Monthly Archives: May 2009

Groundhog Day In Downing Street, As Structural Problems In British Politics Destroy Yet Another Government- Column 30.5.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 30.5.09
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THE GENERAL ELECTION is almost a year away; and yet the government seems so obviously weak, divided, and burned out that many can scarcely imagine it  lasting that long.  Those in power stand accused of abusing Britain’s traditional constitutional settlement in ways that have over-centralised decision-making, reduced the power and autonomy of MP’s, and turned the once-mighty Westminster Parliament into a mere rubber stamp for government.

Worse, there is an atmosphere of sleaze around; many MP’s stand accused of using their positions for personal enrichment, rather than for the good of their constituents.  Leading media personalities are talking of standing for Parliament, against some of the worst offenders.  Senior members of the Shadow Cabinet are writing persuasively, in the more serious newspapers, about the urgent need for constitutional reform.  And in the meantime, major issues of war and peace, social exclusion and environmental degradation, are largely neglected, as Westminster fiddles, and parts of society are left to burn.

Yes, it’s a familiar and depressing picture, after the political upheavals of the past few weeks.  Yet what I’m describing is not the political situation today, but the one back in the summer of 1996, when John Major’s failing government was struggling against the inevitability of its own demise; and it’s the similarity between these two moments in UK political history that makes me increasingly wary of the opposition parties’ strident calls for a general election, as the one-stroke solution to the current mood of public disgust with politics and parliament.

For what history tells us is this: that the structural problems in the organisation of British politics are now so deep that if a general election were held now – on the basis of an unreformed electoral system, and an unreformed system for the nomination and selection of candidates – then for those of us with vivid memories of 1997,  the day after that election would seem pretty much like Groundhog Day.  The new young leader, his wife and family would walk up Downing Street to declare a brave new dawn of decency and accountability in British politics; a few constitutional reform measures would be written into the first Queen’s Speech, although nothing radical enough to entail serious change at Westminster.

Then the gates would swing shut, and it would soon be business as usual.   Lobbying  and media pressures would dictate the re-emergence of the normal pattern of politics, with MP’s whipped into a dull appearance of unanimity, central government making shows of strength on issues supposed to be decided elsewhere, and any chance of real people-power undermined by powerful vested interests.  And thirteen or fourteen years down the road, we would find ourselves back in the same position, with a raddled and exhausted Cameron defending the indefensible, and some bright young leader from the opposition benches portraying himself – or even herself – as the people’s friend, and the one-vote remedy for all our political ills.

And that, in the end, is the crux of the matter: that if the moral and intellectual quality of British politics is to improve, then all those of us outside the professional political game are going to have to do much more, in future, than make that single Westminster cross on a ballot paper, once every five years.  In the first place, we need to reconcile ourselves to voting more often and more subtly, as we already do in Scottish national and local elections.  We need to use a range of different electoral systems, to exert a series of balancing pressures on our politicians; and we need fully to embrace the idea of coalition and minority government, as preferable to the large “false majorities”, and hundreds of safe seats, generated by the Westminster system.

And then secondly, we also need to think about re-engaging with the party system through which our parliamentarians are nominated and selected, either by rejoining and reforming existing parties, or by creating completely new ones, better fitted to the political landscape of our time.  Of course, to many people, that just sounds too time-consuming to be a serious option; too much like hard work, too boring compared with an evening watching Britain’s Got Talent.

But let’s suppose, just for a moment, that the current economic downturn is more than a mere blip in an endlessly self-mending market system.  Let us imagine that we might – as all the numbers suggest – be facing a real energy and resource crunch, and a long term need to live by a different scale of values.  And let’s assume, just for a moment, that in that new world, we find ourselves both with more time on our hands – millions of us will be unemployed, after all – and with a much stronger sense of how bad government could severely damage our lives; then that could be the moment when poltical reform really begins.

For as we have learned in Scotland these last ten years, new structures – from transparent expenses systems to proportional representation – can help protect political institutions from the worst excesses of arrogance and sleaze.   But in the end, if citizens remain disengaged and cynical, the effect of such change tends to be marginal.   It only begins to make a decisive difference at the point where some profound social shock, driving up from the grassroots of politics, starts to generate completely new political forces.  Now, a change of that kind is beginning to test the old Westminster system to destruction.  And although a swift general election now might ease the pressure of public disdain for a year or two, we need to recognise that it will take more than a set of new faces at the top to rescue British democracy from the cycle of disrepute into which it now tends to fall; and to rebuild its living connection with the ordinary voters of this country, in a form that can withstand the pressures of the age.

