Monthly Archives: July 2010

The Dog That Did Not Bark: Or, The Strange Silence Of The SNP – Column 31.7.10


JOYCE MCMILLAN  for The Scotsman 31.7.10

AS SOME OF YOU WILL KNOW, THE BBC THIS WEEK launched their new television version of Sherlock Holmes, cunningly updated to the present day.  If the series is successful, I’m sure it will eventually include a dramatisation of the story called Silver Blaze, which features “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”; and if so, it will surely provide us with a powerful metaphor for our political times, here in Scotland.

For the curious thing about the incident of the dog in the night-time, according to Holmes, lay in the fact that the dog did not bark; even though barking was the very thing it was trained and expected to do.   Here we are, after all, in the grip of a new Liberal-Conservative government which is proving to be more radically neo-liberal than Margaret Thatcher would ever have dared to be, back in the 1980’s.   Among many other initiatives, it is implementing swingeing cuts in public spending, on the debatable presumption that it is somehow better to reduce the UK’s deficit by savaging public sector services and employment, than by raising taxes; and it famously believes that we should retreat from the world of social security provided to citizens as of right, to a world where social help is once again more of a charitable and voluntary affair.

Yet in the face of this blizzard of right-wing reform – implemented by the most patrician and male-dominated government for decades – opposition seems almost absent.  In the case of the Liberal Democrat Party, the silence has obviously  been bought with ministerial office, and the empty promise of a referendum on the Alternative Vote, an electoral system which no-one wants, and few will choose.  In the case of Labour, it does not much matter whether they are silent or not; they are in shocking  intellectual and political disarray, and in any case the Westminster village is in mid-honeymoon wth David Cameron, and will pay no attention to anything Labour says for at least the next two years.

How, though, are we to account for the silence of  Scotland’s  own government, put in place, back in 1999, precisely to protect us against such a radical programme of right-wing domestic policy, imposed against our electoral will?  Of course – as the SNP is never slow to point out – the Scottish Government as presently constituted has no power over the macroeconomic decisions of the UK administration.  And of course, it will be able to protect Scottish services from some of the more radical and abrupt reforms being proposed for England.

Yet the SNP, as a party committed to Scottish independence, should surely have a little more than that to say about a programme of change so radical, and so little sought by the  electorate.  If the UK is setting off down a path that most Scots disapprove, towards a balance between public and private spending that does not accord with our broadly Nordic vision of a decent and well-balanced society, then surely the SNP should be seizing a heaven-sent opportunity to explain to us exactly how its strategy would differ from that of Clegg and Cameron, if Scotland were independent.  What balance between public and private sector activity would they seek, in the new Scotland?  In what proportion would they use spending cuts and tax hikes to pay down the present deficit?   What is their considered response to David Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric?  And how would they approach the task of making the public sector work efficiently for the people, rather than simply defending it without question, or assaulting it as some kind of national vice?

All of these questions urgently need answers, as Scots consider how to vote in next year’s Scottish Parliament election; and yet all of them remain desperately under-discussed, not only by Iain Gray’s half-baked Labour Opposition, but also – bizarrely, in the circumstances – by the governing party itself, which seems too frightened even to mention the possibility that Scotland could protect some essential services by using its power to vary  income tax.

Perhaps the SNP is genuinely fearful of what the Cameron government will do to its block grant, if it mounts too clear an  ideological opposition to the Lib-Con programme.  Perhaps it is too viscerally thrilled by David Cameron’s success in humiliating the old enemy, the Labour Party, to be able to see just how right-wing this new government is.  Perhaps the SNP’s famously charismatic leader is tired and bored again, and ready for another political disappearing-act.

Or perhaps, when the chips are down, Scotland’s governing party is just fundamentally confused about whether it is a social-democratic party, or just a modern lounge-suit nationalist grouping, touting itself around the global market as business-friendly first, and people-friendly only much later.  For decades now, the SNP has somehow contrived to ride both horses at once, picking up votes both from influential ex-Tories who hated Labour’s Scottish hegemony, and from left-wingers disgusted by the Labour Party’s long history of compromise with the British establishment.

