Monthly Archives: September 2010

Punk Rock, Good With People

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PUNK ROCK at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and GOOD WITH PEOPLE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 30.9.10
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Punk Rock   3 stars ***
Good With People  4 stars ****

THERE’S A THEORY – a difficult one to dispute – that all human societies are to some extent founded on violence; that without the willingness to suppress armed rebellion, punish crime, and police borders, no city can rise, or state start to function.  Even if violence is an unavoidable part of human society, though, we tend to be shocked almost beyond words when it escapes its usual boundaries.  In theatre, audiences still tend to gasp in distress at the moment in a domestic drama when a man hits his wife; the idea of the home as a safe haven dies hard.

As for school shootings of the kind associated with the Columbine  massacre in the United States, they exert a uniquely horrifying grip on the imagination; not because anyone imagines that schools are non-violent places – bullying happens in every kind of educational institution – but because we expect that violence to have its limits, familiar, domestic, and non-lethal.

And it’s this moment when ordinary school violence shades into something much more shocking that seems to fascinate the playwright Simon Stephens, whose flawed-but-interesting drama Punk Rock appears at the King’s in Edinburgh this week.  The school he portrays – like the one in Alan Bennett’s History Boys – is a strangely retro-looking grammar school in a northern English city, supposedly contemporary, but somehow trapped in what looks like the 1980’s.   This school, though, is co-educational, with boys and girls sparring and dating and having sex, in the usual maelstrom of teenage insecurities and rivaliries; until one boy, a brainy but troubled lad called William, begins to lose the place completely, plunging the characters into a tragi-comic death scene as implauslble as it is terrifying.

The play’s problem, though, is that it just as it lacks any well-worked-out relationship with the Punk Rock phenomenon conjured up in its title, so it lacks the structural focus on William’s terrible journey that might have begun to make sense of it.  He is not the most bullied boy in the group, nor the poorest, nor – despite his own fantasies – the most unfortunate in his family background; and while his sexual rejection by gorgeous new-girl Lily may seem to tip him over the edge, he specifically denies that it was the cause of his final murderous rampage, which he says he carried out “because he could”.

Stephens’s play is performed with terrific commitment by a fine young cast, with Laura Pyper superb as Lilly, Edward Franklin threatening to steal the show as troubled bullyBennett, and the whole text speaking volumes about the brutal casual sexism implicit in post-modern “lad” culture.  It attracts an excited young audience, who thrill to every swear-word; and it certainly offers rich material for post-show classroom discussions, on a whole range of topics.   In the end, though, all it seems to say is that violence of thought and deed is indivisible, and always begets violence.  Which is true, up to a point; but still doesn’t capture the moment that should be at the centre of this play, the moment when ordinary, survivable brutalism shades into lethal murderous intent, and changes everything, forever.

For a truly elegant, powerful and purposeful drama about the impact of violence on everyday life, though, there’s one place to be in Scotland this week; and that’s at the lunchtime Play, Pie and Pint show at Oran Mor, which this week premieres a brilliant new 50-minute play by David Harrower, called Good With People.  Set in a hotel in a once-elegant Clyde holiday resort, the play describes a tense two-day encounter between middle-aged, married Helen – who works behind the hotel’s reception desk, neat and sexy in black skirt, heels, and tourist-board jacket – and twentysomething Evan, who once bullied Helen’s son to despair when they were at school together, and who now returns to the town for a brief celebration of his parents’ remarriage, following a messy divorce.

In this terrific short dialogue – performed with electrifying power by Blythe Duff and Andrew Scott-Ramsay – Harrower first acknowledges the connection between violence and sex, making the air between the two characters crackle with more erotic tension than I’ve seen on a Scottish stage in years.  Then he uses that tension – that alternating current of intense potential joy and pain – to crack open Scottish small-town society, exposing the miserable mesh of petty snobberies that can define whole lives, of small decencies that go unnoticed, of dreams put on the back burner, and of long-term damage inflicted by forces – and forms of organised violence –  far beyond the control of local people; for this town is Helensburgh, and it has been changed forever by the coming of the huge Faslane nuclear base just up the road.

In this last of five autumn co-productions between A Play, A Pie And A Pint and Paines Plough, George Perrin directs with impressive grace and flair, moving the characters fluently through a series of five short scenes, using the sharp tolling of a town bell to hold the characters in tension while time passes, and their eye contact intensifies.  And the whole experience comes as a sharp reminder of how, in the years since devolution, playwrights based in Scotland have tended to leave the specifics of Scottish life to the politicians, and to paint on a wider canvas; and of what rich dividends it can pay, when they focus once again on the pain, the potential, and the deep, deep resonances of the society on their doorstep.