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Imaginate 2: Under The Carpet, Lava, Brilliant

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on IMAGINATE II: UNDER THE CARPET (Theatr Iolo at the Lyceum Studio), LAVA (Studio Orka at the Botanic Gardens), and BRILLIANT (Fevered Sleep at the North Edinburgh Arts Centre), for The Scotsman 30.5.09
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Under The Carpet  4 stars ****
Lava    4 stars ****
Brilliant  2 stars **

AT A CHILDREN’S THEATRE festival, the audience is often almost as entertaining as the shows; and the younger they are, the less they are likely to be constrained by the grown-up idea that audiences are only there to watch.

Theatr Iolo of Wales’s latest show Under the Carpet, for example, at the Lyceum Studio until Monday, is actually based on stories told to the company by nursery-school children in the 3-5 age-range for which it’s designed; and from an adult point of view, the situation it describes is not too interesting.  Nonno and Lol are a kind of Vladimir and Estragon of nursery theatre, beautifully played by Stephen Hickman and Jak Poore; they have lived together for a long time, and annoy one another a bit.  But they join together in searching for the stories they find hidden around their house – in the cupboard, under the table, on the ironing board, in the button-box.  Their timing and performance style is subtly perfect, full of unobtrusive skill.  And the response of the little children to their quiet physical comedy of fallouts, surprises, and small reconciliations is simply a joy to hear; roars of laughter, little helpful comments, gasps of surprise, and deep throaty chuckles of recognition.

Lava, by Orka Studio of Belgium, is aimed at older children, around 6-10; but it, too, produces a memorably complex response.  Staged in a spartan laboratory tent in the Botanic Gardens (until Sunday), Lava features three soil scientists – a man, a woman, and their student Catherine – who are deeply disturbed by an amazing discovery they have made in the earth beneath Edinburgh.  The two senior scientists want to prod, slice, dissect and experiment; Catherine has the feeling that the little underground dwellers they have found should be treated as equals and friends.  The show makes brilliant use of fibre-optic cameras combined with film, of tiny objects, and of serious interaction between the three characters.  And at the end, the junior audience are left shaken and stirred outside the tent; full of a sense of unresolved responsibility towards a newfound group of “others” whose future, in the hands of human beings, seems scarily uncertain.

Fevered Sleep’s Brilliant, at North Edinburgh Arts until Sunday, also gets a giggly response from its 3-5 year-old audience; but partly, I fear, for the wrong reasons.  Brilliant is a show about light, which features some lovely visual effects involving mirrors, glitter-balls, rolling moons and veils of mist; but it also boasts one of the most coy and incoherent scripts I’ve ever come across in children’s theatre, all saccharine cries of “goodnight light! goodnight moon!”, repeated ad absurdum.  The look of this show is promising, in other words; but those responsible for the script need to get out more, particularly to wonderful international children’s theatre festivals, like Imaginate.

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Imaginate 1: The Story Of A Family, The Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy, Thick Skinned Things, Queen

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on IMAGINATE – CHILDREN’S INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 28.5.09
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The Story Of A Family  4 stars ****
The Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy  4 stars ****
Thick Skinned Things   4 stars ****
Queen   3 stars ***

WHEN IS A CHILDREN’S SHOW not a children’s show?  When the audience watching it turns sixteen, seems to be the working definition at Edinburgh’s brilliant Imaginate Festival, which celebrates in 20th birthday this year.  There are certainly few other limits set to the theatrical work in the festival, which contains plenty of life and colour, but also – for older audiences – marches boldly into areas where children’s theatre once feared to go, from depression, madness and the loss of love, to the hidden strain of trying to maintain a perfect, peachy-sweet middle class family life.

In Compagnia Radisio of Italy’s Story Of A Family, for example, we meet a lovely family of three, a Mum, a Dad, and a little girl who sees herself as a future world-beating Olympic acrobat of the Olga Korbut kind.  This family is absolutely perfect in every way; everything in their life goes as well as possible, all the time.

