Monthly Archives: July 2009

Fringe Of Fragments: The New Shape Of Things In Edinburgh, 2009

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 2009: FRINGE OF FRAGMENTS for Scotsman Arts 30.7.09
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THEY SAY THAT IT’S TOO BIG, too commercialised, dominated by big-name comedy, and increasingly hostile to new work: and there’s a grain of truth in all those complaints.   But the point about an event as big, as diverse, and as anarchically self-organising as the Edinburgh Fringe is that for every truth anyone asserts about it, you can always find a hundred shows that demonstrate the exact opposite, or a dozen signs that the Fringe itself is generating solutions to its own problems.  And that’s never been more true than in this year of crisis 2009, when the Fringe – againt all predictiohns – has remained as big and energetic as ever; and when some of the most creative venues in Edinburgh are bursting the bonds of the Fringe programme, the traditional Fringe divisions between art-forms, and – above all – the traditional one-hour or 90-minute Fringe performance slot, to generate whole new kinds of theatrical experience – instant, bite-sized, off-the-wall or improvised – that seems to speak to the time we live in.

The trend is not entirely new, of course.  In Scotland, the first sign of a revival in the time-honoured tradition of short-span, low-cost theatre came five years ago, when ex-Wildcat  David MacLennan launched his Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season at Oran Mor in Glasgow, now routinely launching more than 30 new short plays onto the Scottish scene each year.  In 2007, the London-based new work company Paines Plough took the idea a step further when they commissioned top playwright Mark Ravenhill to write seventeen instant 20-minute plays for a Fringe breakfast season at the Traverse Theatre, to be served up with coffee and bacon rolls; Ravenhill For Breakfast was a roaring success.  Since then, the Traverse have gone into partnership with Play, Pie and Pint to present a sell-out season of lunchtime drama-with-eats at the Traverse this spring; and now, the theatre is offering its own Fringe breakfast season of 30-minute plays by a half-a-dozen leading writers, under the title The World Is Too Much.

Meanwhile in Brighton, Nick Brice has been masterminding the  global writing competition cum bite-sized theatre season that provided smash-hit breakfast sessions of fully-performed ten-minute plays on the Fringe last year, and is now about to move into the Bedlam Theatre with two new programmes of Breakfast Bites, plus a revival of last year’s hits.   The Arches Theatre in Glasgow, which has been mixing it up for years with festivals of new work that smash long formats and criss-cross art-form boundaries, is creating a new Fringe home for itself this year in the old Aurora Nova space at  St. Stephen’s Church, where a programme of major Arches shows will run alongside what director Jackie Wylie calls “a creative chaos, hopefully” of scratch nights, improvisations, and spontaneous collaborations, all fuelled by organic food and a bring-your-own-bottle bar.

And one of the Arches’ leading collaborators – in tandem with a hugely supportive Battersea Art Centre in London – is the Forest Fringe in Forrest Road, a venue so new (it only ran its first Fringe programme in 2007), and so determined to break the mould with an off-the-wall programme of music, installations, out-of-building audio experiences and all-night residencies, that it  doesn’t appear in the official Fringe programme at all.

So what are the pressures that are creating this new kind of fragmentary Fringe, hard to categorise, but full of unpredictable creative energy?  The playwright David Greig, who is set to contribute a short play to the Traverse season, senses a powerful combination of threats and opportunities in the current political and artistic situation.   “At one level, it is partly about money.   Outside the National Theatre of Scotland, cash is very tight just now, and the process of staging new work on a large scale puts terrific pressure on everyone involved.   So this is a creative way of making a strength out of a weakness, by reducing costs, sharing the risk, and creating a situation where writers are free again, to take chances and push an idea.”

And at St. Stephens and Forest Fringe, Jackie Wylie and Andy Field woud certainly agree about the importance of shaking off  financial pressures, both commercial and public.  Jackie Wylie is grateful for the substantial Made In Scotland funding of £40,000 the Arches  received from the Scottish Government’s new Made In Scotland programme to bring the work of award-winning young director Nic Green to the Fringe.  Effectively, it freed the Arches from the need to run a tightly-programmed venue full of income-generating shows, and made it possible to dream of making St. Stephen’s a flexible, experimental home for artists throughout the Festival; and Andy Field is clear that the special atmosphere and programming of the Forest Fringe would be impossible without the offer of free space from the owners of the year-round Forest Cafe.

