Monthly Archives: June 2009

Thriller Live!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THRILLER at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 30.6.09
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MICHAEL JACKSON’S sudden death, five days ago, may have sent a tidal wave of grief, nostalgia, speculation and innuendo sweeping through the world’s media.  But there was absolutely no sign of hysteria at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow last night, when – by pure chance – the touring Michael Jackson tribute show, Thriller Live!, arrived in the city for a six-day run.

Instead, there was a full house of quiet, prosperous-looking theatregoers  in early middle age, waiting patiently for a reconstructed glimpse of the music, the moves, the style, that make Michael Jackson worth remembering.  Above all, they were waiting for the great global hits – from I Want You Back at the very beginning of it all, to Thriller at the end – that would finally give them permission to get to their feet, to scream and shout a bit, and to start getting down as only a Glasgow audience can, when a bit of soul comes their way.

So it’s good to report that this well-tried touring show – directed in the UK by Gary Lloyd, from an original idea by Adrian Grant – did not disappoint them, but absolutely fulfilled their need to see Jackson’s life and music celebrated, with plenty of resepct, and very little sentimentality.  The show uses some slightly unexpected strategies, in leading its audience through a more-or-less chronological series of around 30 of Jackson’s greatest hits.   It supplies some light biographical narrative, but generally lets the songs speak for themselves, and never takes the story beyond the early 1990’s.   And it never assigns any one performer to “play” Jackson, either as a child or as an adult; instead, a cast of seven lead vocalists including blonde Pop Idol graduate Hayley Evetts – backed by a team of nine fine dancers – share the songs.

In the end, though, this slightly oblique approach to the challenge of recreating Jackson’s enigmatic stage personality seems in some ways more effective than a straightforward attempt at impersonation; and the first half of the show does a fine, lucid job of tracing Jackson’s musical development from the early Motown days, through to the collision with the disco movement of the late 1970’s that produced his great songs of the early 1980’s, with their driving rhythms and dark, soul-driven lyrics.

In the second half, the sound quality begins to suffer from a messy reverberation that cuts across the work of an excellent six-piece band, and the music sometimes seems overwhelmed by the effort to recreate onstage the look and feel of some of Jackson’s iconic pop videos.   But by the end of the evening, fulll tribute has been paid to the range of Jackson’s work, from satanic disco to save-the-world anthems.  When one of the singers offered the thought that though Michael is gone, his music will live on, the audience roared their approval; and it seemed to me that Michael Jackson would have been glad to hear them, and gladder still to hear his great repertoire of songs performed once more, not only with feeling, but with joy.

ENDS ENDS

Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, And The Faint Chance Of A Change In Our Frenzied Celebrity Culture – Column 27.6.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.6.09
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ON MY COMPUTER SCREEN, courtesy of YouTube, the little figure flickers and sparkles, just a couple of inches high.  The image is of Michael Jackson, singing his great hit Billie Jean – the one where the singer repeatedly denies paternity of a baby boy born to a girl he once knew – at the Tamla Motown 25th anniversary concert, back in 1985.   In the video, Jackson is 27 years old, and probably at the height of his powers.   His face is slim and sculpted, as though he might have had a nose-job here, a chin-tuck there; but the screen shows what by any measure is an electrifying performance of a brilliant song, given by a handsome young black guy with a tremendous gospel voice, a real gift for movement, and infinite star quality.

What happened to Jackson later is already showbiz history; the operations and self-mutilations, the slow bleaching of the skin, the accusations of child abuse, the pet chimpanzee, the Neverland Ranch, the strange marriages, and the uneasy family of children of uncertain parentage.  Yet venture out onto the internet this weekend, into the social networking sites and music blogs, and you’ll find that among the online generation – which now includes a good half of the population under 50 – Jackson’s death, along with that of 70’s Charlie’s Angels star Farrah Fawcett, has simply overwhelmed all other topics of discussion.  The tone is ambivalent, of course; an odd mix of awestruck hero-worship and ribald abuse, with even poor Farrah Fawcett attracting a measure of scorn for her determination to document and film her unglamorous final illness.

But that’s how our celebrity culture works: it contains a terrifying mix of the urge to worship, and the need to tear down and destroy.  And in that sense, Michael Jackson has surely been the celebrity of celebrities, with a life almost designed to feed those contradictions.  He was a songwriter and performer of terrific talent, adored by the millions of fans whose love he sought, as compensation for a miserably abusive chldhood.  Yet at the same time, he was a tragic and dangerous mess of a man, apparently unable to live at ease with his face, his race, his gender, or his sexuality; or to survive the stress of trying – at the age of 50 –  to live up to his own stupendous reputation as live performer, in a planned series of huge new London concerts.

So it’s perhaps worth asking, as a wave of vicarious grief and double-edged mourning sweeps the planet, whether these deaths might mark the beginning of the end of the near-hysterical age of celebrity through which we have lived.   In one sense, of course, Jackson and Fawcett are old-fashioned celebrities, in that they actually achieved fame through their work, back in the 1970’s; today, a mere passing affair with someone on the celebrity circuit seems to be enough to guarantee star status.