Now, though, the SNP is not a rainbow opposition, but a party in power; and the new UK government is taking steps that will, once again, divide British society for decades between those who simply rolled over and acquiesced in their policies, and those who took a stand against them, and pledged themselves – however difficult it may prove –  to the 21st century reinvention of the best ideals of social democracy.  I would like to think that the SNP government would lead the Scottish people into the second camp, with brilliance, passion, and real intellectual conviction; that is, when all’s said and done, our settled electoral will.  So far, though, I see little sign of it, or of any other clear decision.  And in that silence, Scotland’s new democracy loses both its dignity and its purpose; which is to allow the people of Scotland to shape the governance of their own internal affairs according to the reasonable values they hold, and which they are not likely to abandon, any time soon.


Adventures In A Norwegian Wood


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ADVENTURES IN A NORWEGIAN WOOD at the Brian Cox Studio, SYT, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 31.7.10

3 stars ***

KEEPING THE ATTENTION of most children is not difficult.  But there is, as they say, always an “element” – noisy, macho, contrarian – who won’t play along; and it’s easy for children’s entertainment to dwindle into a panicky attempt to keep that minority of kids interested, usually by becoming loud, shouty and bit garish.

It’s therefore an intense pleasure to come across an unashamedly matriarchal children’s show like this new devised piece for six female actors, which forms part of the current Scottish Youth Theatre festival in Glasgow, and travels on to Aberdeen next week.  Put together by director Angela Darcy, with assistant Fiona Manson and the company, the play is set in a magic grotto of a room, transformed by designer Kirsty Mccabe into a glade in a beautiful northern forest, with a campfire centre stage, and a glittering silver wishing tree in the background.

The story tells how Izzy, who has lost both her parents, goes with her baby brother Hamish to live in a Norwegian wood with her all-female extended family, including her aunt Willow, Willow’s three daughters, and their lovely grandmother, Fizzy.  Izzy gradually works through her grief and loneliness, with the help of good food, loving care, a bit of music, plenty of complex storytelling, and the healing quality of the forest itself, which seems to endow the family with magical powers.

The assumptions behind the story involve a pretty familiar form of 21st century eco-romanticism.   But the show also offers plenty of good-hearted emotional wisdom, along with an outstanding central performance from Paula Wood as Izzy; and the whole experience is as beautiful, gentle and life-affirming as a warm hug from a loving mum, in a way that will make a few go “yuk”, and most of us melt with delight.


Hansel And Gretel


JOYCE MCMILLAN on HANSEL AND GRETEL at the Byre Theatre, St. Andrews, for The Scotsman 30.7.10

3 stars ***

JUST FOR A MOMENT, when I received an invitation to the Byre’s summer production of Hansel And Gretel, I thought that the recent abrupt loss of the theatre’s annual funding from the Scottish Arts Council might have galvanised it into creating a show of its own, in the time-honoured Byre tradition.   No such luck, though.  This reworking of the famous tale of two unwanted children abandoned by their father and stepmother, and their journey through a forest both enchanted and threatening, has been created by Pilot Theatre of York, with the Byre on board only as co-producers.

That reservation apart, though, Nick Lane’s version of Hansel And Gretel, directed by Amanda J. Smith of Pilot, is a thoroughly enjoyable, vivid and witty show for children of all ages, and for  adults in a holiday mood.  As a simple, two-handed version of a tale with at least half-a-dozen characters, it has its irritating aspects, including a stroppy and over-emphatic children’s television style of presentation, and a full-strength addiction to little meta-theatrical jokes about the nature of theatre that constantly disrupt the narrative.

It has to be said, though, that the young audience love all this, and yell with laughter throughout.   The show boasts a brightly-coloured set by Lydia Denno that’s both simple and memorably vivid, a little gypsy caravan of a house set against a string of fairy lights and a dark sky; it also features a decent performance from Robin Simpson as Hansel, and a delightful one from Ebony Feare as his clever little sister.   Does it say much about what happens to children whose parents or step-parents don’t love them?  Probably not; but we do get the message that brothers and sisters should stick together, and that boys should show some respect for girls and their intelligence, no matter what the adults do, or how little they care.