What this freedom allows them to recognise, though, is the extent to which the culture itself is changing, and transforming the kind of demand audiences place on theatre.  Nick Brice, whose seasons are largely self-financinng through their huge success with audiences, points out that 21st century audiences have been brought up on a diet of what he calls “highly stimulating short-span entertainment,” which leaves them wanting to be entertained, stiimulated and made to think without having to wait around all night for the punch-line; his short-show format is also interactive, with audiences often being asked to vote on their favourite ten-minute play.  Dominic Hill at the Traverse  talks about the need for 21st century shows to “get to the essence of things quickly”.  Andy Field at Forest Fringe  is less worried about pace, but suggests that in a world where “film and telly now do what they do so well”, live performance has to recognise the things that make it special, including its ability to experiment with hybrid forms – across theatre, film, music, installation – and to offer intense one-on-one theatrical experiences.

What all of them recognise, though, is that in Edinburgh in August there is a special audience around: one that enjoys experiment, is willing to get up at 9 a.m. or stay up all night for an exciting theatrical experience and – above all – expresses in a particularly strong form the craving of audiences everywhere for a thoughtful, witty and passionate, shared response to the huge crises and dilemmas our civilisation now seems to face.  “I think there’s a need to respond to all this at a level that goes beyond the kind of analysis you get even in the best of the media,”  says David Greog.  “You need a response that’s immediate, and collective, and that works at a level that’s more complete, emotional and personal.  And that’s what live performance can give, in this kind of format.  What I’m trying to do, as a writer, is to address the question of how do you live, in this kind of time?  What do you say to your children about what we’re passing on to them?  And this format gives me a chance to do that, in an unformed, impetuous kind of way way that feels really exciting, and somehow just right for this moment, wherever it leads.”

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Aisling’s Children

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AISLING’S CHILDREN at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, for The Scotsman 27.7.09
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2 stars **

THE ROBERT BRUCE moment said it all, really, about the hazards of mounting a show like Aisling’s Children, the one-hour pageant of Scottish history performed on the Castle Esplanade on Saturday night to celebrate the past weekend’s Clan Gathering and Homecoming  in Edinburgh.   About ten minutes into the show, a young actor dressed as Robert the Bruce appeared in a puff of smoke at the Castle end of the vast arena, holding a big broadsword, and sounding out the famous words about freedom from the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath.

The only problem was that his hidden microphone wasn’t working; so a stagehand in a tracksuit appeared, put a pop-star style hand-held mike in his hand, and left him to maintain his dignity as best he could, while all around, the audience of 8000 assorted clansmen and women dissolved into 21st century giggles.

It’s difficult to feel anything but sympathy, in other words, for the hundred-strong team of artists, performers and extras involved in staging Aisling’s Children.  On one hand, they were faced with impossible remit of providing a short historical show that would somehow retain some integrity, while meeting the needs of an audience interested in a clan-based interpretation of Scottish history that only tells about a tenth of the story.  And on the other hand, they had to stage it for one full performance only, assembling in a couple of weeks an Esplanade performance on almost the same scale as the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Only a brilliant, driving, script, and a performance of terrific pace and slickness, can keep a show of this kind clear of all the risks of bathos and absurdity it runs; and in the end, Aisling’s Children had neither.  Raymond Ross’s text – evoking the spirit of six generations of MacLeans, from ancient mythical foremother Aisling to a modern Australian on his way back for the Homecoming – amounted to a catalogue of mainly Highland defeat and misery, focussing on Flodden, Culloden, the Clearances, and the butchery of Scottish soldiers in Britain’s wars, to the exclusion of  almost every other aspect of Scotland’s story.   It had no geography, no balanced sense of history, and above all no defensible politics, since it utterly failed to balance this blood-based account of “Scottishness” with any sense of  the inclusive concept of citizenship on which modern Scotland is suppoed to pride itself.

And although the show benefited from the work of top choreographer Mark Murphy and leading lighting designed Phil Supple, the fact is the occasional inspired and spectacular moment in the staging – particularly the explosion into a hundred whirling fragments of a croft burned in the Clearances – could never compenste for the overall lack of shape or dynamism in the storytelling; nor could they, or James Sutherland’s disappointingly patchy score,  give the show the visual, conceptual and musical coherence it lacked.  The cast worked hard, with Claire Waugh turning in a strikingly strong, emotional performance as Effie Maclean, the 19th-century widow sent to Australia with her young son.

But in the end, this show had the odd effect of making the playing of the massed pipe bands from the Clan Gathering, which formed the finale, look like the epitome of polished and sophisticated high art; because it had shape, rhythm, purpose, and a clear, distinctive visual style, on a scale that finally proved beyond the reach of Aisling’s Children, and of the intrepid team of artist who tried to bring the show to life.

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Swine Flu Mania Acts As Substitute For Much More Serious Fears – Column 25.7.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.7.09
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HOW ARE YOU FEELING TODAY, gentle reader?  Bit of a sore throat and a sniffle?  A few aches and pains?  Well, I don’t want to worry you, but there’s a faint chance you might have swine flu, the illness currently sweeping the globe in what both the World Health Organisation and the British government define as a pandemic.