But all the same, they have both been part of that landscape of celebrity that has emerged, over the last 30 years, as a  vicarious replacement for the local community and family life that so many of us used to know, well within living memory; but which has been comprehensively fragmented by the turbo-charged social and economic changes of the last 40 years.  As any schoolteacher will tell you, in a world where most ordinary social landmarks of status and belonging have gradually been eroded , fame and wealth stand out as the only significant  measures of achievement and identity to which young people can aspire; hence an increasingly absurd intensity of identification with figures from Princess Diana to Jade Goody, Michael Jackson to David Beckham, who live lives completely  beyond the experience of all but a tiny minority, and yet are somehow seen as close acquaintances, whose lives and deaths may mean more to us than those of close family members.

And the questions is this: that if our world is on the cusp of major change, with economic collapse and growing resource pressures forcing us to rediscover the value of social capital and human attachment, and perhaps of a more localised way of life, then is there perhaps a chance that we will stop needing our virtual celebrity narrative so much, and start giving the stars a break, in terms of intrusive pressure on their private lives?

The story could go either way, of course. Back in the 1930’s, when times were hard, Hollywood became a global dream factory of immense power, offering the huddled masses from Los Angeles to Luton a glittering escape from hard lives; the British economic upheavals of the 1970’s and 80’s spawned a generation lost in music, still crazy for the rough glamour of the old rebellious bands, a quarter of a century on.  And whatever happens in our world over the next decade, we can be sure that the virtual realms of the internet – from Facebook to Second Life – will continue to challenge, complement or cut across more traditional forms of social connection and solidarity.

But I think it’s worth hoping, all the same, that the worst of our obsessive hunger for connection with the world of celebrity may begin to pass, as reality bites a little harder.  At the very least, we might begin to ask of our stars that they do more than mate and reproduce and divorce, all under a hideous glare of intrusive “lifestyle” coverage; that they once again actually sing songs or tell stories that enrich and illuminate our lives.   At his best – way back in the glittering 1980’s – Michael Jackson certainly achieved that.  And for the rest – well, let’s hope that justice has been done, to everyone who encountered Jackson in his life; and that his troubled spirit, symbol of a nerve-wracked age of fame, can eventually rest in peace.

ENDS ENDS

Fringe Choices 2009 – First Pick

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: FRINGE 2009 CHOICES  (1)  FOR SCOTSMAN CRITIQUE, 27.6.09
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1) TRILOGY

The Arches Theatre hits the Fringe with this brilliant, controversial trilogy of shows by young creator/director Nic Green, in which she and her company explore the relationship between 1970’s feminism, and today’s generation of twentysomething women.  Green is already famous for inviting female audience members to strip off and sing Jerusalem in the nude; but there’s much more than that to these powerful pieces of multi-media theatre.

The Arches at St. Stephen’s, 9-31 August.  p.122.

2) BARFLIES

Fringe superstars Grid Iron – famous for great, sensual site-specific shows, from The Bloody Chamber to Those Eyes, That Mouth – invade their own local pub with a new show based on Charles Bukowksi’s semi-autobiographical film script about whether booze is a creative force in human life, or just a slow form of suicide.

Traverse@The Barony, Broughton Street, 7-31 August. p.181

3) THE GIRLS OF SLENDER MEANS

Thanks to the Homecoming Fund, Scotland’s top female theatre company, Stellar Quines, create a new stage version of Muriel Spark’s magnificent 1963 novel, set in a London residential club for young gentlewomen in the last months of the Second World War; and offer some of the juiciest roles for women in recent Scottish theatre history.

Assembly@George Street, Assembly Rooms, 6-31 August.  p. 198

4)  INTERNAL

They first rose across the Fringe horizon in 2007, with a great emotional journey for solo spectators called The Smile Off Your Face.  Now, after last year’s explosive success with Once And For All…. ,  Ontroerend Goed of Belgium return with a new one-on-one theatre experience exploring the possibilities of instant intimacy, in just 25 minutes.

Traverse @ Mercure Point Hotel, 5-30 August.   p. 202.

5)  ORPHANS

Dennis Kelly scored a huge Fringe hit in 2005 with weird yuppie psychodrama After The End, set in a nuclear bomb shelter behind a suburban house.  His new play shows a similar obsession with the dark underbelly of bourgeous English life, as a blood-drenched brother invades the lives of a quiet young couple; Roxana Silbert directs.

Traverse Theatre, 1-30 August      p.217.

6) PALACE OF THE END

Despite the huge success of Black Watch, the theatrical response to the Iraq war remains muted.  So it’s good to see the full-length  version of Canadian writer Judith Thompson’s remarkable Iraq trilogy, built around her Lynndie England/ Abu Ghraib monologue My Pyramids, first seen at the Traverse three years ago.

Traverse Theatre, 5-30 August    p. 218.

7) WAITING FOR GODOT

It was an Irish company, Semper Fi, who first opened up the St. James Public Toilets as a theatrical venue; and now, another Dublin group, Nod Nod, attempt a bog-bound Waiting For Godot.   On one hand, a toilet seems as good a venue as any for Beckett’s famous masterpiece about hope and hopelessness; on the other hand, what are they going to do with that line about “nobody comes, nobody goes”?

St. James Public Toilets, St, James Centre  25-31 August  p.237.

8) THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH: THEATRE FOR BREAKFAST

After the roaring success two years ago of Mark Ravenhill’s short, sharp, intensely political breakfast plays, the Traverse asks a whole range of top UK playwrights – including David Greig, Zinnie Harris, Rona Munro and Simon Stephens –  to provide short breakfast dramas, served up with coffee, tea and bacon rolls.

Traverse Theatre, 11-30 August.    p.240

9) THE WORLD’S WIFE

The new Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, appears in person on this year’s Fringe, in children’s show The Princess’s Blankets at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.  But here, the great Linda Marlowe, famed for her work with Steven Berkoff, takes on Duffy’s mighty 1999 collection of poems, that evokes the voices of all the hidden wives and partners of western myth and history.

Assembly@George Street, Assembly Rooms, 6-31 August.  p. 240.

10) THE YEAR OF THE HORSE

Made In Scotland supports Tam Dean Burn’s superb new show, built around the 52 magnificent and harrowing weekly political cartoons created by Richard Horne (aka the cartoonist Harry Horse) during the last year of his life, 2006-2007.   Think Bosch, think Munch, think the visions of William Blake applied to the horrors of Iraq and Guantanamo; more exhibition than show, but unforgettably theatrical.

Assembly@George Street, Assembly Rooms, 6-31 August.  p.241.

11) BEACHY HEAD

The temptations of suicide loom large as a theme on this year’s Fringe.  Here come gifted young company Analogue, Fringe First winners two years ago for Mile End, with a story which fuses text, CGI animation, physical performance and serious research to  explore the ripple effects of a single fall from England’s most famous suicide cliff.

Pleasance Dome, 8-30 August.  p. 182

12) DAVID LEDDY’S SUSURRUS and DAVID LEDDY’S WHITE TEA

Following his magnificent Sub Rosa at the Citizens’, Glasgow-based site-specific genius David Leddy comes to the Botanic Gardens with a revival of his beautiful 2006 show Susurrus – a meditation on a man’s obsessive love for a young boy, based around the music of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream – and to the Assembly Rooms with his new Japanese-themed show about love, brutality and beauty.

Assembly@Royal Botanic Gardens, 4 August-6 September; Assembly@George Street, 6-31 August.     p.189

13) THE EVENT

Famed for past award-winning shows from Americana Absurdum and Horse Country to Fatboy, New York director John Clancy and actor David Calvitto return with a new show about the nature of text and performance, in which a man alone on stage attempts te ultimate trick of disappearing, while remaining in full sight.

Assembly@George Street, 6-31 August.   p.193

14) KURSK

Brilliant young London producers Fuel arrive in Edinburgh with this acclaimed show about the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000, which combines spectacular scenic effects, stunning technical presentation, and a text by Bryony Lavery, to create an outstanding show about human beings trapped in an impossible, beautiful and immeasurably dangerous environment.

University of Edinburgh Drill Hall, 20-29 August.  p. 205.

15) SUCKERVILLE

The financial crash came so swiftly, last autumn, that the response to it seems more likely to appear in instant breakfast plays and scratch nights than in fully-prepared Fringe shows.  But here’s one, from ambitious young company Spitting Distance, that seeks to examine our current economic meltdown through the prism of the 1929 Wall Street Crash.

C cubed, Brodie’s Close, 6-31 August.    p.231.

ENDS ENDS

Mixter Maxter – NTS Transform At The St. Magnus Festival

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MIXTER MAXTER – THE SHOW, MIXTER MAXTER – THE INSTALLATION and other events,  St. Magnus Festival, Orkney, for Scotsman Arts 25.6.09
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Mixter Maxter – The Show  4 stars ****
Mixter Maxter – The Installation  5 stars *****

IN THE PIER ARTS CENTRE in Stromness, this summer, there’s a deep, dark space given over to a magnificent piece of video art called Ascension, by US superstar Bill Viola.  Filmed underwater, from a couple of feet below a sunlit surface, it shows in slow motion – and in the deepest blue and silver – a male figure plunging feet-first through that surface, and down past our gaze, into the depths; then for ages afterwards, we watch the backwash of tiny bubbles and sparkles rising from where he fell, up towards the sunlight, a billion particles disturbed and moving and reacting, almost to infinity, because of that single action, that single leap.

The Pier Arts exhibition is not technically part of this year’s St. Magnus Festival in Orkney; but all the same, the Bill Viola work seems to provide a central image for a festival built, as always, around the pull and surge of the sea that surrounds Orkney, and the mystical sense of the interrelatedness of all things – humanity, nature, the very stuff of earth and water – that forms a key part of Orkney culture.  And it would have been easy for the National Theatre of Scotland, wading into the delicate balance of island life for a few months to create a Transform project with young people from Kirkwall Grammar School, to have failed to produce anything that truly reflected that special spirit of the place.

Instead, though, the Mixter Maxter project – directed by Davey Anderson and Liam Hurley, with a team of more than two dozen students in their early-to-mid teens – has produced both a moving and memorable short show, and an outstanding installation, in an old warehouse in Bridge Street, that both  complements and expands the performance to create what must be one of the finest pieces of youth project artwork Scotland has ever produced.