But gradually, over 50 minutes, through a torrentially inventive use of repetitive movement and non-speech sound, the company begin to suggest how the maintenance of this cloying, ultra-loving domestic image, and the happy routine that is part of it, is gradually driving all three of them mad with boredom and irritation.  The Mum is a monster of competitive smugness and suppressed ambition, the Dad can get nasty when crossed, and the pressures on the adored only child are huge, as the parents increasingly live through her and her potential achievements.  Yet there’s also genuine love there; and three brillliant performances from Consuelo Ghiretti, Beatrice Baruffini, and Davide Doro, in a memorably clever, theatrical and subtle exploration of the pressures on modern family life.

The Story Of A Family sets off on a short tour of Scotland next week; and so does Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy, a clever and wistful show from Imaginate newcomers Slingsby, of South Australia.  Staged in a tented room at Dancebase, this show adopts a loosely Victorian, gypsy storyteller style, and makes engaging and sometimes brilliant use of film, shadow-play, miniature puppetry and – above all – of glowing projected images, to tell the tale of a boy made of cheese who is cast adrift in the universe when his cheesy little planet is fondued by a meteor, and of his long struggle to accept the loss of his parents.  “Are you ready to be saddened?  Are you ready to be dazzled?” lead actor Stephen Sheehan asks his audience of over-10’s; and although I could have done without some of the more look-at-me aspects of his deliberately self-conscious performance style, this show achieves both effects, with great charm and feeling.

For sheer unapologetic darkness, though, this year’s festival is unlikely to see anything bolder than Stella den Haag’s Thick Skinned Things, a 35-minute monologue for a deeply damaged, woman who feels that she’s a mole, so much does she want to burrow into the earth and disappear; but whose life is disrupted when she falls for a neighbour because of the compellingly graceful way in which he takes his rubbish out.  It’s short, it’s dank, at times it’s quite annoying in its evocation of extreme introversion.  But the way this powerful text (Hans van den Boom) and performance (an amazing Erna van den Berg) tugs at the heart-strings, and plays with archetypes of love and loss from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, is astonishingly haunting; if you ever get the chance to see it – and avoid it, if you’re under 14 – then you may not exactly enjoy it, but you will never forget it.

By contrast with these shows, the Mary Queen of Scots play Queen, by Sgaramusch of Switzerland, seems like a fairly silly piece of fun.  Set in a radio studio, where a couple of flaky actors are recording the action on reel-to-reel tape, Queen sends the story of Mary up rotten, without really explaining why.  Particularly in its opening sequence, the text seems strongly influenced by Liz Lochhead’s version of the tale.   But instead of challenging and expanding historical and cultural stereotypes, as Lochhead’s text does, it simply reinforces them.  It entirely misses the religious dimension of the story; and its main satirical idea seems to be that all the men in Mary’s life suffered from the pox, and were useless to her.   This is almost true, as far as it goes.  But it seems like a thin reason for creating a play about Mary in Switzerland and bringing it all the way back to Scotland; and the radio-studio formula, with its jokes about silly sound-effects, represents a pretty obvious way of raising a few laughs.

As for Scottish-based children’s companies, all of whose current shows have already opened in Scotland, they have been making an increasingly impressive contribution to the Imaginate Festival in recent years.  But it’s noticeable that this year, only Visible Fictions’ edgy version of Peter Pan – at the Royal Lyceum from today – even begins to  approach the troubling territory explored by so much of the work from elsewhere.  TAG’s beautiful, inventive Museum of Dreams is all miniaturist charm and romance; and Catherine Wheels’ deliberately retro version of E. Nesbit’s Book Of Beasts, while thoroughly enjoyable, wraps its story of political disaster and devastation in layers of nostalgic reassurance.  There’s nothing much wrong with the work, in other words; but this year, unlike some of the international shows on view, it seems at some distance form the cutting edge of children’s theatre, and in need of the fresh inspiration a festival like Imaginate never fails to provide.

The Story Of A Family at the Lyceum Studio until Saturday, and then on tour to Easterhouse, Hawick, Dunfermline, Lerwick and Glasgow.  The Tragical Life Of Cheeseboy at Dancebase until Sunday, and then on tour to Falkirk, Hamilton, Easterhouse, Glasgow and Lerwick.  Thick Skinned Things, run completed. Queen, final performance at the Traverse Theatre today.