Punk Rock at the King’s Theatre, Edingurgh, until Saturday.  Good With People at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday; and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 19-23 October.

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Don’t Stop Believin’

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’ at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.10
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4 stars ****

IF THE SUCCESS OF THE TELEVISION show Glee – set in an American High School glee club – signifies anything at all, it’s about the pure joy of classic pop music, and the huge positive energy it unleashes.  And if you want to see that young, joyful spirit brought to life on stage, then the Festival Theatre is the place to be, between now and Wednesday, for this Glee-inspired tribute show, featuring a fine five-piece guitar band, and a cast of a dozen terrific young singer-dancers, variable in talent, but faultless in commitment, and generosity of spirit.

Unlike more elaborate tribute shows, this British-made nod to the spirit of Glee has no story, and no fictional characters; in essence, it’s a pretty good pop concert, or large-scale gig.  But as the cast belt their way through classics from Walking On Sunshine to Sweet Caroline, it’s difficult to resist the pure live energy of their performance, or the freedom they seem to feel in expressing their own personalities through the songs.  Too much music theatre has a formulaic look, slotting performers into a production that’s all concept, and too little live communication with the audience.  For all its TV-tribute origins, Don’t Stop Believin’ avoids that pitfall by a mile; and the cheers of the tweenybopper audience – and their Mums – are well earned, by a young cast visibly in love with their work.

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Arches Live! 2010 – Plucked Of Purpose, A Booming Voice, My Hands Are Dancing But My Heart Is Cold

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2010 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 28.9.10
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Plucked Of Purpose  2 stars **
A Booming Voice  3 stars ***
My Hands Are Dancing But My Heart Is Cold  4 stars ****

SELF-ABSORPTION IS rarely an attractive quality; and for my taste, there was just a shade too much of it around in this year’s Arches Live! festival   Skye Loneragan, for example, is a compelling performer, easy to watch even when she’s – literally – pretending to be a plastic bag.  This time around, though, she’s so bereft of ideas that she’s reduced to producing an overblown one-hour meditation on her own purposelessness, symbolised both by her temporary stranding at an airport, and by the hopelessly laboured metaphor of the said plastic bag, a poor tattered thing stuck on a tree.  At the moment Loneragan just looks like a brilliant actress in search of material worth her metal; maybe she should take time out, and do some Shakespeare.

Young Ben Dunn, meanwhile, joins the queue of young artists whose theme is their own set of family relationships, happy or sad.  Dunn’s Big Booming Voice begins with the deeply tasteless conceit of saying that his Dad is dead, although he isn’t; what he means is that his Dad’s relationship with his Mum has broken down, and his old relationship with his Dad is dead.

There follows an entertaining 50 minute in which Dunn and his Dad, who appears only on video, sing songs, go for walks, and act out role-play about fathers and sons.  Dunn is clearly bursting with talent, particularly when it comes to using sound and music  to express his theme; and his Dad is a bit of a star.  In the end, though, the show’s analysis of its subject is evasive to the point of shallowness.  If the breakup of parents traumatises their children, let’s just say so; and stop doing shows that end at what should be their starting-point.

Ian Smith, by contrast to most Arches Live! performers, is not young.  The man behind Mischief La Bas turned 50 last year, and his five-minute show My Hands Are Dancing But My Heart Is Cold is one of his brief solo meditations on that experience.  We enter a darkened room, we sit alone on a chair in front of an elaborate, old-fashioned performance booth, we listen to a recording of a beautiful young woman singing an infinitely seductive song about her hidden beauty mark.  Smith’s hands appear through the backdrop of the little puppet stage, long, polished and androgynous; they dance until the song ends.

Then we go round the back of the booth and sit behind Smith as he performs the show again.  There are the lyrics of the song written in blood, empty bottles, and a mirror in which we are made to look into Smith’s grief-blanked eyes.  For myself, I could hardly bear to look; Smith’s face simply said too much about the terrible sadness of ageing.  But this is miniature art of the highest order, moving out beyond self-absorption, to that moment when performance becomes poetry.

ENDS ENDS

Talking Heads

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TALKING HEADS  at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 25.9.10
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3 stars ***

LUNCHTIME SHORTS, TWO-MINUTE PLAYS, BITE-SIZED theatre; as the idea of theatrical performance fragments and regroups, short-form theatre is everywhere this autumn.  And now, Dundee Rep has climbed aboard the bandwagon, filling the gap between mainstage productions with a platform performance of three of Alan Bennett’s famous Talking Heads monologues, first seen on British television in 1988; plus a series of five-minute “Brief Encounters” performed in the bar before each show.