Of course, if you have any sense, and you do not suffer from an illness which compromises your immune system, then you won’t be very worried anyway.  The current global death toll from swine flu is between 700 and 1000, a figure which must make it one of the most benign viruses ever identified by international health orgnisations.  Deaths in Britain currently total around 30, which makes the virus, so far, about two hundred times less dangerous than the average winter seasonal flu epidemic, and guarantees that as you go about your business over the next month, you are about ten times more likely to die in a road traffic accident than to die of flu.

There are reasons, of course, why public health professionals have to remain vigilant;  the virus is a new one, and its future development is unpredictable.  But the fact remains that for most of those infected by it, this form of flu is currently comparable to a heavy cold, and tends to disappear within days.  Even those more severely affected, and forced to take to their beds, have a 99% chance of recovering fully within a week or two; and the rate of infection is so low that even the immediate families of victims often fail to contract the illness.

So how on earth has this minor epidemic come to dominate our headlines over the last few weeks, to the point where many parents of young children are now seriously anxious about how to respond?   The culprits are many, of course.   The World Health Organisation seems to have moved with unusual speed to declare a “pandemic”, without making any assessment of whether the virus was serious enough to warrant that kind of language.

The British government – frightened in the past by more serious threats, like the SARS outbreak of 2003 – has put in place an elaborate epidemic response structure, which is both eager to test its systems, and naturally inclined to emphasise the presence of risk, however slight.   Various official and semi-official voices have come out with conflicting pieces of silly advice, notably the one (perhaps apocryphal) about women avoiding becoming pregnant until the epidemic is over.

And finally, as ever, there are the media; for there’s no denying the toxic interaction, in this case, between a commercially stressed media desperate for sensational headlines, and a public health system so terrified of being accused of complacency or inaction that it prefers to join the popular media in frightening the public out of its wits.

But in the end, a public whose wits were in good order would not be so easily scared by the latest public panic, whatever its object.  We’re told often enough that our society here in Britain is something of a psychological basket-case these days, grievously unequal in both opportunities and outcome, crudely materialistic in a way that delivers little happiness, and liable to increasingly irrational bouts of rage and panic; and if ever you wanted evidence that there is some truth in this diagnosis, then you could do worse than consider the reponse of at least some citizens to the swine flu threat.

Most people, of course, are bracing up and getting on with their lives in a sensible fashion.  But who are these credulous millions who, as soon as the English swine flu helpline opened, piled onto the lines in such numbers that the whole system instantly collapsed?  Who are these newspaper readers who are so easily bamboozled by any number with a couple of zeroes on the end?   Who were the owners of the dozens of worried voices queuing up for information on last week’s Radio 4 swine-flu phone-in?  At least half of them, or so it seemed, simply had time on their hands, and were looking for somewhere to focus a vague but insistent sense of foreboding.

And this, surely, is the point; that the psychological resilience and common sense of ordinary people in the UK is now being  increasingly undermined by the damaging levels of insecurity we are expected to withstand, day in and day out.   In the last year, we have been subjected to a terrifying litany of economic disaster, which – in a wholly arbitrary way – threatens the livelihoods of millions.

Now, we are being told that the only solution to this disaster lies  in savage cuts to the public services that help to cushion our sense of vulnerability, and provide our safety-net in tough times.  And at the same time, we are gradually becoming aware of an ever-more-convincing body of evidence that suggests our whole lifestyle is unsustainable in the longer term; this is at a time when no political party seems remotely capable of uniting us in a journey towards a new kind of society.

So in the end, it’s perhaps small wonder that an increasing proportion of us are beginning to lose the plot, and panic over things that are barely worth our attention.   It’s more manageable, after all, to fret about a swine flu outbreak that hardly threatens us at all, than to try to address the structural weaknesses of our whole economic system, and the society it has spawned.  At best, swine flu is a metaphor for our deep, uneasy sense of impending disaster; at worst, it’s a distraction from more serious matters.  But either way, our society is giving yet another spectacular demonstration of its growing inability to deal rationally with risk; perhaps because the real risks we face are so formidable that no-one can deal with them at all.

