Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Yalta Game

THEATRE
The Yalta Game
King’s Theatre
4 stars ****

WHAT IS the Yalta game?  According to Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, the 40-year-old hero of Chekhov’s exquisite short story, it is the game of imagining the truth of other people’s lives, while watching them promenade through the squares and cafes of a Black Sea resort well known for its affairs and intrigues.

But in Brian Friel’s near-perfect 50-minute theatrical miniature – first seen in Dublin in 2001, and now in Edinburgh as part of the Dublin Gate Theatre’s magnificent tribute to Friel at 80 – the deeper undercurrents of Chekhov’s poignant and playful tale move to the surface, as Ireland’s finest living playwright mounts a brief but devastatingly powerful exploration of the nature of yearning itself.

In a cafe in Yalta, then, this smooth-talking Dmitry – a married man with many affairs behind him – meets Anna, a young married woman holidaying briefly away from her husband.  She is, almost literally, the woman of his dreams; the two have a brief affair, and separate, but both continue to live more in the world of memory and imagination created by that brief encounter, than in the humdrum stuff of everyday reality.

So do they ever meet again?  Did they ever really meet at all? Will they ever be together, in the clear light of day?  By the end of the play, Friel leaves us knowing that we will never know.  What’s clear, though, is that Patrick Mason’s scrupulously simple production, set on beautifully-lit stage furnished only with a cluster of plain wooden chairs, gives this story a huge, unforgettable theatrical weight and presence.  Risteard Cooper is a superbly theatrical Gurov, absolutely in tune with the romantic-comedy lightness of touch with which Chekhov and Friel first draw us into their tale of love’s dreams and deceptions.  And Rebecca O’Mara matches him as a perfect love-object of an Anna; strong, fragile, capricious, beautiful, and finally – like love itself – almost too sweet to be true.

Joyce McMillan
Until 5 September
EIF p. 25

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Choose Life: Why Population Doom-Mongers Remind Me Of Those Who Want To Shrink The Festival Fringe – Column 29.8.09

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.8.09
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BACK AT the turn of the last century, there lived and thrived a minor poet quaintly named Sir Walter Raleigh, after the great English hero of the 16th century.  Sir Walter is remembered, nowadays, for one verse only, the one in which he wrote “I wish I loved the human race, I wish I loved its silly face”; and I was reminded of poor Sir Walter’s misanthropic masterpiece this week, when the announcement that the population of the United Kingdom has now risen to more than 61 million people was greeted, across politics and the media, with the usual litany of complaint and despair.   There were dire predictions of strain on public services from the Tory front bench; and unpleasant hints, from various quarters, that the wrong sort of parents – too many migrants, too many teenagers, too many benefit claimants – were responsible for last year’s minor baby boom.

When it comes to population and demographics, of course, there is no pleasing some people.   When birth rates are low – as they were in Scotland, throughout most of the last two decades – the doom-mongers moan about the perils of an ageing population.   When birth rates are high, they can hardly contain their visceral horror at the thought of the feckless and the foreign  outbreeding the people they regard as “normal”.

And when population rises because of inward migration – well, that’s the worst of all.  “The country is full up”, chirp the phone-in callers and bar-room politicians, as they drive their white vans around on ever more crowded roads; and the idea that additional people actually generate wealth, pay taxes, staff our public services, set up new businesses, create a more dynamic and youthful society, and use services relatively little, since they tend to be young and strong, never seems to enter their grumpy heads.

For if human history carries one clear lesson on the matter of population, it is that those who fixate on population issues, and on the need to control, manipulate and interfere with other people’s fertility, can never produce a progressive and workable solution to any real social problem.   Making contraception freely available is one thing, a necessary condition of the education and empowerment of women that invariably reduces fertility levels, wherever it is achieved.

But societies which try to control population by draconian top-down methods – enforcing one-child policies, withdrawing financial support from families with children, or drastically limiting the freedom of movement of people trying to make a better life for themselves – tend to inflict such severe social and moral damage on themselves that the problems they create far outweigh those they solve.

This is not to say, of course, that global population – or the population of the UK – can keep on growing indefinitely, while patterns of consumption remain as they are.   But it seems obvious that it is far more useful and decent to concentrate on empowering women to limit their own families, and on enabling human beings to live fulfilling lives without consuming mountains of resources, than it is to sit in some ivory tower grumbling about what Dickens’s Scrooge called “the excess population”, and inviting it to “make haste and die.”