An Ideal Husband/Titus Andronicus


JOYCE MCMILLAN on AN IDEAL HUSBAND at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and TITUS ANDRONICUS at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman 29.7.10

An Ideal Husband  4 stars ****
Titus Andronicus  3 stars ***

THOSE WHO NEVER go to Pitlochry Festival Theatre – and there are such people, despite the scores of thousands who make the journey every year – might not be aware of this; but these days, the theatre-making complex along the west bank of the River Tummel is one of the most impressive pieces of plant in the whole Scottish cultural sector.  It is the biggest employer in the town, bringing an estimated 11 or 12 million pounds into the local economy each year.  Since its building was weather-proofed a decade ago for year-round operation, it has developed ambitions to become the most prolific producing house in Scottish theatre, staging six large-scale productions each summer, plus its first Christmas pantomime later this year.

And from the point of view of Scottish theatre as a whole, Pitlochry now has on-site storage and production facilities unrivalled in almost any other venue, creating elaborate sets and costumes for casts of fourteen or fifteen players, at a rate most other theatres would no longer attempt.  Small wonder that the audience is moved to applaud – in a slightly different tone of voice from what was once customary – when the curtain goes up on a scene like the opening of the current Pitlochry production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, as designed by that  fine theatre artist, Ken Harrison.

The glittering pillars of the baconied Octagon Room in the London home of Sir Robert Chiltern circa 1895, the hint of a London summer sky beyond, and the parade of fabulous, evening dresses as the ladies of the cast emerge on the arms of their handsomely suited partners, represent a level of theatrical spectacle no longer sought or expected on any other Scottish stage, outside the panto season.  And although theatre should not be all about pretty costumes and gorgeous sets, the capacity to wow audiences in this way is part of its armoury, and Pitlochry’s determination to retain that capacity an achievement worth applauding.

So for once, I am warmly recommending Richard Baron’s otherwise unremarkable production of An Ideal Husband simply for the fact that it looks so absolutely gorgeous, and does no violence to the play in the process.   As it happens, An Ideal Husband is a play that truly cries out for a radical 21st century update, although it was never likely to get one at Pitlochry.  Set in the Westminster village in a time of fierce conflict between conservatism and reform, it tackles the awkward truth that a man can be a fine, talented and even principled politician despite having committed a serious act of corruption at the start of his career; it also demonstrates, in scene after scene, just how little Britain’s inner  political system has changed in the last 115 years, in its snobbish reverence for private wealth.

It also features a seriously wicked lady, in the shape of the blackmailing villainess Mrs. Cheveley; and a terrfiyingly virtuous one, in the shape of Sir Robert’s lovely wife, Gertrude.  And it touches on ideas about sex and virtue that still haunt us today; the idealisation of some men and women, the demonisation of others, and the need for both sexes to be more humane and realistic about the other.

Baron’s production features strong performances from Robin Harvey Edwards and Jacqui Dutoit as the old folks, Lord Caversham and Lady Markby, and from David Malcolm as Sir Robert’s high-camp bachelor friend, Lord Goring.  Like all conventional productions of Wilde’s society comedies, it misses its chance of saying anything serious about the way we live now, because the audience remains so transfixed by the astonishingly mannered way in which it says anything at all.  But the glittering reproduction of that lost, high style of aristocratic life is an artistic achievement in itself.  The trick now is to integrate that style into our wider creative life; and to use it to say something substantial about a world we have lost, and about whether that loss is for better, or for worse.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is also a play about evil, destroying the lives of the virtuous; but by comparison with Wilde, Shakespeare bursts onto the scene like a blazing young theatre-of-cruelty radical, not protecting the audience with layers of wit and elegance, but throwing the reality of evil at them in the most savage in-your-face style.  Written early in Shakespeare’s career, Titus Andronicus tells the story of a great Roman general brought low by his conflict with the evil Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who –  after being captured by Titus and brought to Rome as a prisoner – attracts the lust of the new young Emperor, becomes Empress, and seeks vengeance on Titus and his family with a bloody fury that leaves audiences gasping, as hands are lopped off, tongues ripped out, and Titus’s daughter Lavinia raped and mutilated, in one of the most violent onstage scenes in all of  classic theatre.