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Richard III, Macbeth, The Servant O Twa Maisters

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RICHARD III and MACBETH at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, and THE SERVANT O’ TWA MAISTERS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for Scotsman Arts 23.7.09
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Richard III   4 stars ****
Macbeth    3 stars ***
The Servant O’ Twa Maisters   3 stars ***

MOST STUDENTS of Shakespeare are taught, at some point, to note the powerful links between the twin tragedies of Richard III and Macbeth.   Although they were written more than a decade apart, both plays tell the stories of men who win royal power through murder and deception, unleashing a tide of blood across the nations they rule; both show how these men are haunted by the horror of their crimes, and die savage battlefield deaths, unloved and unmourned.  And both were designed by Shakespeare, in his role as a court playwright, to praise the ancestors of the Houses of Tudor and Stuart, and to blight the reputations of their enemies.

It’s rare, though, to have a chance to see the two tragedies in such close conjunction as in this year’s Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow; and rarer still to have a chance to savour both the similarities between the two plays, and the powerful differences, highlighted by two strongly contrasting lead performances.  Gordon Barr’s production of Richard III, staged in the slightly incongruous pleasure-dome setting of the lovely  Kibble Palace, is an austere and stripped-down 90-minute affair, in which a cast of just three actors, on a transverse aisle of a stage between two banks of seating, focus tightly on the rogue’s progress of murders, manipulations and betrayals by which Richard, the crippled and hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester, first wins and then loses the crown.

At first, the white coats worn by the actors – and the bare hospital trolley on which various corpses are borne away – raise fears that we may be in for a lunatic-asylum, Marat-Sade-style reading of the story that would struggle to mesh with the text.  But these hints of madness and pathology remain in the background, while Grant O’Rourke rolls out a fascinating performance as a lethal and playful joker of a Richard, a man without conscience gleefully manipulating the fools around him,  and largely unrepentant even in death.

His accumulating crimes are represented by ugly black mourning bands and scarves bound tightly around his white costume, making him ever more twisted and lame with each death; Nicole Cooper and Mark Predergast act up a storm as a sometimes bewildering assortment of allies and victims.  And at the end, we’re left with a strong sense of the sheer pace and structural strength of Shakespeare’s story; as well as with a memorable portrayal of one of the most unsettling heroes in dramatic history, by one of the most interesting young actors around.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth, by contrast, is much more the classic tragic hero, a good man destroyed by the single flaw of ambition, and by his inability to resist the demands of his even more ambitious wife; and Jennifer Dick’s rather stately and traditional-looking outdoor production, staged in a couple of woodland clearings, contrives to make this greatest of Shakespeare texts look like a relatively conventional and uninteresting play.

In a lush garden setting comically unlike the blasted heath of the text, Dick’s promising fourteen-strong cast come and go in a range of  subtly-coloured rough-weave costumes that makes the show look as if it’s been sponsored by a tweed company; they wear little gilded wooden crowns, and generally appear like mediaeval characters in a kitsch history book.  There’s plenty to enjoy, though, in the general pace and energy of a fairly brisk two-hour production, in Paul Cunningham’s troubled and conscience-ridden Macbeth, and in Beth Marshall’s lushly attractive and intelligent Lady Macbeth; although as one of the best young actresses currently working in Scotland, she now needs to deepen her vocal range, to get the full measure of Shakespeare’s mighty verse.

After so much tragedy, it should be a relief to turn to The Servant O’ Twa Maisters, Victor Carin’s 1965 Scots version of the classic Goldoni comedy, first seen in Venice in 1745.  Carin’s version of the comedy is a hugely genial affair, a domestic-drama-cum-city-comedy about a bunch of nice people – old Lord Pittendree, his lovely daughter Mary, her would-be fiancee, and various other servants and suitors –  involved in a series of  misunderstandings not of their own making.  The only real agent of mischief is the eponymous servant, Archie Broon, who tries to serve two masters at once in order to eke out his pathetic income; and since he is hardly to blame for his own poverty, even he is no real villain.

Richard Baron’s new Pitlochry production – the fifth in this year’s Homecoming season – is an all-round decent, pleasant and enjoyable affair, marred by a slight sense of aimlessness and stuffiness.  The show has a highly conventional look, all fancy  18th-century costume and big, fast-moving pieces of scenery depicting Edinburgh streets in the age of Enlightenment; and against this elaborate backdrop, Gavin Jon Wright, in a hard-working and hyperactive performance as Archie, seems to struggle to find the heart of the drama, despite a wonderful tartan-tinged Harlequin costume.

There are some fine performances, though, notably from a perfectly-tuned Martyn James as old Pittendree, and from Shirley Darroch, Christopher Daley and Gillian Ford as a gorgeous trio of young folk locked into a uniquely ridiculous love triangle.   This show, like many others at Pitlochry this year, makes some inspired use of live music performed by the cast.  And although this production will not repeat the sensation created by Carin’s version when it launched Tom Fleming’s new Royal Lyceum Company, back in 1965, it still reveals a Pitlochry company finding a whole new dimension of ensemble energy and delight in their work, as they sing and dance their way through the first all-Scottish season in the theatre’s history.