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Subway Festival: Inner Circle and Sub Opera

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on INNER CIRCLE and SUB OPERA at the Subway Festival, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 26.5.09
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Inner Circle  4 stars ****
Sub Opera   4  stars ****

THERE WERE STREET THEATRE ARTISTS cartwheeling at Partick, Claire Cunningham and Sharmanka rolling out their new show Sputnik in the yard, and – courtesy of Rhymes With Purple Theatre Company – a man encountering Death in the rear carriage of the train that took me back to Queen Street.

Yup, it was Glasgow’s Subway Festival on the underground, back for a bigger, better and more theatrical second edition after last year’s success.  The most ambitious theatre offering, this year, was Martin O’Connor’s Inner Circle, an intense an edgy 24-minute piece – adapted from Renato Gabrielli’s Italian original, designed to fit one circuit of the underground, and performed in the rear carriage of a train with the help of a mike and amplifier – about a man, an ordinary subway commuter, who knows he’s going nowhere; until a lost and distressed two-year-old boy on the underground catches his eye, and forces him – just briefly – to confront his dangerous need for more life.  There’s something about the loud artificial sound that doesn’t quite work; audience earphones might give a stronger sense of internal monologue.  But O’Connor performs the piece beautifully, in a surprisingly disturbing event for such a light-hearted festival.

There was even more dramatic energy, though, in new company proudExposure’s Sub Opera, in which a girl called Emily – brilliantly played by Sita Pieraccini – discovers on a circular subway ride that all her friends have been lying to her in various ways.  Working without the microphones they had been planning to use, proudExposure were forced back on the sheer power of gesture, lip-reading and the odd electrifying audible exchange, moving thrillingly along the borderline between ordinary behaviour on the underground, and outright melodrama.  “Oh no”, said one woman, as she reached her stop.   “Now I’ll never find our how it ends!”

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Why The Lovely Joanna Lumley Is Not The Answer To Britain’s Political Crisis – Column 23.5.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.5.09
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IT’S A WONDERFUL PICTURE, featured in various newspapers yesterday morning; and it speaks volumes about the political times we live in.   It shows a man and a woman sitting facing one another on period armchairs, in front of an elaborate marble fireplace.  She, on the right, is sitting elegantly with her hands clasped over her heart, a smile of slightly incredulous gratitude on her face; he, on the left, is leaning ardently forward in his seat, gazing into her eyes with a look of besotted fascination.

They are, of course, the Prime Minister, and the lovely Miss Joanna Lumley; he has just told her of her victory in the campaign to win UK residence rights for former Gurkha soldiers, and she is miming joy and thanks.  In theory, he is the man of power, and she the humble campaigner seeking his favour; in practice, she looks relaxed and in command, while he looks needy, and desperate for approval.

For as the Westminster system totters, ministers are caught with their snouts in the trough, the Tory opposition suffers collateral damage, and the Prime Minister’s chances of pulling Britain swiftly out of recession are swept away in a tide of public exasperation and contempt, figures like Ms Lumley – not professional politicians, but willing to get involved on issues they care about  – have emerged as the new political darlings of both media and public.  “Joanna Lumley for Prime Minister!”, they cry.  And before you can say the words “expenses claim”, the delightful Esther Rantzen is stepping forward to offer herself as a prospective independent candidate for Luton South; and the media are scanning the horizon for a whole army of Jamie Olivers, Bob Geldofs, Gerri Halliwells and Jeremy Clarksons who might be persuaded to replace our discredited chamber of politicians with a rainbow parliament of feisty and glamorous individuals willing to challenge power, and stand up for the little person.

And up to a point, this response to our current political impasse is richly understandable.  It is clearly true that there is something rotten in the state of our party-political culture.  Short of real grassroots members, frightened of open debate, grotesquely over-centralised, terrified of the media, and notably uninspired in their development of policy, our political parties increasingly seem incapable of nurturing any individuality, creativity, personality or talent in would-be professional politicians, preferring the kind of dead-eyed clones who can be relied upon to stay “on message”.  And one consequence of this attitude is the ghastly sexlessness and joylessness of the prevailing atmosphere in most of our political institutions; even our newish Scottish Parliament seems largely inhabited by humourless types in boring clothes who talk like powerpoint presentations.  In this context, it would take a heart of stone not to be thrilled by the sight of a stunner like Miss Lumley taking the turgid political process by the throat, and giving it a hearty shake.   As one wag put it, when Gordon Brown differed slightly with Ms Lumley over the detail of one of their meetings, “He won’t have a clue what he said, no man of his age would.   He’ll just have been thinking, ‘I’m with Purdey’!”