It can’t be said that Marc Silberschatz’s debut production of Titus  for the Bard In The Botanics season really makes much of this horrible sequence of events.  Its approach is more shouty and over-emphatic than stylish or insightful; the young, post-student cast thrash and yell in the gathering gloom of a muddy glade at the back of the Botanics, literally putting the shivering audience through hell, and only Wendy Crosby’s impressively wicked Tamora emerges from this early Shakespearean mess of rabid hatred and ferocious racism with any distinction.  Yet there’s something admirable about the company’s sheer courage in tackling this ghastly play head-on, and with such energy.  You won’t see many productions of Titus Andronicus in Scotland; so if you want final proof that violent, sensational, in-your-face theatre is not a new phenomenon, gird up your travelling rug, get that coffee into the thermos, and head for the Botanics, one more time.

An Ideal Husband in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 15 October; Titus Andronicus at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until Saturday.


Surge Festival, Glasgow – Used To Be Slime, Tide Machine, Red Bastard, etc.



3 stars ***

IT’S WORTH REMEMBERING HOW COMPLETELY the old magical arts of popular entertainment were swept from Scotland’s streets 400 years ago, during our ultra-radical Protestant revolutions.  The odd bout of acrobatics or clowning still survived, of course; and by the 19th century, Scotland was beginning to create its own distinctive tradition of variety and pantomime.  Yet still, there’s a sense of something being reborn, around the Conflux Project – aimed at developing Scotland’s street arts, physical theatre and circus – that reached its climax in last week’s Surge Festival in Glasgow.  And although most of the shows I saw during Saturday’s final celebration were created by visiting companies, there’s a clear interest in developing home-grown talent as fast as possible.

So in George Square, as I climbed off the train, I found Hilary Westlake’s group Used To Be Slime – half-a-dozen performers and a six-piece brass band – performing a polite but engaging piece of physical theatre about the weather, in the shade of a cunningly-designed set-cum-storage box that looked like the plinth of an average town-square statue.

Down at the Broomielaw, the Dumfriesshire-based Oceanallover company staged The Tide Machine, a lavishly-cast show featuring at least sixteen performers and a four-piece strolling band, and set around a “tide-powered, kinetic performance platform”- that is, a small stage surrounded by brightly-painted machinery, like a giant  toy.  The 40-minute show, inspired by the shapes and movements of exotic deep-sea creatures, seems to be about an encounter between three competing marine civilisations, one crab-like and grumpy, one  white, scaly and aggressive, and one pink, orange and beautiful, like slender coral-reef flowers.   The costumes and vocal sounds are  astonishing; but the tide machine was a sad disappointment, since despite all its visible bells and whistles, it just sat there in the Glasgow drizzle, doing absolutely nothing.

Then it was on to the stunning-refurbished Briggait building for a brief and touching pole performance from Moritz Linkman, as a Dietrich-like transsexual icon from prewar Berlin; and back to the Arches for Red Bastard, a slightly terrifying 75-minute “buffon” show by Eric Davis of New York.   The buffon is that red-costumed, bulbous, devil-like figure who cares for nothing and no-one except his own pleasures; Davis is a truly commanding, charismatic and original performer, using an ancient stage tradition to force the audience to think about the strange link between cruelty and freedom.  And now, it seems like time to bring figures like the buffon into deeper contact with Scotland’s own tradition of stage comedy; if only to see where that new relationship leads.


Creative Scotland: Or Why Cutting Arts Spending Makes No Sense At All – Column 24.7.10


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.7.10

EVERY NOW AND AGAIN, in Edinburgh or Glasgow, I find myself invited to one of those all-walks-of-life dinners; establishment get-togethers where the great and the good gather to discuss the future of Scotland.  The form is fairly predictable.  Between courses, everyone around the table is asked to say a few words; and the event rapidly drifts towards that familiar form of Scottish boss-class discourse which frames Scotland itself as a problem, and a sadly inadequate place when compared with – say – the south of England, or the west coast of the United States.

So when it comes to my turn, it’s always a pleasure to point out that as a theatre critic, I am lucky enough to inhabit a world where being in Scotland is not a problem, but a privilege and a joy.  Thanks to generations of inspired artists, and half a century of consistently decent investment from both public and commercial sponsors, Scotland’s cultural scene is now an object of admiration across the world; and a constant stream of visitors arrives to study our success in spawning world-class writers, musicians and visual artists, in creating a new National Theatre on a famously innovative model, or in maintaining and developing the Edinburgh Festival as the biggest and most exuberant in the western world.