The show is a deceptively simple-looking piece, played in a bare in-the-round setting in King Street Halls, which tells the story of a Kirkwall girl called Soley, who runs away from her own life, driven partly by the unkindness of her so-called school friends, and partly by her widowed father’s inability to talk to her about her mother’s death, ten years ago.  Played by a series of different girls identified simply by slipping on Soley’s little red hoodie, she runs first to an old warehouse where she keeps a little shrine to her mother, then to the pierhead, where she leaps aboard a ferry, looks out at the pattern of islands ahead and, like the Bill Viola figure, makes a leap from the deck into the ocean, towards what she hopes will be a new or changed life.

At King Street, the story is told verbally and through movement, superbly co-ordinated by Simon Pittman to capture the running, darting movements, the wary walking, the intent faces and scanning eyes, of teenagers marking a way through potentially hostile streets and spaces.  The show ends quietly, with a series of questions about the future; but as the young cast circle the hall, intently pressing little imaginary seeds of new life into the hands of Mums and Dads, old folks and tiny toddlers, the sense of empathy and almost of atonement towards a troubled generation of youngsters is overwhelming, and many in the audience are wiping away tears.

If the show is powerful, though, the installation down in the old Bridge Street rope warehouse is irresistible, a series of evocations of settings, images and ideas from Soley’s story – in video, sculpture, projected text, soundscapes and audio journeys, with elements of live performance – that is stewarded with palpable pride by the young people who helped create it, and by the artists (including Kim Beveridge, Alistair Peebles and Anne Bevan) who helped them.  The sense of young people reconnecting with aspects of Orkney’s past as a seafaring and farming island, exploring its rich cultural heritage, and using it to make sense of their own lives today, is intense; and although the Warehouse 18 installation was dismantled on Monday, along with the rest of the project, the young people I spoke to expressed an intense hope that it could somehow live on, and be seen again.

If the NTS show and installation represented a fine example of how to combine different art-forms with power and integrity, though, some of the other “crossover” events in the Festival served to demonstrate just how uneasy such collisions can be.  The outgoing Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, made a decent if slightly diffident job of his St. Magnus Cathedral concert with the Endellion String Quartet, which combined Haydn’s oratorio Seven Last Words From The Cross with his own very fine, searching and moving poetry cycle on the subject; perhaps because the quality of the words came close to matching that of the music.

Down at Stromness, on the other hand, it was hard to imagine what had possessed the Festival director to give house-room to Wendy Cope’s banal series of poems about different types of audience members at a classical music concert, which recycles a series of infinitely tired cultural assumptions about the art-form, and makes Roxanna Panufnik’s cheerful illustrative music, played with good humour by the same Endellion Quartet, sound like high art by comparison.

The idea of interludes like this is that they represent a bit of harmless, self-mocking  fun.  But if they make a mighty art-form like classical music seem boring, bourgeois, and middlebrow,  then they’re not harmless at all.  St. Magnus needs to consign this sort of ageing crowd-pleaser to the bin; and strike out boldly into the newly-emerging borderlands between classical music and a dozen other art-forms less stuffy than mainstream poetry, and far less concerned about the old social hierarchy of art – from posh to popular – that the 21st century is scattering to the four winds, in Orkney as elsewhere.

ENDS ENDS

Romeo And Juliet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROMEO AND JULIET at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 24.6.09
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4 stars ****

HOWEVER HIGH IT stands in the catalogue of world drama, Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet is never an easy play.   If tragedy is about the inevitable destruction of a fatally flawed hero or heroine, then Shakespeare’s most famous doomed romance is hardly a tragedy; yet precisely because its ending seems like nothing but an unhappy accident, its grim conclusion can seem unbearably, almost pointlessly, sad.

What’s interesting about this brief 40-minute version of the play, created as a rousing finale to this spring’s astonishing 21-show lunchtime season at Oran Mor, is that it tackles this narrative ambiguity head-on, and with a creativity and insight that puts many full-length productions to shame.  In adapting the text, Mary McCluskey boldly slices the story into vivid, familiar chunks of monologue and dialogue, and rearranges them in a fragmented flashback structure; so that the action begins with the double tragedy at the Capulets’ tomb, and every line of the earlier poetry – comic, romantic, lyrical – becomes saturated with a sense of the doom to come.

In this dark version of the play, directed and designed with impressive flair by Kenny Miller, Sally Reid turns in a heartrending performance as a haunted, hopeful but bewildered Juliet, ambushed by grief at the height of her carefree youth.  And Julie Austin, as the friendly Nurse/Friar, becomes a kind of familiar devil; taunting poor Juliet with the possibility of happiness, but all the while leading her on towards that grim moment in the tomb, and her heartbreaking, avoidable death.

ENDS ENDS

Calman Report Looks Out Of Time In A Post-Unionist Age – Column 20.6.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 20.6.09
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FORGIVE ME, READERS: but this week, I am suffering from a touch of cognitive dissonance.   On one hand, you see, I find before me the 20-page Executive Summary of the report of the Calman Commission, which has just delivered its verdict on ten years of devolution, with recommendations for the future.  The summary, of course, is as sensible, august and well-argued a piece of constitutional prose as you might expect from such a panel of distinguished establishment Scots.  With a nudge-nudge here and a tweak-tweak there, Calman has revisited the devolution settlement of 1998, and made almost sixty recommendations about how it can be rationalised and improved, from identifying areas where Scotland might benefit from more devolved power – drink-driving law, broadcasting – to naming a few, notably the registration of charities, where greater cross-border unity might save time and confusion.