Richard III and Macbeth at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 1 August.  The Servant O’ Twa Maisters in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 16 October.

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During The Overlong Death Of A British Government, Even Dignified National Mourning Becomes Impossible – Column 18.7.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.7.09
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IT’S TUESDAY AFTERNOON; and on the streets of Wootton Bassett, near RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, a cross-section of the British public are gathering to honour eight young soldiers killed last week in Afghanistan.  As the crowds wait for the flag-draped coffins to pass by, a BBC journalist is interviewing an elderly resident, once a serviceman himself.   “I just wanted to pay my respects,” he says.   “I mean you don’t see Gordon Brown and Tony Blair here, do you, showing respect?  They send them to war, but they’re not here now.”  The interviewer, scenting a reference to the only big British political story in town, becomes excited.  “You feel very strongly about that, don’t you?” he prompts.  “Yeah,” says the man, “I do.”

And that was that; the interviewer moved on, bells tolled, the coffins passed.  But it struck me that that short interview revealed more than it’s comfortable to know about the way in which Britain’s response to the growing military death toll in Afghanistan has become hopelessly and gracelessly bound up with the current state of our domestic politics.  The news this week, for example, has been full of stories and counter-stories, about the final visit to Afghanistan of the outgoing British army chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt.  The government insist that comments made by Sir Richard did not contradict their own view that British troops have enough equipment to fulfil their commitments.  The Tories maintain that Sir Richard was in effect accusing the government of throwing away the lives of service personnel through meanness and incompetence in managing the defence budget.   Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph detects a Labour plot to discredit Sir Richard; and publishes an interview with a grieving mother who accuses the government of “feathering their own nests” with public money, instead of providing her son’s battalion with proper armoured vehicles.

And so it goes on, with every private grief, and every demonstration of public concern or respect, almost inevitably pressed into service in the one conflict that really interests the Westminster village: the struggle over when, and how decisively, Gordon Brown’s dying government will finally go down to defeat.  The ugly tone of the debate might be more bearable if it actually dealt with the substantial question of whether British troops should be in Afghanistan at all, and of the fate of the Afghan people in the present situation.  But since both government and opposition have always supported the war, the main party-political battle must focus instead on the detail of its conduct; and focus on it during a phase of British politics – the dying days of a burned-out government – when rational debate has all but given way to a churlish conviction that whatever the government does is wrong.  If Gordon Brown does not turn up in Wootton Bassett, in other words, he is seen as lacking respect.  But if he did turn up, he would no doubt be accused, by the same people, of intruding where he is not wanted, and seeking photo opportunities at the expense of grieving families.

And this situation is grievous in two ways.  First, it reveals a nation absolutely unable to give young servicemen and women the kind of unified moral support – not to be confused with uncritical support for the war – that they need when they are fighting abroad.  Even in grief, we behave like a family who show up for a funeral determined to mourn with some dignity, but end up in a bit of a punch-up.

And secondly, this increasingly ugly conflation between grief for the dead, and political discontent with the present government, is beginning to turn the public mourning at Wootton Bassett into one of those media-hyped public grief-fests at which shoals of people who have no personal connection with the dead emerge onto the streets shedding loud tears of grievance and self-pity, and telling any nearby media representatives just who they blame for their pain.  In Wootton Bassett, people seem to be gathering with a strong but inchoate feeling that if they could only get rid of the present government, none of this would be happening.  That this makes no real sense is pretty obvious; the Conservatives in power would struggle to deal with the Helmand problem, just as the present government has done.

But what it does reveal is just how damaging the present British political system becomes, when it allows a government so tired, so discredited, and so incapable of uniting the nation, not only to enjoy a rock-solid Commons majority that has never reflected the real balance of public opinion, but also to spin out its months and years in office towards an election day of its own choosing; while all around, people grow sick of its v ery presence, and the quality of political debate, on a dozen issues of vital importance, deteriorates from the ill-tempered towards the completely irrational.

Of course, there are no simple answers to the question of what to do about this.  Fixed-term parliaments would deprive Prime Ministers like John Major and Gordon Brown of the right to cling on to the bitter end, electoral reform might diminish the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad dualism of British politics; neither idea is without its own problems.