For a modest public investment of about £100 million pounds a year from central government, and perhaps twice that from our local authorities, the cultural sector in Scotland routinely delivers levels of prestige, publicity, and image-changing power that no global advertising campaign could begin to equal.  Given the labour-intensive nature of the industry – and the generally modest level of  pay, in a greed-free sector where even the leaders of top organisations are rarely paid more than £45,000 a year – arts spending also generates large numbers of jobs, with the benefit of retaining tens of thousands of energetic and creative people in Scotland, despite the huge competing attraction of London as an arts and media centre.  The positive role of the arts in areas of public policy from mental health to urban regeneration is well documented, and can be utterly transforming.

And if we add to all these tangible benefits the more subtle power of the arts to transform Scotland’s view of itself – to reframe the nation not as a problematic provincial backwater, but as a powerhouse of 21st century creativity, generating work that is recognised on a global level for its ability to articulate the current human condition – then we have an investment that must be classed as the best, the brightest, and the most brilliantly cost-effective any small-nation government could make; a conclusion already reached, it’s worth noting, by similar-scale governments from Ireland to Quebec and Catalonia.

So it’s particularly dispiriting, this week, to come across two hints that this key area of success in recent Scottish life is coming under threat.  One is the report that in order to save a paltry £2.3 million pounds – hardly enough to make a pinprick in the huge Scottish budgets for health, education, or social service – the Scottish Government is thinking of slicing a cool 10% off the budgets of all our national performing companies, including the National Theatre and the orchestras.   The rationale behind this is that “the arts must take their share of the pain”; but that, to put it bluntly, is nonsense.  The money spent on the arts is less than 1% of total public expenditure in Scotland; arguably, given the amount of poverty pay in the sector, it should have been doubled years ago.  The money shaved from it will inflict huge damage on Scotland’s cultural life and prestige, without making any significant difference elsewhere; it is a classic example of a foolish cut, a gesture that does incalculable harm for no benefit at all.

And the other gloomy signal comes from the new arts and film body Creative Scotland, which – after a long decade in the making – finally held its launch event at the Roxy in Edinburgh this week.  The new director and chair, Andrew Dixon and Sandy Crombie, spoke well enough about the need to accentuate the positive in Scotland’s cultural life; and they seem  more than aware of all the key issues they face.

The organisation is being launched, though, in a climate of cuts which, like the threat to the funding of the national companies, is damaging far beyond what can be justified by the amounts of money involved, and which is already forcing Andrew Dixon to spout  worrying management-speak about how giving out money is the “boring” part of his job, as compared to “making new partnerships”, or acting as an advocate for the arts.

Of course, advocacy and partnership are important; and no-one knows more than the average arts organisation about the need to search constantly and exhaustingly for new partners and sponsors, however meagre the sums involved.   In the end, though, we either want to provide public support for the arts, or we don’t.  And if we do, then it’s high time to stop apologising and euphemising around the idea of public subsidy like a bunch of ageing Thatcherites, and to engage instead with the much more interesting question of how it can be done well, under today’s conditions.

Simplification of process, reduction of bureaucratic box-ticking, and faster and better-informed artistic decision-making, combined with a continuous, living debate about the criteria on which those decisions are made; these should be the defining characteristics of a new arts funding agency for our time.  And there’s no doubt that Creative Scotland could become that ground-breaking agency, on two conditions.   First, that it stops apologising for the financial support to artists that should be its proud core activity, and concentrates on dishing out that support with judgment and style.  And secondly, that the Scottish Government, from somewhere in its soul, summons up the wisdom to ignore those siren calls for equality of misery; and to give this brand-new agency, in one of the most vibrant areas of Scottish life, the money to get on with the job.


Twelfth Night


JOYCE MCMILLAN onTWELFTH NIGHT at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 23.7.10

4 stars ****

THE SECOND HALF of this summer’s Bard In The Botanics season has been so devastated by rain that hardly a single performance has made it through to the final bow.  On a rare dry evening last weekend, though, I was fortunate enough to see a complete run of Gordon Barr’s new production of Twelfth Night; and against all the odds, it struck me as one of the finest interpretations of this beautiful play I have ever seen.

