom and Britain’s Thatcherite love-affair with cash and consumption, Verena’s final, primal howl of loss is something older than the hills and always new, as brave and frightening as it is unforgettable.

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Interiors, Stage Fright, Little Mermaid

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on INTERIORS (Vanishing Point at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh); STAGE FRIGHT at the CCA, Glasgow; and THE LITTLE MERMAID at Dundee Rep, for Scotsman Arts, 9.4.09
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Interiors   4 stars ****
Stage Fright   3 stars ***
The Little Mermaid   4 stars ****

IN THESE early years of the 21st century, most thinking theatre artists are all too aware that their art-form faces a certain troubling contradiction, a creative Catch-22.  On one hand, any live performance that takes place in real time, over a fixed period, needs some kind of  dynamic forward movement – a narrative structure, or something very like it – to hold the audience’s interest.  Yet on the other hand, we live in an age when conventional narrative is often mistrusted, as providing too neat and comforting an account of a world in crisis; and it’s the effort to solve this conundrum that has produced some of the finest theatre of the post-modern age.

Matthew Lenton’s new production Interiors – made for his Glasgow-based touring company Vanishing Point, inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1895 symbolist classic Interior, and co-produced by the Napoli Teatro Festival Italia and the Traverse – is a strikingly fine example of this kind of work, full of the energy of conventional narrative, yet aware of its limitations in every physical detail.  On a dark stage, we see the outer wall of a house, with a huge jagged hole or picture window through which we can watch the domestic action within.  An elderly widower called Andrew (all the characters simply take the actor’s own first name) is giving a midwinter dinner-party for a group of six friends, including his pretty teenage grandaughter Sarah, his middle-aged neighbour Myra, and a bright young couple, Barney and Aurora.

The world outside – evoked in the play of cold light on the outer wall, and in Alasdair Macrae’s bleak Arctic soundscape – is a place so threatening that all the guests arrive carrying guns . And as the party gradually deteriorates into a tragi-comic evening from hell, we become aware of the presence of a narrator, at first invisible, then present, but always outside, looking in; someone who was once part of the beautiful and ridiculous hurly-burly of life, but is now an invisible wanderer, endowed with a sad knowledge of how each character will end.

Created with a mixed company of British and Italian actors, this show is unable to use language in any conventional way; we never hear the actors speak, only see them acting out their story.  Yet this necessary separation between the audience and the actors is precisely what enables the show both to use narrative, and to stand apart from it; and the result is a hugely clever, rich and entertaining piece of theatre, that shifts effortlessly between farce and tragedy, laughter and dread, domestic familiarity and abstract mystery.

There are moments when the show seems to take easy, middle-of-the-road options rather than pushing its potential to the limit.  The posh-estuary narrative voice begins by inviting an ugly, facile snobbish laughter at the characters’ pretentions and limitations, which is never really challenged.  And given the strength and energy of the play’s structure, it could perhaps aim for a more original conclusion than a final sorrowful recognition of the transience of human life and longing.  But the acting is immaculate, the production technically superb, the comedy sharp and funny, and the rhythm of the show both beautiful and compelling.   In Interiors, Lenton has created a world-class piece of international theatre, that turns the limitations of the genre into genuine strengths; and in that achievement, everyone involved can take great pride.

In style, Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point is one of the natural successors to Suspect Culture, the brilliant Scottish-based exponents of cool global modernism and sorrowful lyricism that has been led for the last 19 years by director Graham Eatough, writer David Greig, and music man Nick Powell. Now, Suspect Culture are winding up operations; and their last hurrah is Stage Fright, an extended series of installations at the CCA in Glasgow, questioning the nature of live performance and theatre in our time.

To say Stage Fright is a show of variable quality is an understatement. Some of its elements are frankly inscrutable; others are glaringly irrelevant to the subject in hand. But at its best – in David Greig’s video installation about the process by which writing on a screen becomes performance by an actor, or Nick Powell and Johnny Dawe’s haunting Automatic Scene Changer with its shifting images of the same door, or Dan Rebellato’s image of a caged actor endlessly trapped in repetition – it dives to the heart of what we mean by theatre; and offers a fitting enough creative farewell from one of the most gifted theatre companies Scotland has ever produced.