The Talking Heads project is the work of three Rep Ensemble members, who each perform one monologue, and direct another; and the evening begins brilliantly, with Robert Paterson’s superb performance of A Chip In The Sugar, Bennett’s beautifully-structured story of a crisis in the live-in relationship between Graham, a middle-aged man with mental health problems, and his confused but lively 72-year-old mother, who meets an old flame while out shopping one day.  A Chip In The Sugar is funny, quick-witted, poignant, timeless in its concern with familial love and its limits, and the pain that change can bring; and this version is directed by Emily Winter  with a Scottish inflection that, for once, works beautifully.

The other two monologues, though, show more signs of ageing.  Irene Macdougall is tremendously moving as the unloved vicar’s wife of A Bed Among The Lentils; but the performance somehow fails to maintain a sense of dramatic momentum and traction, and seems a scene or two too long.  And as for Emily Winter’s lovely performance as Lesley, the sexually exploited aspiring actress of Her Big Chance – well, this should be the most topical of all the plays, given the recent growth in the porn and sexploitation industries.  Yet something about the text – Lesley’s memories of working on the 1979 film Tess, or the very technology she works with – seems to trap this story in the past; and its tragedy is  softened by period detail that can’t help seeming slightly quaint, and a little too comforting.

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The Delhi Games Crisis And The Idea Of Commonwealth – Column 24.9.10

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 24.9.10
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WHEN I WAS A CHILD, in my first years at primary school, the British Commonwealth – as it was known back then – was still taking shape   As we learned to write, we carefully copied out the news of the day in our little jotters.  Ghana has become an independent country, we wrote, and the Queen will visit soon; or it might be Jamaica, or Nigeria, or any of the other members of the “family of nations” that was supposed to have emerged, bright and egalitarian, from the battle-scarred shell of the old British Empire.

Even then, it was understood that the Queen herself had a particular enthusiasm for the idea of the Commonwealth, this community that would somehow enable Britain to remain a major global force, while relinquishing its formal political control over its old dominions.  And over the long years of her reign, it has sometimes seemed as though the Queen has kept the Commonwealth show on the road by sheer force of will, turning up resolutely at the regular meetings of heads of government, and smiling firmly in the face of mockery, both from the liberal left, and from the Tory right.

These days, though, sceptics often question the continuing value of the Commonwealth, in a world full of inter-governmental organisations and initiatives; and some say that if it weren’t for the Commonwealth Games – the four-yearly sporting celebration scheduled to take place in Delhi next month, and in Glasgow in 2014 – it would soon fade into complete obscurity.

All of which adds a powerful twist of political significance to this week’s rising tide of bad news from Delhi, where the 2010 games are scheduled to open in just nine days’ time.  The game of “us” and “them” is always an easy one to play, of course; and nowhere easier than in the world of international sport, where people from widely different cultures and backgrounds meet on what should be a level playing-field.  For the last six weeks, the British media have been full of the sad story of alleged spot-betting and match-fixing surrounding the recent cricket series between England and Pakistan, with all its tense subtext of negative mutual assumptions about who, in the relationship between Britain and Pakistan, is more likely to play fair.

And now, the reports of filthy conditions in the Commonwealth athletes’ village in Delhi, of unfinished buildings, and of the collapse of a footbridge at the main stadium, have opened the door to another series of ancient British stereotypes about the perils of foreign travel, not helped by the bizarre efforts of one Indian official who opined (quite wrongly, in my experience) that Indians in general do not aspire to the same hygiene standards as western visitors.

So how should the sporting authorities in the four British nations react, as their teams prepare to fly out to Delhi?  One response, of course, would be to dismiss the Commonwealth Games as an increasingly unimportant fixture, and to withdraw rather than deal with the difficulties; many senior competitors, including Scotland’s cycling champion Chris Hoy, had already decided not to compete in Delhi, because of a near clash of dates with this autumn’s European Championships in Barcelona.

The truth is, though, that for the Scottish team at least, withdrawal is not a realistic option; not, at any rate, if Scotland wants the 2014 games in Glasgow to have any chance of  success.  It’s not that Indian opinion is in denial about the difficulties in Delhi; on the contrary, the local press has been savage in its criticism of the “clowns” in charge of the Games project, and of the last-minute rush to complete building work.  It’s rather that for British teams to refuse to travel and compete would imply something else; not just a perception of problems in India, but a deeply dismissive and insulting assumption that they cannot and will not be solved.