The report also includes an energetic wish-list on improved co-operation between Westminster and Holyrood, Whitehall and Victoria Quay.  And in a lurch towards real radicalism, the Commissioners argue that the Scottish Parliament should now begin to take responsibility for raising some of the taxpayers’ money it spends, mainly by fixing the level of the top slice of income tax paid in Scotland, so as to make it the same as in the rest of the UK, or lower, or higher, depending on spending decisions.

The result has been a field-day, in Scotland this week, for policy wonks on all sides of the constitutional debate; and – on the Unionist side at least – a broad welcome for the report, as a clever, detailed and well-informed proposal that strikes a deft balance between caution and radicalism, and proposes a way forward that all the mainstream parties, with the obvious exception of the SNP, will find attractive to implement.

Yet somehow, as I picked my way through the well-balanced paragraphs of the Calman summary, I couldn’t resist the feeling that the document somehow belonged to a world that has simply slipped from our grasp, in the years since 1999; a world of modest, rational, incremental progress, and of sensible provisions for the improvement of British government and society, that seems suddenly unreal.  For on the other hand, scanning the media this week, I see report after report which suggests a system in deepening crisis, in which old political and economic frameworks are beginning to crack under the strain, and in which a few well-thought out recommendations about the conduct of Joint Ministerial Committees no longer seem adequate to the demands of the time.

To the left of us, for example, there’s the continuing story of the Westminster expenses scandal, with all its increasingly profound ramifications.  Of course, in theory, Calman’s proposals for a future of rational Unionism ought to find favour with a Scottish electorate most of whom are not committed supporters of independence.  But in practice, at a time when Westminster’s reputation with voters throughout the UK is at rock-bottom – and when this week’s staggeringly inept release of heavily-censored expenses details has only made matters worse – Calman’s  unquestioning Unionist pieties strike a strange note, both complacent and old-fashioned.

It’s not that there is no remaining case to be made for the retention of the Union.  But under current conditions, where positive support for Unionism – as opposed to negative fear of independence – has all but vanished from the Scottish political landscape, the argument has to be made much more explicitly and humbly than this.  Scottish voters, always pragmatic in their attitude to the Union, tend to be happy with it when Westminster governments are strong, dynamic and progressive, and to lose interest in it when those governments  are weak, disorganised and drifting towards the right.  We are currently deep in the second kind of phase, with Scottish unionist politicians mired to their ears in the nasty, long-drawn-out collapse of the New Labour project.  And in such times, with an SNP government in power at Holyrood, it is almost discourteous – and certainly politically naive – to talk, as Calman does, as if there were no serious argument against the retention of power over macroeconomic policy at Westminster.

And if the Brown government’s entanglement in the current expenses scandal is creating a hostile political climate for Calman’s kind of Unionism, then it’s arguable that the much bigger political failures of the New Labour years – now coming home to roost, one by one – are placing a serious question mark over the whole future of the Union.  From the inquiry into the Iraq War, through the spiralling economic collapse and Fred Goodwin’s pension, to this week’s horrific figures on likely climate change by 2100, the record shows a supposedly progressive UK government – stuffed with historically high numbers of Scottish ministers – making one ill-judged compromise after another with an out-of-control global system that had come to believe its own ideological hype; and therefore failing to deliver serious policy progress on all the major issues, from global peace to climate change, that now place our whole future in jeopardy.

Calman may be right, in other words, to claim that devolution has been a success, so far as it goes.  But public approval for the existence of the Scottish Parliament no longer implies much enthusiasm for the UK framework in which it sits.  And although a joyful surge of positive support for Scottish independence is very unlikely, in the frightening political landscape we now inhabit, we could nonetheless be on the brink of a slow, disgruntled slide towards separation; if only because the debt-ridden Westminster of the Brown-Cameron era seems to offer us so little, in the way of a future, that we might as well strike out on our own, and see if we can improve our chances by the kind of margin – small but significant – that Alex Salmond, as a gambling man himself, would consider well worth the risk.

ENDS ENDS

Balgay Hill, Cyrano De Bergerac, The Garden Of Adrian

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BALGAY HILL at Dundee Rep, CYRANO DE BERGERAC at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THE GARDEN OF ADRIAN at Gilmorehill G12, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 18.6.09
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Balgay Hill    3 stars ***
Cyrano De Bergerac  2 stars **
The Garden Of Adrian   4 stars  ****

IT’S ONE OF THE TRAGEDIES of British culture that cities and regions outside London so often struggle to escape from the margins of a national narrative completely dominated by the seething arts-and-media metropolis on the Thames.  Other cities have their brief moments in the sun, of course: Liverpool in the 1960’s, Glasgow around 1990.  But soon, London labels and packages whatever the “provinces” have produced, and moves on; so that people living around the Mersey and the Clyde, the Tyne and the Tay, are left starving for any sense that their home place could actually be at the creative centre of the world, rather than stuck on the edge.