For the truth about population panic – as Dickens so shrewdly observed – is that its presumptions are fundamentally misanthropic, illiberal and inhumane.  There may be a few people of scrupulous moral intelligence around, who are capable of believing that the world or the country is hopelessly overcrowded, while still being perfectly civil to everyone present.  But for most people, the idea that we are suffering from overpopulation simply opens the door to the idea that some should survive or remain, while others are expendable; and therefore to every type of licensed bigotry and  prejudice.  Back at the turn of the last century, eugenics was the very height of intellectual fashion, and dissuading genetically “inferior” people from reproducing was considered a reasonable aim of policy; but we are supposed to have learned, in the horror of the holocaust, exactly where that kind of thinking can lead, and how easily it can deteriorate into an authoritarian and politically-driven pseudo-science, racist, murderous, and deeply inhumane.

What seems to be true, in other words, is that societies thrive best when people view their fellow-citizens as assets, rather than liabilities.  Of course, as global population rises, we face a massive resource crunch over the coming decades.   But if we try to meet that challenge by constantly whining – like Hardy’s Jude The Obscure – that “we are too many”, we do nothing but present ourselves with an intolerable choice between helpess impotence on one hand, and fascist authoritarianism on the other.

If the human race is to build a future worth having, in other words, we have to believe in ourselves, our creativity, our inventiveness, and our ability to live rich, beautiful and fruitful lives without surrounding ourselves with the piles of material tat that have brought us to our current crisis.  At the end of yet another stunning, surprising and gorgeous Edinburgh Fringe, I don’t find it remotely difficult to believe in the possibility of that kind of future; or to see an analogy between the Edinburgh Fringe – in all its glorious, unprogrammed anarchy – and human life itself.

Because for every life-force, it seems, there is always a counter-blast of miserabilist voices saying that it’s all too much; and that some jackboot should descend from  somewhere to squash it, tame it, shrink it.  But life is a gift to be celebrated, not a problem to complain of.   And the possibility of progress lies in the hands  of those who love human life and want to work with the grain of it; rather than with those who view it with hostility, and who – in begrudging a welcome to the creative power and potential of every new life – only succeed, in the end, in demeaning and endangering their own.

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Words Of Honour

THEATRE
Words Of Honour
Assembly@Assembly Hall (Venue 35)
2 stars **

THE STORY OF MAFIA power in Italy, and of the civic struggle against it, is one of the great political themes of the last half-century; and one that is too often ignored, outside the world of Hollywood movies.  Sadly, though, this ambitious two-handed show – by Marco Gambino and Attilio Bolzoni of Jermyn Street Theatre, and performed by Gambino with Patrizia Bollini – chooses a dramatic form so fragmented, and so confusing in its approach to the subject, that even some powerful visual images fail to save the show; and the audience is left, after an hour, feeling as though the story has barely begun.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31 August
p. 240

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The Other Side

THEATRE
The Other Side
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
3 stars ***

BACK IN 200, an Israeli woman picked up the phone to call a friend, and accidentally dialled a wrong number.   The voice that answered belonged to a Palestininian refugee, someone on the “other side” of the Israel-Palestine conflict; and so began an extraordinary peacemaking initiative, in which people on both sides were simply encouraged to talk to one another on the telephone, to meet as friends if that ever seemed possible, and to start to build the kind of personal knowledge and links that make conflict less likely, and peace more possible.

This gentle show by the Scene Company of Wokingham tells the story of this growing peace movement, which has already been the subject of a memorable BBC radio drama.   It can’t be said that The Other Side makes a thrilling piece of theatre.  In the effort to create a stage version of the tale, Gavin Robertson and his company move simple costume-rails around the stage for ages between scenes, as if they had commissioned too much incidental music, and had to find something to do while it plays; and the acting – by a company of three who have to double and treble their roles – sometimes has a slightly desperate, hat-changing look about it.  But the strength of the story comes through, nonetheless; along with the simple truth that people are people, and that however narcissistic and vicious we become about our small differences, when it comes to the great emotions of life – love, loss, anger, endurance, and pleasure in the beauty of things – we are all brothers and sisters, under the skin.