And when it comes to modern India, there’s surely no doubt that the resources to solve them are available, in abundance.  The state of some of the building sites comes as a salutary reminder, of course, that tens of millions of Indians still live in absolute poverty; no doubt many of the workers have been living on-site without proper facilities of any kind, and no doubt many will suffer further  in the final rush to complete the buildings.  In Delhi as in South Africa, at the time of the recent World Cup, there are questions to be asked about the wisdom and morality of investing such massive resources in global sporting events, while ordinary people struggle to make a living; the same questions wil be asked in Glasgow, four years from now.

It would be tragic, though, if the need for a last-minute deep clean of some of the athletes’ accommodation, or for a final dash to complete some buildings, were to be seen as a reason for ceasing to believe in the powerful wave of change now reshaping Indian society, and in its huge transforming power.  As we saw in the run-up to the Athens Olympics  two years ago, no nation is immune to last-minute deadline-crashing in the run-up to such an event; and no country can be sure that it will never suffer an embarrassment of this kind.

If the idea of family means anything, though, it’s perhaps that failures can be forgiven and worked out, and not seized upon as an excuse for walking away.   And although the concept of the Commonwealth as a family may be as old-fashioned and politically naive as some of its critics suggest, it seems to me that it may still have its uses; not least if it encourages those 54 nations, across the world, to resist the reactionary siren voices of cultural division and dismissal that would have them abandon the Delhi games, and to travel on in a spirit of confidence and affection, towards a meeting that is finally not with strangers, but with a vital part of our history, and of ourselves.

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Arches Live! 2010 – Coma, Anmut, Where Have I Come From?

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2010 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 24.9.10
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Coma  3 stars ***
Anmut   3 stars ***
Where Have I Come From?  Where Are We Going?  4 stars ****

WEEK TWO of the Arches Live!; and suddenly, amid the experimental installation and performance, a solid one-hour play emerges, attracting a whole new audience to the Arches.  Lawrence Crawford’s Coma takes a long time to get going, as the audience are led into a basement waiting area, ticked off lists by blue-uniformed hospital staff, and invited to take on the role of visitors to an intensive care unit where two patients – a woman and her taxi-driver, both injured during a dash to Glasgow airport – lie unconscious.

Once the drama begins, though, it emerges as a fairly straightforward “issue” play, built around the question of how staff in such a unit can possibly assess the value of the different lives they strive to save, when it comes to decisions about when to switch off the machines.  Coma is not a great play, and the writing often slides towards soap-opera cliche and repetition.  Yet it shows a powerful dramatic energy, in its determination to raise and debate a subject which exposes so many of our assumptions about what kind of life is worth living; and the investment we make, both as individuals and as a society, in keeping death at bay.

Greg Sinclair’s 25-minute show Anmut looks like a slender, insubstantial thing by comparison.  Yet it’s a beatiful piece of work nonetheless, a short meditation on breath, air, the human voice and the idea of song performed with terrific focus and concentration by Sinclair himself and Katy Barry, both dressed in unappealing shell-suits, and pacing formally around the stage like moody street kids, until they start to sing.  At the moment, this is the theatrical equivalent of a minimalist poem, obsessed with form, barely hinting at meaning.  But it has force and dignity, and a powerful, elegant shape; the word “Anmut”, after all, is German for grace.

After the raw and the minimal, though, it’s a relief to spend 40 minutes revelling in a show as rich, thoughtful and well-finished as Rachel Amey’s Where Have I Come From? Where Are We Going?, a fierce poetic monologue – or series of performed poems – about the horrific mess in which we find our world, and the extent to which that mess is linked to the exclusion of women from power.  Amey is not solemn; she’s wickedly observant, often funny, sometimes self-deprecating.  Her rage is real, though; and she moves around the stage like a vortex of radical energy, not only talking about alternatives – different ways of living, loving, and organising our lives – but embodying them, in every twist of her ordinary and beautiful female body.

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Romeo And Juliet, Black Watch, Calais

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROMEO AND JULIET at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh; BLACK WATCH at the SECC, Glasgow; and CALAIS at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 23.9.10
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Romeo And Juliet   4 stars ****
Black Watch   4 stars ****
Calais   3 stars ***

ALL RULES ABOUT THEATRE ARE MADE to be broken, but here’s one to try for size: that theatre always thrives best when it tries to address a whole society, and not an exclusive audience of the affluent and powerful.  In the great years that shaped his career, Shakespeare famously addressed an audience that ranged from Queen Elizabeth herself to poor groundlings who could not afford the price of a seat; and what makes Tony Cownie’s new Lyceum production of Romeo And Juliet so powerful, and so richly enjoyable, is the vigour and irreverence with which it rediscovers the fierce popular energy of this most famous of tragedies, and its huge potential for sheer theatrical excitement.