It’s this phenomenon – and the huge, exhilarating shock of encountering an artist powerful enough to challenge and change it –  that lies at the heart of Simon Macallum’s Balgay Hill, Dundee Rep’s tentative but thoughtful new show about the life and legacy of great Dundee rock star Billy Mackenzie, lead singer of the charismatic 1980’s band The Associates.  The play takes the form of  four intertwined monologues that explore the impact of MacKenzie’s music – and of the extraordinary, operatic sound of his voice in hits like Party Fears Two and Club Country – on four different Dundee characters.  There’s Stephen, the early 1980’s school-leaver whose whole sense of style and possibility is radically altered by the sound of MacKenzie’s music.  There’s Sinead, the 21st century teenage wild child trying to redeem herself by making a good film about Billy and his life.  There’s Michael, the now middle-aged younger brother of Stephen, back in Dundee after decades in America; and there’s Kennedy, an American woman in Dundee whom Michael once loved.

To say that these four monologues rarely connect in any satisfying dramatic way, is to undertstate the problems of Macallum’s script.  Director James Brining has to work very hard, in an increasingly well-worn and irritating jump-cut style, to generate a sense of pace out of these oddly-chosen narratives, which often seem just to miss the main point of the story; and the use of visual images from MacKenzie’s life projected on small and large screens around the stage, and of fragments of his music, seems confused and inconsistent.

With all these limitations, though – and a certain sad tendency to raise easy, self-deprecating laughs by simply mentioning Dundee words and places – the play still nudges its way towards  the heart of that moment of personal transformation that the right music, at the right time, can bring to a whole generation.   Robin Laing gives an outstanding performance as young Stephen, hearing Billy’s voice for the first time; and if the play still seems more like a work-in-progress than a finished show, it’s nonetheless an interesting and poignant one, that opens up the possibility of better work to come.

Back in the early 1990’s, when Edwin Morgan’s rip-roaring Scots version of Cyrano De Bergerac first opened, it too had a background regional theme about roughly-spoken soldier-boys from Gascony trying to make it among the officers of the king’s army.  But if the strong Scots voice of Morgan’s version survives into this week’s half-hour Corona Classic Cuts version, in the lunchtime season at Oran Mor, it does so in a form so lacking in nuance and cultural precision that it only reinforces the old, dreary stereotype that Scots is a “rough” language, comically unsuited for talk about love, romance and beauty.  Gary Collins and Ryan Fletcher do their best to vary the tone, over half an hour of dialogue about how the beautiful Christian will borrow the ugly Cyrano’s magnificent words to win Roxane’s heart.  But when it comes to using the power of voice and gesture to overturn stereotypes about what the Scots language can be, neither they nor their director Selma Dimitrijevic seem to have a clue.  They sometimes attempt vehement feeling, but they absolutely lack grace; and without that, Rostand’s great romance is reduced to a round of furious bluster, signifying nothing.

Meanwhile, at Gilmorehill G12, the remarkable performance artist Adrian Howells marks the end of his three-year Glasgow project by taking over the main upper room of the drama centre – an old religious meeting house – and transforming it into an exquisitely peaceful indoor garden, in which he can pursue his investigation of what happens when audience members are invited, just one at a time, into an intimate encounter with – well, what?  It’s partly an encounter with Adrian himself, of course, his soft hands leading us along the raised wooden pathways of his garden, washing our hands and forearms in a little pool, feeding luscious strawberries into our mouths, and spreading out the rug on which we lie together and rest for a while.

What Adrian creates, though, is something much greater than a moment of personal contact.  At one level, he offers us a complete and almost religious respite from the ordinary pace and gracelessness of urban lives; suddenly, there are infinite moments just to savour the feel of  grass beneath our bare feet, or to listen to the sound of our own breath.  And at another, he offers us the kind of simple, child-like intimacy of touch that so many solitary 21st century lives now lack.  All this is deep, thought-provoking stuff, very near the emotional knuckle.  But for those with open minds and hearts, the experience of  The Garden Of Adrian is an extraordinary one; and there’s a little seedling to bring home, too, as a symbol of the growth that is possible, if we only give ourselves a little time, space, warmth, and light.

Balgay Hill at Dundee Rep until 27 June.  Cyrano De Bergerac at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and The Garden Of Adrian at Gilmorehill G12 Glasgow, both untiil Saturday, 20 June.

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Vision/Aria

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on VISION/ARIA (Palazzo at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow) for The Scotsman 15.6.09
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3 stars ***

SOMEONE ONCE described the Jerry Springer television show as the one where two women who look like Naomi Campbell fight over a man who looks like an artichoke.  Well,  Palazzo’s Vision/Aria, which played briefly at the Tron over the weekend, is a show in which a woman with the looks and presence of Aphrodite inexplicably decides to explore the world of love and desire with two blokes who look like her kid brother’s spotty schoolfriends; and it is truly depressing, in the year 2009, to come across a show which, in its physical presentation, so unquestioningly assumes that the object of desire must be female, the gaze of lust and yearning almost always male.

That chronic imbalance aside, though, Vision/Aria is a bold and promising show, which uses Roland Barthes structuralist meditations on love as the basis for a fragmented but powerfully theatrical 75-minute exploration of desire and loneliness.  Some of the sequences are full of youthful pretetiousness, and others slide towards self-referential student-drama sniggering.