If you want to see a great narrative framed and questioned in the most simply effective way possible, though, then you could do much worse than catch a performance of Dundee Rep’s current beautiful show for children aged five and over. Mike Kenny’s fine version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid takes the material of that most disturbing and complex story, and sets it in a framework of play and let’s-pretend that makes it bearable for children, without diminishing any of its power. Ali Allen’s beautiful undersea design, Ivan Stott’s choice of music and sound, and inspired performances from twin narrators Emily Winter and Kevin Lennon, all combine – in a brief 50 minutes – to make this an unforgettable study of tough subjects like unrequited love, loss, self-damage and death, as well as fun ones like love, romance, and true friendship. And when the two storytellers finish the tale with a good cry and sob, followed by some lusty nose-blowing, we know that something has been learned about the power of theatre; both to dramatise our deepest fears, and to hold them in a framework where we can see them clearly, and begin to deal with them.

Interiors at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 11 April, and on tour to Stirling, Aberdeen, London, Glasgow and Naples; Stage Fright at the CCA, Glasgow, until 23 May; The Little Mermaid at Dundee Rep until 11 April.

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An Apple A Day

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AN APPLE A DAY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 8.4.09
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3 stars ***

LIKE A BEAUTIFUL APPLE POISONED on one side, full of flavour on the other, Jo Clifford’s new short drama for the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season – transferring to the Traverse next week – is a show of two very different halves.  Set in a small, pink-draped flat in central Edinburgh, the play traces a strange 50-minute encounter between a transsexual prostitute and an unusual client, a buttoned-up business type with a strong German accent and a small attache case.  He is seeking relaxation before an important speech to the General Assembly, she is full of the doubts, self-hatred, wry humour and fundamental sweetness of a human being who has made the long, difficult journey across the gender gap.  And in the play’s long opening sequence, their conversation stumbles grimly around in circles, dealing largely in predictable stereotypes of the sex trade, and in repetitive evasions of the business in hand.

As soon as the client opens his case, though, and begins to explain exactly what he wants his companion to wear and do, the play takes a swoop into much more dangerous and thrilling territory, painfully honest, genuinely erotic, and full of weird and though-provoking collisions between what we normally consider profane, and a profound and ecstatic sense of the sacredness of the body.  In Cheryl Martin’s production, Crawford Logan as the client, and David Walshe as the prostitute, turn in performances that grow immeasurably in courage and complexity as the play evolves.   And the imagery of the apple – which plays a key part in the client’s fantasies – evokes an atmosphere both of magical fairytale, and of the Garden of Eden, in a tentative but ultimately beautiful and challenging short play that moves boldly into the heartlands of erotic imagination, where few playwrights – even in our times – truly dare to tread.

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The G20 In London, The Scottish Parliament United In Grief: Fragile Images Of Unity In A World Disempowered By Fragmentation – Column 4.4.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 4.4.09
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THURSDAY 2nd April, 2009; I think it’s a date we might remember, although whether as a turning-point in our history, or as something much more fragile than that, remains to be seen.   For unusually, it was a day when the news was dominated by images not of conflict, or scandal, or the nagging adversarial battle of everyday politics; but of leaders experiencing a brief moment of unity, in the face of forces much greater than any of them.

In the Scottish Parliament, it was the simple fact of the helicopter tragedy in the North Sea which briefly stilled the rumble of party debate; commentators differed about whether the cancellation of First Minister’s Questions was necessary, but all noted the brief air of dignity which settled on the Parliament as politicians of all parties expressed a common grief.   And on the big world stage – well, for better or worse, the image of the leaders of the G20 gathered in London’s Docklands to express their unity in the face of world economic recession will be one for the history books.  In the chair, Gordon Brown declared the end of “the Washington consensus” – the extreme free-market ideology that has dominated world affairs since 1980 – and announced the leaders’ shared belief that “growth, to be sustained, has to be shared”.

And needless to say, the first reaction of many – in a culture wedded to scepticism, and addicted to stories of splits, rows, and conflicts – was one of doubt, denial, and mild mockery.  In Scotland, some questioned whether the First Minister has always responded to tragedy in such a graceful, non-partisan manner; in London, many sections of the media were reluctant to let go of the idea of a fierce summit confrontation between Britain and America on one hand, France and Germany on the other.

The markets, though, liked what they saw, perhaps recognising that in a crisis as deep as the present one, disunity among major governments is dangerous to the future of free trade and exchange.  Down at the grassroots, I would guess that most ordinary citizens were likewise relieved to see world leaders singing from something like the same song-sheet; folk memory  tells us that this is the kind of crisis that can lead to war and terrible hardship, if nations stop talking to one another.  And the whole episode provokes deep thought about the high value our political culture tends to place on constant opposition and dispute, often of the most futile kind; and about how we might, at this moment of political change, strike a new balance between a rigorous protection of the right to oppose and dissent, and a useful appreciation of the value of occasional moments of unity.