It’s not that Barr and his eleven-strong company attempt any radical update of the text; the show has a familiar and picturesque Edwardian look.  Right from the start, though, the whole cast seize hold of the play’s twin themes – about the strange, slipping landscape of desire and sexual identity, and about the time-honoured British battle between sensual indulgence and puritanism –  as if  they had gained a whole fresh insight into their significance, from recent political tussles over gender and sexuality, or over the new puritanism that finds expression in the pronouncements of the “health and safety” industry.

So Nicole Cooper’s commanding Viola is a deeply intelligent, thoughtful figure, tortured both by her own desire for the Duke Orlando, and by the Lady Olivia’s misplaced desire for her.  And the battle between misrule and puritanism rages not only in Olivia’s household – between Stephen Clyde as Malvolio, and a brilliant bunch of rabble-rousers led by Kirk Bage as Sir Toby Belch –  but in her heart, as she falls into a blushing frenzy of love.  When it comes to Shakespeare, there’s no substitute for a perfect grasp of the meaning of the text, and a crystal-clear overall sense of where the play’s dramatic heart lies.  This production has both qualities, by the barrowload; and as darkness falls, we can feel – in he unresolved stand-off between Malvolio and his tormentors – the approach of an ideological battle that will run for centuries, and still remains with us today.


Theatre and Cinema – Edinburgh Festival 2010



THE LIGHTS DIM, the screen narrows to that square 1940’s shape, the old Warner Brothers logo crackles into view.  Then the first haunting monochrome image appears, of a crumbling corner in the old quarter of New Orleans; a run-down old house on two stories, with a grubby courtyard, and what must once have been a picturesque outside staircase, curving elegantly up to the balcony entrance on the first floor.

It could be a black-and-white photograph, very grainy.  It could be a still shot of an empty set on some movie lot in Hollywood, filmed through a slight veil of dust; or it could be a very detailed sketch, in charcoal and pencil.  But it soon takes on more solidity, and becomes the image of a three-dimensional space in which people can run, and fight, and make love.  Because this is the first frame of Elia Kazan’s mighty 1951 film version of the great Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, famous for the scorching emotional realism of its central performances – from Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter –  and for its powerful evocation of the heat, sweat and squalor of working-class New Orleans in the mid 20th century.

Streetcar  is showing at the Filmhouse as part of a season of films linked to the programme of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival; it acts as an iconic cultural backdrop to the Wooster Group’s fiercely post-modern production of Tennessee Williams’s earlier text Vieux Carre, set in the same part of New Orleans, which arrives at the Royal Lyceum on 21 August.  And together with the other three films in the season – Susanna Boehm’s documentary Porgy And Me, Babeth VanLoo’s film portrait of the singer/composer Meredith Monk, and Ray Lawrence’s 1985 film of the Peter Carey novel Bliss – it helps to mark out a space for dialogue between screen culture and live performance that has suddenly, in the last year or two, become much more energised, and full of new initiatives.

Following the huge sucess, since last summer, of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s NT Live project – which has seen performances on the South Bank beamed live into cinemas across the world, from Dundee and Aberystwyth to California and Estonia – theatre companies everywhere are seizing opportunities to project their work live on screen; on 23 August, for example, a special non-stop performance of the Traverse Theatre’s festival breakfast season of five new half-hour plays will be streamed live into cinemas across the UK.  And if theatre companies like the Wooster Group have been exploring and deconstructing the electronic mediation of experience for the last three decades – their new vision of Vieux Carre is influenced by the 1970’s films of Warhol associate Paul Morrissey, and by the contemporary film and graphic wild-child Ryan Trecartin – there is also a new generation of companies with their own ideas about the interaction between live performance and film.  This year’s Festival programme features Teatro Cinema of Chile, whose award-winning “film noir” show Sin Sangre, and new work The Man Who Fed Butterflies, involve a unique and highly theatrical fusion of filmed imagery and live action.