But twice in my political lifetime, I have lived through one of these appalling periods of paralysis in government, and churlish, incoherent oppositionism on the streets.   It’s a political mood as ugly and immature as it is thoughtless, the very antithesis of any concept of shared civic responsibility for our future.  And for the sake both of those whose lives depend on the collective strength of our society, and of those who put their lives on the line to defend it, I would like to think that we could find ways of ensuring that we never live through such a time again.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Illyria 2009)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Illyria at Paxton House) for The Scotsman 17.7.09
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3 stars ***

IF THEATRE IS really all about two planks and a passion, then the outdoor touring company Illyria represent the very essence of the thing.  Every summer, they take three or four productions out across the UK and beyond, on a dizzying schedule that can swing them from Dorset to Inverness in two days.   They perform on a simple platform stage, set up in the courtyards of castles, schools and country houses; and with a cast of only five, they inevitably breach all the boring rules of naturalistic theatre, inviting the audience to recognise that whoever appears in the yellow dress is the heroine, even if it’s a big bloke with a beard.

The only problem is that their rough-and-ready style tends to expose the limitations of ultra-simple theatre on this model, as well as its strengths.   On one hand, there’s loads of robust humour, and a real engagement with the deep theatrical playfulness of Shakespeare’s comedies, cross-dressing and all.  But on the other, there’s almost no scope for the dreamy, romantic and beautiful aspects of the drama; and in a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sense of contrast between the grandeur of Theseus’ court, the frightening magical power of the forest, and the low comedy of the rude mechanicals’ play, is all but lost, since the spirit of the rude mechanicals pervades the whole show.

The result, in this case, is a hyperactive production that sometimes loses laughs by thrashing around too much, when all that’s necessary is to let Shakespeare’s great text speak for itself.  But there’s no denying the huge theatrical energy and skill of Oliver Gray’s plucky company, who move on to Duff, Cawdor and Fyvie this weekend; or their terrific, high-speed command of a text that, whichever way you pull and tug it, remains a thing of beauty, and a joy forever.

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Whisky Galore – A Musical, Cooking With Elvis

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHISKY GALORE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and COOKING WITH ELVIS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 16.7.09
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Whisky Galore  5 stars *****
Cooking With Elvis   4 stars ****

IN ONE SENSE, it’s no laughing matter.  Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel Whisky Galore is a story about a small Heberidean island – or pair of islands – so addicted to whisky that when supplies run out during the Second World War, the whole fabric of local life and society begins to totter.  “Men,” says one village wife, “they’re strange with the drink, and strange without it”; and Mackenzie’s novel famously describes how relief appears in the shape of a cargo ship, the SS Cabinet Minister, which runs aground on Little Todday with 50,000 cases of best whisky aboard.

The story was immortalised in Alexander Mackendrick’s famous  1949 film, which knocked a few political edges off Mackenzie’s original tale  to transform it into a feel-good Ealing comedy.  But it’s to the novel, rather than the film, that writer Shona McKee McNeil and lyricist/composer Ian Hammond Brown have looked, in creating the brand-new Whisky Galore musical that is the flagship production of this year’s all-Scottish season at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.   And the result is a real barnstorming success of a show, lighthearted and hugely enjoyable, yet – like the waters between Great and Little Todday – full of startlingly sharp moments and hidden depths, in its comic observation both of island life, and of its complex interaction with the British state, in its finest hour.

At heart, of course, the story has something to say about the timeless tension between the controlled and pious aspects of the human psyche, and the Dionysian urge to cut loose and enter into altered states.  The islanders, Mackenzie suggests, have struck a unique balance between these two impulses that the rest of British society struggles to understand.  But he also has plenty to say – often to hilarious effect –  about the interaction between Calvinist Great Todday and Catholic Little Todday, one of the key tensions in Scottis life even now; and he is frank about the islanders’ frequent difficulty in seeing much difference between the big Hitler they are fighting abroad, and the little Hitlers of the island scene, including the local military brass, Captain Waggett.

None of this would count for much, though, if Ian Hammond Brown had not provided the show with a repertoire of amost 20 fine songs, at least half-a-dozen of them truly inspired, particularly on the comic side of the story; and if director Ken Alexander, and the fourteen-strong Pitlochry ensemble, had not made such a superb job of transforming it into a witty and joyous stage event.  Ken Harrison’s island seascape design is both funny and sensitive, Ruth Henderson’s dance routines are often eye-poppingly clever in their mix of sly cultural reference and big-stage joie-de-vivre.   And as for the music – well, with eight of the cast doubling as live musicians, including the gorgeous Shirley Darroch blazing with star quality on trombone, the show combines huge live energy with a touch of Forties glamour in a way that has music director Jon Beales, at the keyboard, sometimes working hard to keep order, rather than struggling to inject some life into things.

In the course of a story about true love trying to find a way against a backdrop of drouth, bigotry, puritanism and the occasional anti-English sentiment, Whisky Galore inevitably touches on some of the stereotypes of Scotland that haunt the rest of the Pitlochry season.   But this is a story that can barely set up a stereotype without immediately and joyfully subverting it.  And in honouring that aspect of Mackenzie’s fine novel, McNeil and Brown have created – at last – a new Scottish musical to celebrate; the first in Pitlochry’s history, and well worth the wait.