And yet, when the chips are down, only a fool could really imagine that a shift towards celebrity politics represents a solution to our problems.  For a start, the warm feelings that we entertain towards media celebrities are largely virtual emotions, dependent not on the reality of the person, but on their image as portrayed in the media – an image which, of course, can be turned on a sixpence within days.

Secondly, celebrity involvement in politics is almost invariably confined to single-issue campaigning, which can be a tough business, but does not even begin to approach the complexity of real political decision-making.  The reason why we have political parties in the first place is because a strong view on a single issue is simply not enough to generate good government.  We need broad political movements which are prepared to set priorities for the nation: to measure freedom against security, taxation against expenditure, the claims of the poor against those of the wealthy, or the rights of Gurkhas against the rights of all those others across the world whom Britain has used and then betrayed.  The idea that these decisions are simple is a lie, the stuff of dangerous authoritarian populism; and the idea that we do not need strong and widely-based political parties, as forums in which such priorities can be debated and presented as coherent programmes to the electorate, is one that remains unproven in any serious democracy.

So what can we learn from the current surge of interest in celebrity politics?  Mainly that our burned-out party system is now close to breaking-point, and needs radical renewal.  Above all, we need to remind ourselves that politics is not about apologising for the powers that be, and browbeating ordinary people into accepting their unacccountable decisions, but about creatively redistributing power in an endless process of organisation, negotiation, legislation and bargaining;  and that the lack of glamour and creativity in current UK politics reflects the extent to which it has abasoned that process of real dynamic power-broking, and allowed itself to become a tepid PR operation for the forces of global capitalism, without pride, poetry, or a single glint of those famous arrows of desire.

Joanna Lumley is not the answer, in other words.  But the fierce impact of this gorgeous woman on Westminster, over the last few weeks, should come as a sharp reminder of the energy that formal party politics has lost, in recent decades; and of the deep radical sources of power – sometimes as unpredictable and anarchic as life itself – with which our political process will now have to reconnect, if Britain is to have a strong democratic future, to match its remarkable political past.

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His Dark Materials Part One

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HIS DARK MATERIALS PART ONE     at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 23.5.09
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3 stars ***

IT’S A STRANGE EXPERIENCE, watching this stage version of Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy in the week when the Irish judiciary published its report into the abuse of children in Christian institutions.   Pullman’s epic story is famously anti-clerical, and its ambition is breathtaking; if Milton, in Paradise Lost, set out to “justify the ways of God to man”, then Pullman aims to reverse our traditional ideas of godly authority, and to arraign religious institutions for their cruel attempts to destroy the rich sensual joy of life.

So Pullman’s little heroine, Lyra Belacqua, is a brave and brilliant innocent abroad in a strange post-Victorian world of church power; a young adventurer born to challenge existing authority across a myriad of multiverses, with the help of strange armies of witches, daemons, and warrior bears.   And the challenge of presenting her epic adventures on stage, gallantly undertaken by Birmingham Rep and West Yorkshire Playhouse in this two-part touring version, in Edinburgh until Sunday, is enough to stretch even the boldest of theatrical imaginations.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Rachel Kavanaugh and Sarah Esdaile’s production of Nicholas Wright’s 2003 version seems, at least in the first half, not quite equal to the complexity of Pullman’s vision.  It certainly retains enough of the story, in spirit and detail, to satisfy enthusiasts.   But as a piece of theatre, His Dark Materials becomes absorbed in a love-affair with puppet-makers Blind Summit – who create weird and impressive bears and daemons – at the expense of the narrative lucidity of its overall design, which is all darkness, bittiness and confusion.  And despite an exquisite and touching central performance from Amy McAllister, and dedicated support from a 20-strong cast, the overall impression is of a show that has got into a tussle with the might of Pullman’s narrative, and been reduced to a slightly confused and lacklustre submission.

