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
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.