Alcohol also looms large in Lee Hall’s surreal 1999 comedy Cooking With Elvis, now revived in a  Scots-accented midsummer production at the Tron.  Here, though, booze takes on a more familiar and destructive urban aspect, as our heroine Jill’s comely middle-aged mother tanks down the white wine to dull her despair, and to work up Dutch courage for her loveless affair with an unpromising younger man, a baker called Stuart.

The problem is that Jill’s Dad, a surveyor turned Elvis impersonator, has been severely injured in a car accident following a row with Mum, and is now a wheelchair-bound “cabbage”, drooling in a corner; Mum has taken to drink and toy-boys, Jill has taken to obsessive cookery, and Stanley the tortoise roams the house, getting under everyone’s feet.

Hall’s comedy, presented by Jill in 22 short sharp scenes with snappy titles, is probably one of the filthiest plays ever seen on the British stage, so frank about the sexual needs and gropings of all concerned that it’s definitely not for those of a nervous disposition.  But it has a weird manic energy – in its evocation of  what’s left of family life once all taboos and constraints have gone – that is conjured up with impressive energy in Andy Arnold’s production.   As the half-dead patriarch in the chair, Gavin Mitchell of Still Game is not only a convincing basket-case, but also – in moments of dream and fantasy – a terrific pseudo-Elvis; Deirdre Davis turns in a fabulous performance as Jill’s wrecked but likeable Mum.

By the end of the show, in what Hall calls the”unbearably glib finale”, Mum has ditched the booze and boyfriends, and is seen cooking a souffle in a pinny.  Jayd Johnson’s poignant Jill is delighted, after an adolescence spent feeling abused and confused by the world without waymarks in which she finds herself growing up.  But it’s easy to imagine the residents of Little Todday shaking their heads, and guessing that whatever has taken Mum away from the drink, it won’t be long before she’s back on it again, drowning her sorrows, and having a laugh.

Whisky Galore in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 17 October.   Cooking With Elvis at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 25 July.

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High School Musical

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 15.7.09
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3 stars ***

IF SOMEONE TOLD you that Disney’s blockbusting High School Musical had been written by a computer programmed to mobilise pre-teen pester-power, you wouldn’t be at all surprised.  Day-glow set in pink’n’-orange nursery colours?   Check.  Soppy Romeo-and-Juliet-type romance between handsome basketball jock and skinny clever girl?  Check.   Story that plays on kids’ need to belong to a gang, and the tensions that can set up?  Check.   And lots of bland, body-popping song’n’dance dance numbers for a large chorus of kids of all shapes?  Check.

Small wonder that since its release as a film, DVD and album back in 2006, High School Musical  has become the biggest-selling Disney original of all time; and the fact that this touring stage version credits a team of  some 13 songwriters only adds to the impression of a product formulated deep in the corporate brain of the world’s biggest entertainment company.

What’s clear, though, is that the show still has to be performed by human beings; and Jeff Calhoun’s 30-strong British touring  company – backed by Mark Crossland’s eight-piece band – sing, dance and play their hearts out to deliver the goods to their school-holiday audience of Mums, Dads, and kids aged from about two to ten.  Whether this slick slice of all-American movie culture is really what their budding imaginations need, by way of live entertainment, is debatable.   But there’s no denying its consummate professionalism; or the skill and effort of the company who pull out all the stops to make it work on the night.

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Prince And Pope, Not Politicians, Measure The Scale Of The Political Challenge We Face – Column 11.7.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.7.09
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ON WEDNESDAY evening, the Prince of Wales mounted a podium in his London home at St, James’s Palace to deliver this year’s BBC Dimbleby Lecture.  Its title was “Facing The Future”, and its theme – not surprisingly, given the Princes’s interests – was the relationship between humankind and the natural environment, which he believes has become seriously unbalanced.

As usual, it was impossible to agree with every aspect of the Prince’s 45-minute lecture.  I  think he’s wrong, for example, to suggest that a modernist, scientific and empirical view of the universe – as opposed to a traditional or religious one – inevitably leads to an exploitative attitude to the natural world;  only bad scientists, and flawed popular views of science, embrace that kind of blinkered and arrogant approach.

Despite the odd reservation, though, the Prince’s speech – although only lightly covered in the traditional media – is now whizzing around the world on dozens of informal political and  environmental networks, to a general response that ranges from the positive to the ecstatic.  For essentially, what he has done is to say clearly what no major political leader, worldwide, has had the courage to say: that our current model of economic development is bust, and that new ones arguently needed.