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What The Animals Say

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHAT THE ANIMALS SAY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 21.5.09
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4 stars ****

THE HEART SINKS, briefly, when it becomes clear that one of the two characters in this first play by actor David Ireland is – well –  an actor, whining nervily over his failure to land those big parts.  But if too many young theatre artists tend to waste time brooding on the small world of thespian ambition and frustration, Ireland’s play What The Animals Say – this week’s show in the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season – soon kicks all reservations clear into touch, with the fierce energy of its dialogue between two boys from Belfast now resident in Glasgow, one a struggling actor, the other a star footballer who has just signed for Celtic, despite his Protestant origins.

When we first encounter Jimmy and Eddie, they’ve just met in the Stranraer departure lounge of the Northern Ireland ferry.  They recognise each other as old schoolmates, and start to banter at warp speed about the contrasting lives they now lead, and related topics of sectarianism, identity, race, sexuality and culture; never can the popular assumption that “theatre is gay” have been booted around a stage with such exhilarating frankness.   And in the second half, set in Eddie’s Parkhead dressing-room a few weeks later, things take a slightly surreal turn, reflecting all kinds of ghastly truths about the modern cult of celebrity, and about the latent violence of the vigorous macho culture that shaped these two characters.  By the time Lorne Campbell’s production storms to an end, after a breathless 40 minutes or so, the audience are ready to cheer David Walshe and Robbie Jack to the echo, for an outstandingly witty and energised pair of  performances; and as for the writer – well, with Ireland already commissioned to write further plays for Belfast companies Ransom and Tinderbox, it looks as though a star is born.

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Ghosts, Chicago, Museum Of Dreams

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on GHOSTS at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, CHICAGO at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, and MUSEUM OF DREAMS (TAG at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow) for Scotsman Arts, 21.5.09
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Ghosts   4 stars ****
Chicago    4 stars ****
Museum Of Dreams ****

NOT MANY PEOPLE EVER GET to know this: but sex is one of the great driving forces of the work of Henrik Ibsen, that supposedly gloomy old titan of Nordic drama.  At the age of 40 or so, he completed his great epic dramatic poem Peer Gynt, about a young man on the rampage gradually becoming an old man full of yearning and regret; and I doubt whether there has ever been a finer stage production of that famously impossible text than Dominic Hill’s brilliant 2007 version for Dundee Rep and the NTS, now about to return to Scotland for a major tour.

After Peer Gynt, though, the focus of Ibsen’s drama shifted inexorably towards a series of great female heroes and protagonists, from Nora in A Doll’s House to Hedda Gabler.  And in no play is that fascination with women, and their matching struggle for fulfilment, more obvious than in his fiercely controversial 1881 play Ghosts, in which he mounts a ruthless assault on the sexual hypocrisy of a society in which the lives of women and young people could be devastated by the private immorality of men whose public reputations remained high, and unblemished.

Helene Alving, the heoine of Ghosts, is a woman who has married the wrong man when very young, who has been rejected for conventional reasons by the man she truly wants, and who has returned to her libertine husband and borne him a son she adores, only to find in middle life that this son is dying of the congenital syphilis he inherited from his father.  As she prepares to preside over the opening of an orphanage named in her husband’s memory, her inner conflict between convention and rebellion reaches a ferocious crisis-point; and as a strong woman blamed by everyone for daring to survive what she has suffered, she is left with absolutely nothing.

Jeremy Raison’s new production of Ghosts for the Citizens’ Theatre is anything but subtle; it treats the play not as a sombre slide into tragedy, but as a fierce comic satire against the prudery, misogyny and hypocrisy of provincial Norwegian life, that crashes at the end into a tableau of extreme misery.   It’s a high-risk strategy, in which the actors walk a constant tightrope between blazing melodramatic energy and absurd self-parody.  Worse than that, with the usual male  purblindness to the driving sexuality and tragically wasted potential of Mrs. Alving’s feeling for  Pastor Manders, the man she once loved, Jeremy Raison allows Kevin McMonagle to play him as a foolish old buffoon, no more sexually attractive than the sofa on which he sits.

For all that, though, Raison’s irreverent approach to the play, supported by Amelia Bullmore’s spare and excellent modern version of the text, generates a fierce and questioning energy, not least through Maureen Beattie’s towering performance as Mrs. Alving, a middle-aged woman still bursting with inconvenient sensual life and intellectual restlessness.  Jason Southgate’s set, evoking a bleached-wood Norwegian garden room, is beautifully lit by Charles Balfour to conjure up fierce Nordic alternations between radiant sunlight and rain-drenched gloom; and Elspeth Brodie and Steven Robertson light up the stage, as the young people so closely bound together, by their inheritance of secrets and lies, that the happiness they seek can never be theirs.