For let’s be clear: at the moment, in Britain, we often seem to enjoy the worst of both worlds, in the sense that we have become more and more squeamishly intolerant of events like this week’s almost entirely peaceful and good-humoured anti-capitalist demonstration in London, while nurturing a political culture which encourages the most witless forms of daily political confrontation between party politicians.  I don’t defend the systematic abuse of expenses that seems to be endemic at Westminster; and I think the opposition are absolutely right to challenge aspects of Gordon Brown’s current financial policy.

But the brute fact is that useful political debate in this country is not furthered one inch by the implication either that Labour politicians are particularly personally corrupt, or that Gordon Brown is both stupid and malign in his approach to the wellbeing of the average British citizen; and our addiction to this kind of personalised political bickering and bitching, often mistaken for real political debate, is not only unpleasant in itself, but actively damaging to our chances of identifying effective political solutions to pressing problems which require collective action, implemented with a high level of consent.

And when this kind of political tribalism and grandstanding is extended to the global stage – well, then the results can be truly terrifying.   It’s no secret, for example, that the sheer force of market ideology in Washington has probably cost humankind a vital twenty years in the battle against climate change.   Like ancient theologians arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, world leaders bickered for decades over the question of whether governments had any right to intervene in such matters, while carbon dioxide thundered into the atmosphere at ever-increasing rates.  To put it bluntly, our complete disunity over climate change – both internationally, and within our own societies – has rendered us powerless to act effectively against a truly catastrophic threat; and it should give us pause for thought about the point at which our cherished culture of political back-biting, and automatic opposition, becomes dangerously disempowering.

Real freedom of speech and thought, in other words, is indispensible to the creative future of humanity, and should be defended to the death.  But the kind of pathological individualism that mocks every display of unity, that derides the possible of real consensus among thinking people, that denies the power of collective action taken by elected governments with real democratic consent – that is an ideology now as outdated as it is dysfunctional.  No doubt many tensions seethed beneath the surface of Thursday’s global meeting in London.   But those whose instinct is to talk up those divisions, to deride Gordon Brown’s efforts at consensus, and to mock the smiling photographs of world leaders in harmony, should remember that this is much more than an idle political game.   For it’s on that fragile unity of purpose, expressed in those brief images, that the whole future of our world may now depend.  And we mock it at our peril; like people trampling on our own last, best hope of a future worth working for, and worth surviving to see.

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For King And Country; Lucky Box

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOR KING AND COUNTRY at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and LUCKY BOX at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 2.4.09
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For King And Country   4 stars ****
Lucky Box   4 stars ****

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT, when you head to the King’s Theatre for a night of dramatic entertainment?  Normally, it’s a show of two halves, presented in the kind of showbiz performance style that helps to fill a big auditorium; often it’s fairly old-fashioned stuff, with a conventional set neatly contained behind the fourth wall of the proscenium arch.   And usually, in the end, it offers a sense of resolution; even in tragedy, we’re allowed to feel that something has been completed, some complex and difficult human story made more lucid and beautiful in the telling.

So it’s a measure of the subtle but telling radicalism of John Wilson’s fine 1964 play For King And Country, about the fate of a young British deserter on the Western Front at the height of the First World War, that it so rigorously challenges some of these expectations, leaving the audience shaken and disturbed.  In some ways, this latest show from the Touring Partnership, co-produced by the King’s Theatre itself, looks conventional enough.  It has two straightforward big-stage sets, one suggesting the grim half-ruined cellar where the hapless Private Arthur Hamp is being held for trial, the other the once-handsome room in a commandeered house where the court-martial takes place.   The action is divided into three conventional acts; and the actors playing the officers all look the part we’ve come to expect from a dozen First World War dramas, down to the historically accurate uniforms, and the brisk, stiff-upper-lip accents.

That, though, is where the reassurance ends; for in a sombre 90 minutes without an interval, Wilson’s play flatly refuses to comply with most of our preconceived ideas about how such a drama should unfold.   On one hand, it is utterly relentless in its portrayal of the breathtaking cruelty of a system which takes a barely articulate country boy, whose nerve has broken after three years on the front, and judicially murders him for his moment of weakness, or of sanity.  In its notably courageous  final act, it even resists our longing to see Hamp achieve some kind of peace in death, showing him hauled to the firing squad in a squalid haze of rum and morphine, unable even to take final communion from the increasingly distraught padre.