But many of the ideas, in Flora Pitrolo’s production, are beautiful and dangerous; there’s a Cocteau-like obsession with the phone that never rings, a farewell letter from an unrequited lover, a blazing half-naked version of Blondie’s Call Me, broken up and reinvented.   And Stefanie Ritch, at the centre of the show, gives a memorably gorgeous and compelling performance, both vocally and physically; although one in which she’s too often presented as a pouting sexual icon for the blokes, rather than a suffering, loving human being in her own right.

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Hate The Current Generation Of Politicians By All Means, But Cynicism About Politics Disempowers Us All – Column 13.6.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 13.6.09
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TO NAPLES, EARLIER THIS WEEK, to watch Andy Arnold’s Tron Theatre Company, from Glasgow, open a new show staged in the underground aquifers and water-tanks beneath the ancient city centre; and to admire the efforts of the organisers of the city’s new theatre festival – Napoli Teatro Festival Italia – to create something, in their city, that will attract headlines beyond the perennial Neapolitan stereotypes of poverty and organised crime.

Arnold’s show, like many others in Naples over the last few years, touches on the trauma suffered by the city at the end of the Second World War, when its people were caught up in a nightmare of defeat, starvation, betrayal and horror.  And the city’s fascination with this period in its history is understandable, given the extent to which the political settlement reached in those desperate months has shaped its destiny ever since.  With the fascists defeated, a share of power was effectively handed by the victorious Allies to the godfathers of Italian organised crime; and Naples entered its long postwar period of ambiguous rule, in which formal political structures coexist with, and are often corrupted by, informal and criminal centres of power.

The city works, after a fashion; and for a visitor, its mixture of vibrancy, chaos and ruined grandeur is thrilling. Yet many of the decisions that affect the life of the city’s people are made without any semblance of transparency or accountability.  And if Naples still suffers in almost every area of its life from the grip of its local mafia network, the Camorra, and from the failure of Italy’s elected politicians to confront it, it is still nothing like a real “failed state”, a place where civic order has given way completely to brute force, corruption and gun law.  It is not a Somalia, nor even a Lebanon, where, earlier this year, I saw  gleaming black cherokee jeeps full of fleshy young men with bulging shoulder-holsters cruising the streets near the family home of  the recently-assassinated Prime Minister, implicitly threatening violence to anyone who challenged them, and their dominance of the territory.

All of which gives rise to some worrying thoughts about where Britain’s political life may be heading, following the recent expenses scandal, and the consequent collapse of any remaining faith in our political class.  It’s not that the anger and contempt of millions of ordinary voters is hard to understand.  This is a country where large numbers of our chosen elected representatives have traded their birthright of public respect and credibility for a load of material tat; it is an infinitely depressing story, and one without excuse.

To the evident delight of the political right, though, the British people now show every sign of throwing the baby of possible good government out with the bathwater of the current failed generation of politicians.  To say that we need democratic renewal is fair enough, as is the argument that Britain would now benefit from an early general election.  But to judge by the general tenor of conversation that I hear on the streets, that is not the principal  conclusion most people are drawing.   On the contrary, most seem inclined to conclude that politicians are essentially corrupt, and politics essentially useless; that voting is a waste of time, and that however greedy, incompetent and unpleasant the masters of our broken economic universe may be – with their multi-million pound bonuses and private stashes of colossal wealth – they are somehow less of a problem than our hated political class, without whom we would all be better off.

Which, of course, is exactly the conclusion the political right would want us to draw, at this particular turning-point in economic and political history.  In itself, it’s a nonsensical view, of course; compared with a real failed state, Britain today is a paradise of civic peace, good governance and decent social provision, most of which we simply take for granted.  But the more we despise our politicians and law-makers, the weaker they will be, and the less capable of bringing the major players of trade and commerce back under the reasonable legislative control from which they made such a spectacular escape during the 1990’s; it’s therefore small wonder that the Daily Telegraph, of all papers, chose this moment to turn the ire of the people away from billionaire bankers and failed city directors, and onto the relatively petty crimes of our elected representatives.

Yet if we allow ourselves to be manipulated into concluding that politics is bunk, and politicians always the worst of those who exploit us, then it seems to me that we will gradually find ourselves in the position of a people who have sliced off our own hands – the collective institutions we need, to administer justice, to protect the weak, and to create civil space in which people can truly flourish – because we found some dirt under our fingernails.  Political renewal is never easy, of course, or achievable by governments acting alone; and it is certainly a waste of time for Gordon Brown to attempt it now.

But unless we, as citizens, can learn how to distinguish our disgust with the current generation of politicians from a general disaffection from politics, then we risk living through an age of decline, in which our collective institutions, held up by belief and civic engagement as much as by stone and mortar, gradually crumble away, like the ruined palazzos of Naples.  And when that happens, we will find ourselves becoming vulnerable to the true monsters of unaccountable power.  Vulnerable, that is, to the thuggery, intimidation, impoverishment and paralysis that inch closer to us every time we confuse contempt for politicians with contempt for politics; and that threaten us with the reality of all those horrors – chaos, brutality, meltdown, collapse – that currently stalk our Westminster headlines as mere metaphors,  but which may some day come back to haunt us, in real life.