There’s not much question of misogyny in the story of Chicago, the great Kander and Ebb musical now on its umpteenth tour of Britain, and still drawing capacity crowds to the Playhouse.  The women in this famous fantasy-cabaret of a show are all so drop-dead gorgeous that – in alliance with their cynical celebrity lawyer, Billy Flynn – they can play the compromised justice system of 1920’s Chicago like a bar-room piano, and literally get away with murder.

But if this stylish fishnets-and-bowler-hat show is familiar now, the version on stage at the Playhouse this week delivers this show’s great roster of songs with a rare and pitch-perfect punch.  Jimmy Osmond makes a rotund but effective Billy Flynn, deploying a fine, tuneful voice.   And Emma Barton – best known to the world as Honey Mitchell in Eastenders – makes a truly memorable Roxie Hart, dancing like a dream, and radiating a sense of intelligence and irony that truly matches the mood of the show, along with the the kind of thousand-watt star quality that makes even a huge theatre like the Playhouse seem intimate, exciting, and warm.

True love certainly conquers all, though, in TAG’s new children’s show Museum Of Dreams, presented in a gorgeous little hexagonal space specially created in the main rehearsal room of the Citizens’ Theatre.  A curtain opens, and an excited audience of around twenty children are welcomed by a middle-aged caretaker (Keith MacPherson) who shows off his five exhibits, displayed in glowing old-fashioned glass cases around the walls.  There’s a chair, a violin and banjo, a pair of tap shoes, an old-fashioned gramophone, and a mysterious box; and after the keeper nods off to sleep, a puppet girl in a yellow dress emerges from the box, and dreams and reality – puppet world and real world – begin to merge in ever more exciting and magical ways.

Somewhere at the heart of this lovely show, there’s a metaphor about friends or lovers finding one another despite coming from very different worlds.  But whatever you make of the slightly sentimental happy ending, Ailie Cohen and Guy Hollands’s production  is an absolutely enchanting magic toy-box of  a show, a child’s dream come true; and it makes a brilliant curtain-raiser to next week’s Imaginate children’s festival in Edinburgh, where it plays at the Brunton as part of the usual thrilling international programme for audiences under 16.

Ghosts at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 30 May.   Chicago at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 23 May.  Museum Of Dreams at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 26 May, and at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, 28 May – 1 June.

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Threats And Opportunities In The Westminster Meltdown – Column 16.5.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 16.5.09
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ON TUESDAY MORNING, I am due to climb on a train and head  south, to chair a meeting at the Houses of Parliament.  The aim is to debate ten years of the Scottish Parliament, and to ask whether Westminster, with its thousand years of history, could possibly have anything to learn from the new institution at Holyrood; and I can’t help thinking, as I book my journey, just how different the mood of that meeting is likely to be, following the events of the last few weeks.  Back in February or March, when the debate was first planned, it would probably have been scantily attended by a few constitutional enthuasiasts, and treated with the usual mixture of scorn and denial by most people in the Westminster village.

But now, the small room that was reserved for the meeting is already overbooked; and it seems that the atmosphere is likely to smack less of jovial indifference, and more of bewildered  concern.  In one sense, of course, the expenses storm that has engulfed Westminster in the last fortnight is a minor story; the sums of money involved are tiny, compared with the life-sapping trillions now being drained from the pockets of blameless taxpayers thanks to the errors and misdeeds of the great lords of finance.

When the conduct of MP’s is measured against their function, though – and their special status as elected representatives of the people – it seems simply and bitterly intolerable.  At a time when we need our representatives to be on our side, batting for the majority in Britain who still get by on an average household income of less than £30,000 a year, all we can see is that so many of them have gone over to the others, the six-figure people: the ones who who see £63,000 a year as intolerably low pay, and who think of  the 90% or more who live on less as – well, members of a different species, living by different rules.  The level of public anger is, I think, unprecedented in recent political history; and although some at Westminster seem to believe that they can simply push through a few reforms and carry on, wiser heads are beginning to grasp that a whole phase of political history is coming to an end, as our parliamentary system faces what may be its biggest crisis of legitimacy since the great democratic reforms of the 19th century.