Yet at the same time, it looks squarely at the horrible truth that once this kind of mass warfare has begun, even good men are forced to conclude that without such draconian discipline, troops could never be brought, day after day, to wage the war, and lay their lives on the line.  The officers here – Daniel Weyman as defending officer Hargreaves, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as the brusque but practical Lieutenant Webb, David Yelland as the President of the Court – are not monsters, but brave and articulate men, full of intelligent awareness of the pressures faced by ordinary soldiers; yet at the end, the padre’s agonised tears of conscience irritate even the best of them, as a distraction from the business of war which they must complete.

All of this is powerfully captured in Tristram Powell’s thoughtful production, which features intense ensemble acting from a fourteen-strong male company, and an unforgettable central performance from Adam Gillen as Hamp, a kind of slow-witted Dickensian orphan trapped in the ultimate 20th century nightmare.  Sometimes, the acting style is disconcertingly naturalistic and low-key, given the size of the stage.   But in the end, Powell’s quietly realistic approach pays rich dividends, in a production that shocks as much as it moves, and places the audience in an unavoidable confrontation with the real brutalism of war.

David Harrower’s new short play Lucky Box – the latest show in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre season at Oran Mor and the Traverse – also circles around the theme of men and violence.   In a clearing in a forest, a man in a suit – known only as A – sits on a mysterious plastic box, waiting for someone; he confronts a boy known only as J, a poised and cold-eyed teenager from whom he seeks – well, perhaps information, or reassurance, or a sense of contact with a lost son.

That the man is damaged in some way is not in doubt; in a script full of Harrower’s characteristic spare poetry and ruthless observation,  he says he is a casualty of the economic downturn, reeling from the “body blow” of redundancy from (the ultimate irony) his job as a careers adviser.

But as the conversation continues, it seems the damage goes deeper than that.   His son is not – or has not been – a normal boy.  His wife seems to have become a stranger.  And it gradually emerges that this exchange is taking place in the aftermath of some decisive act of aggression or violence; although who is the perpetrator is never quite clear, as A., veers ever more alarmingly among the possible roles of protective father, kindly mentor, distraught  avenger, ruthless abuser, and damaged psychopath, and J. looks increasingly like a strange hybrid of villain and victim.

At the end, the outcome of the dialogue remains tantalisingly open, although we fear it cannot come to good.  But in the meantime – given two superb performances from Stuart Bowman and Scott Fletcher , in Dominic Hill’s quietly lethal production – we seem to have visited not only some of the most dark and damaged places of our own society, but somewhere much more ancient than that.  A place, that is, where older men challenge young ones, and vice versa, for reasons of fear, ambition, lust, rage, revenge, dominance, or survival, that can never be fully scrutinised; but that are always there, lying in wait, whenever we step beyond the bounds of civilisation, and into the woods.

For King And Country at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until 4 April; Lucky Box at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 4 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 7-11 April.

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The Lasses O

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE LASSES O (Rowan Tree Theatre Co. at the Wynd Theatre, Melrose) for The Scotsman, 1.4.09 _________________________________________________________

4 stars ****

HOMECOMING YEAR; yet while the organisers seem happy to use cheesy tourist imagery of Robert Burns on their advertising material, not much cash has been forthcoming, so far, for artists and promoters who actually want to engage with the radical substance of the poet’s work. Rowan Tree Theatre’s The Lasses O is a case in point, a 21st century re-examination of Burns’s life and song now touring the Borders on a slender shoestring of local support; yet so passionately inventive and well-made that on Saturday night in Melrose, some of the audience were moved to a standing ovation.

The play, by poet and dramatist Janet Paisley, takes the form of four monologues spoken by women in Burns’s life, each one shaped around a particular Burns song. But these women are not the wives and lovers you might expect. Instead, we meet the midwife at Burns’s birth, the old nurse who helps raise him, the shapely mother-in-law riven with lust for the comely young poet, and the faithful young Dumfries neighbour, Jessie Lewars, who helped Burns and his wife through the terrible final months of his life.

It’s a powerful formula for a new perspective on Burns, presented through a passionate and beautifully-pitched performance from Gerda Stevenson, and accompanied by the memorably wild and interesting music of cellist Seylan Baxter, harpist Rachel Newton, and flautist Lillias Kinsman-Blake. And what emerges, in John Bett’s production, is one of the most subtly feminist shows I’ve seen in a while; one in which the desire, the creativity, the nurturing energy and the tradition-bearing power of women take a memorable leading role, even as they celebrate the life and song of a rare man who, instead of fearing the sensual power of women, matched it with his own, and allowed it to soar free.

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