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Monaciello, Interiors and other shows at Napoli Teatro Festival Italia, 2009

JOYCE MCMILLAN on MONACIELLO etc., at Napoli Teatro Festival Italia,
Naples, for Scotsman Arts, 11.6.09

OUTSIDE AN ARCHED doorway in a sloping, cobbled lane off the Via Toledo,
Andy Arnold – artistic director of the Tron Theatre – is standing in the
middle of a small media scrum.  There are three or four television cameras,
some  reporters scribbling notes, a couple of sceptical-looking theatre
critics from Milan or Rome standing to one side; among the crowd waiting in
the doorway, a radio journalist moves to and fro, interviewing everyone
willing to speak.

This is the press night of Monaciello, The Little Monk, the Tron Theatre of
Glasgow’s co-production with the newly-fledged Napoli Teatro Festival
Italia; and although the audience in necessarily small – only around
fifteen people at a time can make the descent into the old underground
tunnels of Naples where the show is set – the local interest seems intense.
“It’s a bit unnerving,” says Arnold, cheerfully, “having a show that’s a
huge hit before anyone’s even seen it.”  Then he wanders off to negotiate
with the television teams, who want to carry their cameras down the 186
steps into the dark chambers and passages below, and to film during the
performance.

The level of interest is hardly surprising, though, given the intense
connection between Arnold’s show and one of the main aims of the Festival,
as conceived by its quietly determined artistic boss Renato Quaglia.  For
what Quaglia seems to want, at the deepest level, is to use this Festival
to help give the city of Naples back to its people, both by disentangling
some of the most disturbing threads of its recent history, and by opening
up and reclaiming unused physical spaces, all over the city, that have
powerful historic and symbolic relationships with that history.

Arnold’s show not only brings a wider public into the Sotteraneo, the
fantastic network of tank, channels and wells carved from soft volcanic
rock that, for 2000 years, kept every building in Naples supplied with its
own source of water.  It also retells a key 20th century story, about how
the Sotteraneo was used, during the Second World War, as a giant bomb
shelter; and during an intense year or so of preparation, Arnold and the
writer on the project, Megan Barker, have been in touch with dozens of
people in Naples who have stories to tell of that extreme and horrifying
time, creating a show – performed almost entirely in Italian and
Neapolitan, by a cast of five  actors and musicians from Scotland and seven
from Italy – that forges a powerful link between this Glasgow-based theatre
company, and the city where they have been working.

The show itself, when it comes, is necessarily brief  at only 40 minutes,
and more impressionistic than documentary.  Instead of offering the
reassurance of familiar 1940’s wart-movie imagery, Monaciello plunges us
straight into an almost gothic world that evokes the subjective terror, and
occasional human celebration, of people living through a nightmare, doomed
either to betray or to be betrayed, driven to bizarre acts of horror in the
quest for survival, and – in the case of the women – routinely forced to
prostitute themselves; and those looking for straightforward history will
be disappointed.

But it’s no accident that it was Arnold, 19 years ago, who opened up the
Arches under Central Station as a new “found space” in Glasgow, a city
which used its year as European City of Culture in 1990 as an opportunity
to recognise and acknowledge the  grandeur and the pity of its own
traumatic industrial history.  Now, Naples is visibly hungry for the same
kind of recognition, the chance to retell its story in a wider context that
can help change meanings and heal historic wounds; and Arnold has created a
vivid and loving show that should play a vital part in that process.

Not every show in the Festival takes place in a found space, of course.
The other Scottish-based company in Naples, Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing
Point, are presenting their acclaimed international co-production Interiors
at the little café-theatre Sannazaro in the main shopping street, famed for
its former career as a porn cinema.  And on a hot Tuesday night, in the
conventional space of the Teatro Augusto, it was inspiring to watch the
passionate solo performer Giulio Cavalli stride the stage for 70 minutes in
his driven, brilliantly paced version of the political polemic L’Apocalisse
Rimandata, in a version by Italian radical theatre veterans Dario Fo ande
Franca Rame, with furious projected images, drawn by Fo himself, of a
self-inflicted human doomsday.

But it was in another “found space – the great, crumbling central courtyard
of the vast and notorious 18th century poorhouse, the Albergo Dei Poveri –
that I felt the huge  potential civic energy of this Festival building up
again, as a packed audience on  a huge rotating central seating rig found
themselves gasping at the sheer visual spectacle and beauty of  Chay Yew’s
Le Citta Visibili, a massive Festival co-production inspired by the work of
Italo Calvino, and co-produced by the Naples and Singapore Festivals.  The
show is a surreal modern tale about links between the Italian fashion
industry and hard-driven factory workers in China that has something to say
about race and exploitation, but mainly just takes the breath away with its
dazzling use of sound, light, and big-screen visuals in one of the most
grand and melancholy ruined settings in Europe.  The night was warm, and
the audience seemed  thrilled; not only regaining a mighty space long
hidden by the fear and shame of those once forced to live there, but also
acknowledging the eternal human struggle against exploitation and
oppression that forms part of the story of every city, and that becomes
slightly easier to bear – or easier to bear with joy – when we recognise
that we are not alone, and neither, in their conflict and complexity, are
the cities in which most of us now live.

Napoli Teatro Festival Italia runs until 28 June, with performances of
Monaciello until 21 June, and of Interiors until 14 June.

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