Daily Archives: June 27, 2009

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


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.6.09

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.


Fringe Choices 2009 – First Pick




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.


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


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.