In particular, the Prince has stated, loudly and clearly, that without a healthy and sustainable natural environment, the human race simply has no capital on which to base any model of  economic growth at all.   The wealth of nations, he argued, begins in their clean rivers, healthy soil, and rich biodiversity of life, and cannot be sustained or developed without them.  And here, the Prince rolls out a killer analogy, one even more profound than he himself suggests.  He says that just as our banking sector is struggling with its debts – and also facing calls for a return to more traditional and sustainable forms of banking – so nature is failing to cope with the resource debts we have built up; and that if we fail to face up to this problem, then “Nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust.”

And it’s at this point, of course, that the Prince has to put the brakes on his political analysis, and turn to long-term talk about encouraging new models of enterprise, and promoting the role of grassroots communities.  But in the week of the G8 summit in Italy – and of another laughable failure, on the part of western and other leaders, to grasp the climate change agenda in any realistic way – the analogy he makes between the failure of rational regulation in the banking sector, and the long-term failure of human stewardship of the natural environment, has a terrible force, with clear political implications that are barely being enunciated, except on the margins of politics.

On the same day, for example, Pope Benedict made a speech essentially demanding the emergence of a powerful world government – or at least a radically strengthened United Nations – capable of enforcing radical measures to protect the environment, as well as the basic rights of ordinary struggling humanity everywhere.  He was immediately  denounced by various right-wing American sources for his clear assumption that governments can be trusted or mandated to do good, whereas markets cannot; the American right, of course, believes the precise opposite.

And this, now, is the high politics of the state we are in.  We face problems which seem desperately to require collective solutions, at the end of an era when our faith in the power of the collective to achieve anything at all – without being constantly stymied by the unintended consequences of its well-meant measures – has been almost entirely undermined by decades of pro-market thought, argument and assumption, not only on the political right, but also across the centre left.  As a matter of fact, the New Labour government of the last 12 years – powered by a fast-growing economy – has transferred a good deal of wealth into the pockets of those who need it most, not least low-paid working families, and elderly pensioners.

But the quid pro quo for their freedom of action in that area was their silence about the principle of redistribution, and their willingness simply to abandon the key governmental task of regulating markets, and particularly the banking and financial sector, according to the time-honoured rules of prudence and probity which make any faith-based monetary system sustainable.  Instead, they have continued to promote the language and models of consumerism to the point where social solidarity among ordinary people is all but dead as a significant social force; and this at precisely the time when strong, warm, supportive communities might have played such a key role in providing people with alternative sources of identity and satisfaction, in tough times.

Small wonder that Al Gore, musing on the political problem this week, was tempted to invoke the spirit of Churchill, and wartime models of strong collective mobilisation in a common cause; and small wonder that politicians bred in the age of high consumption, and of pell-mell economic growth, hesitate to perform the U-turn in values, language and – most crucially – in the balance of power between state and market, that now seems to be necessary.  As a woman of the left, I am bound to say that I hold those who have demonised the state, denied its ability to good, and tried to reduce human beings to a set of blinkered individuals who function best when they only look out for themselves, much to blame for the grave situation in which we now find ourselves.  But the allocation of blame is much less important than the finding of the right new balance for the future we now face; and the shame is that it takes a Prince and a Pope to remind us of this truth, while our politicians fail, fiddle, and evade the issue again.

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Twice Upon A Time

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TWICE UPON A TIME at Dundee Rep for The Scotsman 10.7.09
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4 stars ****

THE EMERGENCE OF DUNDEE as a world centre for the development of computer games has been one of the great Scottish success stories of recent times.   But exploring what the world of computer games means – how it messes with our minds, and changes our sense of reality – is a much more complex business.  Dundee Rep’s new youth theatre show Twice Upon a Time has been scripted by Neil Duffield, one of Britain’s leader writers of youth theatre, and jointly devised and created by a company of more than 40 youngsters, who have also worked alongside the professional crew as young directors, stage managers, designers, and marketeers; and the obsessions of a generation raised on virtual reality are everywhere in the show.

Introduced before every scene by spectacular computer-generated imagery, Twice Upon A Time begins in a typically kitsch fantasy-fiction future where a border guard, Callum, meets and falls in love with a refugee girl, Yelena.   Through the glittering magic of an old rediscovered computer disk, he’s lured away by a goddess of love into another world that seems closer to our own, “before the great warming”; and after the interval the show begins to work up an intensely interesting head of steam, as the action repeats itself in a subtly different form, with the same characters played by different actors. There’s some serious thought here about storytelling, perception, imagination, and different realities; and a few fine performances, too, from a company whose outstanding commitment and energy shine through every line of this blazingly adventurous show.

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