It’s much more difficult, though, to decode the deeper meaning of this new intensification of the relationship between stage and cinema.  At one level, it’s clearly a case of less popular art-forms seeking a wider audience through the more popular medium of cinema.  “For me,” says Dominic Hill of the Traverse, “it’s mainly just about getting the playwrights’ work out there.  I feel we have a really strong obligation to do that, and if there are new things happening in terms of projecting the work to audiences, we should be involved.  So I was delighted when Hibrow Productions approached us, not just to beam these plays live to cinemas on 23 August, but also to create a whole stream of permanent online material around them.”

According to Edinburgh International Festival director, Jonathan Mills, though, there is something more profound going on, for good or ill.   Techniques for projecting live performance on screen have been improving by leaps and bounds in recent years, borrowing from the success of the massive television coverage of rock festivals and concerts, and carving out a a new space between traditional documentary films about live performance, and the old, failed technique of just pointing a camera at the stage.  Hence the rapturous response to the NT performances on screen, which combine the real-time thrill of a live performance – with cinema audiences laughing and applauding alongside the theatre audience – with the intimacy of close-up.

“Will the international festival be joining this move towards live screening of performances?” says Mills. “Well, we may do, so long as no-one gets carried away with the idea that the one thing  is a substitute for the other.  It’s not about a filmic approach to live performance – because why not just make a film?  And it’s not about a theatrical approach to cinema – because why not just do a play?

“But if you can open up some real new space for interaction between the art-forms, as both Teatro Cinema and the Wooster Group do, in their different ways – well then, it begins to get interesting.   Essentially, it’s about a generation of artists who just don’t accept those traditional art-form distinctions any more.  And then it’s up to them, as individuals, to create work that is good, and rigorous, and exciting, and can stand up to criticism; no matter how they do it, or what forms they use to get there.”

Ray Lawrence’s film version of Bliss has one further performance at Filmhouse, Sunday 25 July.  Vieux Carre at the Royal Lyceum, 21-24 August.  Porgy And Bess at the Festival Theatre, 14-17 August.  Meredith Monk’s Songs Of Ascension at the Royal Lyceum, 28-30 August.  Opera Australia’s Bliss at the Festival Theatre, 2-4 September.  Sin Sangre and The Man Who Fed Butterflies at the King’s Theatre, 28 August-3 September.  Traverse Live! at the Traverse and cinemas UK-wide, 23 August.


The Venus Labyrinth


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE VENUS LABYRINTH at the Arches, Glasgow, for TheScotsman 21.7.10

4 stars ****

THERE ARE 28 destinations in the Venus Labyrinth: places to visit, spaces to explore, scenes to see and hear as you walk alone around the tunnels of the Arches, each one corresponding to one of the known areas of the human brain, from visual memory and sense of touch, to sexuality and projection.

In a single 75-minute visit, though, you can only experience three of these places, chosen at random when you make a selection of objects and dolls as you enter; this makes the show as a whole impossible to review, since the number of different combinations is vast.  Yet from the three places I visited, I would say that the labyrinth – first designed by the Danish group Cantabile 2 seven years ago, and now specially re-created for the current Surge Festival by a group of 14 Scottish and international artists – richly fulfils its intention of exploring female minds and experience from a unique perspective that combines movement and reflection, installation and sound, and the strange, intimate  aesthetic of one-on-one performance that has been developing over the past decade.

Of the three scenes I experienced, Eva Baltzer’s Muscle Movement involves moving around a dark space, bound together with the performer so that you can feel and consider your shared balance and breathing.  Signe Harder Levlin’s Auditory Memory is a breathtakingly vivid recollection of her grandmother, created through sounds and occasional glimpsed images in darkness; Mazz Marsden’s Visual Memory is a journey into unhappy childhood, involving sad explorations of a kind of trust that links us more strongly to strangers than to friends or family.  None is brilliant in itself.  Yet the combination is strangely haunting and reflective, and fiercely female; a story of a quest for true intimacy always disappointed, but also of beauty, and possibility, and a kind of love.


Banning The Burqa, Hero-Worshipping Raoul Mote: In 2010, Millions Of Men Still Think They Own Women’s Bodies – Column 17.7.10


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 17.7.10

IT’S THE SUMMER OF 2010, three generations on from the moment when women in Britain were finally allowed to vote on equal terms with men; yet all across Europe, the air is loud with the sound of male voices debating what women should be allowed to do, to be, and to wear.  In France and Belgium, the predominantly male legislators are banning the burqa, the full-face veil worn by a very small minority of Muslim women in both countries.