So what are the consequences likely to be, as we look out towards the next British general election?  First, as Gordon Brown was suggesting in Derbyshire on Thursday – and as Lord Tebbit was actively urging, earlier in the week – there may well be a volatile and sometimes alarming flight away from the mainstream UK political parties.  The truth is that our main political parties are fast becoming the “rotten boroughs” of our time, empty shells that monopolise all the political power-structures of the nation for a tiny population of unrepresentative careerists, despite the absence of anything resembling mass membership or support.  At the European elections, now less than three weeks away, these parties are likely to receive the shock of their lives, as voters desert in their scores of thousands for parties like UKIP and the BNP on the right, and for single-issue campaigns and candidates on the left; and this time around, they would be crazy to imagine that the situation will simply return to “normal”, once the electorate has got the protest out of its system.

Every threat also represents an opportunity, though; and there’s no doubt that this crisis could eventually open up space for a new generation of parties and movements far more fit to provide a living link between 21st century politicians and people.  It’s also possible – as I hope to find on Tuesday – that the current shock being sustained by Westminster may open up new opportunities for dialogue within Britain’s new constitutional system, as it has emerged since 1997.  David Cameron is already talking about ending Westminster’s culture of denial in relation to devolved institutions, and of inviting both UK and Scottish ministers to engage more fully with committees in the other parliament; and if that new and more open attitude becomes prevalent, in a chastened post-shock Westminster, then we could be looking at a rapid maturing of Britain’s new quasi-federal system of government, whatever its eventual destination.

And finally, it seem to me that this shock is bound, in the end, to generate debate about a new and far more rigorous approach to the ethics of power in Britain.  Ever since the early 1980’s, when the rise of Thatcherism fired the starting-gun for a generation of greed-is-good thinking, there has been a tendency to admire the rich simply for being rich, to grant them additional power and influence in virtue of their wealth, and to turn a blind eye to the means by which they get their loot.

Now, though, that link between wealth and prestige, wealth and talent, wealth and respectability, has been broken in the public mind, at least for a decade or two.   Robert Burns once famously asked whether there was anyone who would hang his head because of honest poverty; and the answer, for three decades at Westminster, was apparently “yes” – so much so that MP’s were prepared to cheat the taxpayer, in order to raise their financial and social status.

But now, shame suddenly lies elsewhere, in the litany of pathetic and trashy materialism exposed by the Daily Telegraph.   And as for fulfilment and respect – well, that might at last be on the move too: away from what our grandparents would have called filthy lucre, and towards what Shakespeare summed up as “honour, love, obedience, troops of  friends” – those things that make life meaningful and old age bearable, and that money, in the end, just cannot buy.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

Singin’ I’m No A Billy, He’s A Tim

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SINGIN’ I’M NO A BILLY, HE’S A TIM  (NLP Theatre at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh), for The Scotsman 16.5.09
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4 stars ****

THERE’S SOMETHING STRANGE going on here.   Twice in a week, I find myself watching shows produced by shoestring touring companies well outside the mainstream of Scottish arts funding.  And twice I find myself confronted by theatre that seems far more vividly connected to the real life of Scotland than most of the work I review; the NTS should be observing, and taking note.  The first show was Mike Gibb’s flawed but passionate Lest We Forget, about the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988; and the second is Des Dillon’s populist but immensely powerful examination of sectarianism, playing in Edinburgh this weekend.

The scene is a Glasgow police cell, where Celtic supporter Tim and Rangers supporter Billy find themselves literally thrown together – under the benign care of troubled police officer Harry – after a series of pre-match arrests. The arc of the story is simple, and the play wears its anti-sectarian heart unashamedly on its sleeve.  It sometimes flirts with unthinking nationalism as an antidote to bigotry, as well as with a more robust politics of humanity and class; and it piles on the schmaltz, in the story of Harry’s sick grandson.

But the sheer vitality of the theatrical writing – the seamless combination of verbal wit and raw kinetic energy, and the pure dynamic strength of the play’s structure – makes Stephen Cafferty’s production, with two outstanding performances from Colin Little and Scott Kyle, feel like one of the shortest and most gripping two-hour shows in current Scottish theatre.  And this show not only raises issues our society urgently needs to confront, but also attracts an audience that would never otherwise darken a theatre door; unless we count those big arenas at Parkhead and Ibrox, where such an important part of the national drama is still  played out, week after week.

ENDS ENDS