Joyce McMillan
Until 31 August
p. 218

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The Assassination Of Paris Hilton

THEATRE
The Assassination Of Paris Hilton
Assembly@George Street (Venue 3)
3 stars ***

IN THE LADIES’ TOILETS at the Assembly Rooms, something is stirring.  Doors slam, wafts of designer perfume fill the air, in one of the cubicles someone is vomiting noisily after an excess of drink and drugs; and in front of the mirrors, pairs of gorgeous girls pout and back-comb, touch up their lippy, and adjust their boob-tubes.  But this is no ordinary Saturday-night scenario; because these girls are guests or gatecrashers at a serious celebrity party, and two of them are planning – out of envy, disgust or rage – to assassinate the hotel heiress and celebrity-mag diva Paris Hilton, who is expected any minute.

Delivered by Racked Theatre of London in 20-minutes of high-octane, top-decibel drama, Megan Ford’s play is less about celebrity than its title might suggest; in the end, it seems to be about unrequited love, and the desperate need for would-be assassin Maggie to win a place in the heart of Saffron, whom she adores.   But if the play seems slightly unsure about its focus, it still bursts with talent, potential and energy, and leaves Its 20-strong audience – crammed in at either end of the smallest room – gasping for breath. Racked have left a vivid calling-card on the Edinburgh Fringe, in other words; and my guess is that we’ll be hearing from them again.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 180

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A Promised Land

THEATRE
A Promised Land
Scottish Storytelling  Centre (Venue 30)
3 stars ***

VERY FEW SCOTS met their end in the death camps of the holocaust; but one of them was teacher and missionary Jane Haining, who was transported to Auschwitz in the early years of the Second World War, after refusing to abandon her post as the supervisor of a Budapest orphanage for destitute Jewish children.  Raymond Raszkowski Ross’s new play seeks to remember Jane’s life through her relationship with a fictional character, Rivka Feldman, whom she meets in Auschwitz; in the play, Rivka has arrived in postwar Scotland to make a promised pilgrimage to Jane’s home, but finds herself arrested and interrogated as a Jewish terrorist because she is carrying a gun.

The play therefore moves backwards and forwards between Rivka’s interrogation in Scotland, Jane’s interrogation in Hungary, and a scene in Auschwitz between Jane and Rivka’s brother, with Corinne Harris making a beautiful job of playing both women, and John McColl as all the men.  Sometimes, the story becomes a shade confusing, as Ross piles on the history lessons about the founding of Israel, and Britain’s questionable role in the tangled Middle Eastern politics of the time; and in the end, the survivor Rivka comes to seem more of a heroine than the victim, Jane, who quietly succumbs to her fate.  But this is is still a strong, moving and enjoyable piece of drama, performed with great commitment, and directed with sober intelligence and feeling by the Storytelling Centre’s boss, Donald Smith.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 222

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Gagarin Way

THEATRE
Gagarin Way
Stand Comedy Club III (Venue 12)
3 stars ***

IT’S A FINE THING to see an audience more attuned to comedy piling into Stand III in York Place to see a 21st century Scottish play as fine as Gregory Burke’s Gagarin Way; and finer still to see four men from the world of stand-up – Phil Nichol, Jim Muir, Will Andrews and Bruce Morton – pitting themselves against its demands.

What follows, though, is pretty much an object lesson in how tough it is to perform this kind of action drama, while giving full value to every word of Burke’s famously witty and allusive text.  In a crisis-hit year when the kidnapping of overpaid bosses has become a popular form of industrial action in some parts of the world, Burke’s story of two employees at a Dunfermline microchip plant who decide – as a grand gesture of rebellion or rage – to kidnap and kill a visiting consultant from head office, has never been more topical; and all four men inhabit their roles with impressive intensity and commitment, with Nichol in particular capturing all the nihilistic nervous energy of the ringleader, Eddie.

In the end, though, the cast often seem defeated by the vocal demands of the piece, which depends on a combination of  clear articulation, rapid-fire Dunfemline street-speak, perfect timing, and plenty of projection, that often overwhelms even fully-trained actors.  The result is that many of the show’s brilliant comic one-liners disappear in the rush, or are salvaged by the audience a split-second too late; and although the play still makes its bleak and frightening point in the end, much of its rhythmic power, and some of its glorious intellectual and cultural detail, are lost in transit.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 197

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