In Scotland, there is a protracted and irritable debate over a public health film designed to remind men that women are never “asking” to be raped, even when they wear little sparkly mini-skirts, and get drunk.   In Rome, the all-male hierarchy of the Catholic Church denounces the ordination of women as a “grave  offence”, the same term it applies to child abuse.  In London, the new coalition government announces that it means to grant anonymity to the accused in rape cases, as if raped women – of all crime victims – were the ones most likely to lie.

And behind it all rumbles the unsettling dispute over those social networking pages that offer support and hero-worship to the late gunman Raoul Mote, who died by his own hand last weekend.  If Mote had killed out of financial desperation or family resentment, like the recent Cumbrian gunman Derrick Bird, he would no doubt have been viewed with the same revulsion.   But Moat killed his ex-girlfriend’s new partner, and tried to kill her, in a brutal attempt to reassert control over a woman he saw as his property; and the websites, with their misogynistic hate-fantasies, suggest that there are tens of thousands of men in Britain who feel that he was within his rights to do so.

And what all these areas of debate make clear is that 35 years on from the passing of the Equal Opportunities Act in the UK – the act that was supposed, once and for all, to make men and women equal citizens before the law – we are still desperately torn between an official culture that talks the talk of gender equality, and an emotional underworld in which women are still often seen, even by themselves, as territory to be marked out, validated and fought over by men, at every level.

And what is also clear is that we have yet to develop a language of gender equality that even begins to address the attitudes of those men; that goes beyond the legalistic, and gets to grips with the deep impulses that make people feel the need to control the mind and body of another person.  For complex reasons, second-wave feminism in the Anglo-Saxon world began, very soon after its inception in the 1970’s, to be perceived as a puritanical movement, in the best north European tradition; prudish, dowdy, and deeply hostile to sex.

And since sex can never be suppressed for long, the consequence has been a vicious long-term backlash, which ranges from the public rebellion of articulate Muslim women who say they want to wear the veil in order to advertise their obedience, to the private rebellion of millions of men who increasingly turn away from real-life equal relationships, to log on to internet images of female submission on a scale their Victorian forefathers could scarcely have imagined.  And still, in the midst of it all, we cannot quite get our heads round the idea that it is OK for women to win and wield power; as many commentators have observed, this last UK general election campaign was the most male-dominated for decades.

So is there a key to unlock this horrible mess of resentment, reaction and misunderstanding?  Well, only this: that if the continuing need to control and dictate to women is linked to deep sexual impulses, then the way forward to gender equality lies not in pretending that those impulses do not exist, but in recognising that women have them too.  We know that women find good-looking men attractive, of course; but we are rarely if ever foolish enough to factor that truth into our social arrangements.  We don’t expect middle-aged men to starve themselves in the effort to look as if they’re still 29.  We don’t expect them to disappear from our screens as soon as they acquire grey hair or a paunch.   Religious leaders do not advise young men to cover their bodies from hairline to toe, in order to avoid arousing the lust of women in public places.    And if women talk among themselves about the men they find attractive, it’s not a topic to which anyone attaches much importance; whereas the effort to make grown women look like the pouting teenage girls men allegedly prefer is a multi-billion pound global business.

If we recognise that all men and women are sexual creatures, in other words, trying to reconcile their basic physical impulses with their more complex emotional needs, then we might be able to move on from the bizarre assumption that men’s sexuality is somehow so different from women’s, and so much more powerful, that the whole of society needs to structure itself around this imbalance, to the point of excluding women from many public roles, and expecting them to shoulder most of the blame for male sexual misconduct.   Officially, of course, our society already occupies that progressive position.

But so long as the opponents of gender equality are able to portray that official position as a naive one, that takes no account of passion, jealousy and bloodlust, it will be easy to undermine.  True sexual equality is not about the end of desire, but about the recognition that desire at its best is mutual, an equal passion between equal partners.  And it’s also about the recognition that without that equality, sex always comes with a tinge of exploitation; and a sense that if the money and power were taken out of the equation, then there would be precious little feeling left – no desire, no affection, and no true love at all.