The production is set in that Edwardian period which represents the last time, in mainstream British culture, when a father would seriously exercise the kind of patriarchal power that the “great, rich Capulet” applies to his 13-year-old daughter, when he decides to give her in marriage to the County Paris.  More significantly, there’s a hint of a story about class, in the casting of the play; the knife-fighting bully-boys of Verona are portrayed as Bullingdon Club toffs, the Duke’s kinsman Mercutio as a posh Scot, and Montague and Capulet as self-made men of business, one with a northern accent, the other Scottish with Northern Irish connections.

It’s a subtle shift in sound, but it unleashes a raw energy – particularly in Will Featherstone’s Yorkshire Romeo – that is often absent in more vocally uniform productions; and it makes space for some electrifying performances, not only from Will Featherstone and a brilliantly thoughtful Kirsty Mackay as the lovers, but from Liam Brennan as a driven, grief-haunted Capulet, from Sean Murray as an unusually forceful and idealistic Friar Lawrence, and from Grant O’Rourke, playing Mercutio in dangerous style, as one of those powerful young gay men who sublimate their frustrated feelings for their friends in a stream of dazzling, aggressive wit.

What’s most striking, though, is simply the extent to which Cownie seems to have been able to persuade his company to tackle this most familiar text as if it was some brand-new script found on the rehearsal-room floor.  Every word of every speech glistens with life and understanding.  Every fight looks real and dangerous; every twist of the story vibrates with the tragic, ironic possibility that things could have ended differently.  How foolish is it for a critic who has seen dozens of productions of this play to find herself hoping against hope, once again, that somehow Friar Lawrence and his crowbar will arrive at the Capulet tomb in time?  Yet dammit, this production made me do it; thanks to two leading performances as fresh as the dawn, and a production that matches them, every step of the way.

If Romeo And Juliet blazes with the energy of a fine popular theatre tradition, then so – four hundred years on – does the National Theatre of Scotland’s legendary hit Black Watch, first seen in 2006, and now setting off on its latest international tour.  In this case, though, the popular tradition has to do with the legacy of Scottish theatre that gives a direct voice to aspects of working class life, and does it in a high-energy physical style that owes as much to popular entertainment as it does to traditional proscenium-arch theatre.  Four years on, Black Watch is beginning to lose the fierce topical edge that gave it such a white-hot energy on its first outing; and John Tiffany’s latest cast – a poignantly young bunch, led by a superb Keith Fleming as the Sergeant – hasn’t quite yet achieved the set-piece pace and perfection, in the show’s famous physical sequences, that made Black Watch a global sensation.

It remains, though, a show of astonishing power, not a complete history of the Black Watch, but a tragic, hilarious, lyrical and unforgettable snapshot of the views and attitudes of its ordinary soldiers, caught in the wheels of history at a crucial turning-point for the whole British army, for western policy in the Middle East, and for global politics.  Small wonder that this play has resonated across the planet, and now returns because of the sheer intensity of demand for performances.  And its music – by Davey Anderson – sounds better and more profound with every outing; drawn as it is from the songs of the people, and those of ordinary soldiers who marched away from the towns of Fife, Angus and Tayside, never to return.

After all this, April De Angelis’s Calais – the fourth new play in the joint lunchtime season produced by Play, Pie and Pint and Paines Plough – looks like a relatively conventional piece of dialogue theatre, in which persons in costume talk their way to a conclusion.  I suspect, though, a strong hidden radicalism in De Angelis’s text, which takes us to Calais in the year 1815, and to the dismal barn inhabited by Lord Nelson’s former mistress Emma Hamilton, and his relatively posh daughter Horatia, who have fallen on hard times.

There’s something here about a narrowing of British attitudes as the country moves towards the high Victorian age; Emma, even on her deathbed, is a far more likeable, sensual and life-loving figure that Horatia, who is a bit of a snobbish prig.  This underlying drama, though, doesn’t quite survive the surface blandness of Tamara Harvey’s production; or its bourgeois tendency to side with young Horatia, as if the glorious, vulgar Emma – a woman of the people, in her origins – was obviously mad, and not really our kind of person at all.

Romeo And Juliet at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 16 October.  Black Watch at the SECC, Glasgow, until 9 October, at the AECC, Aberdeen, 13-23 October, and on tour to Belfast,  London, and the United States.  Calais at Oran Mor until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 12-16 October.

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Walden

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WALDEN (Magnetic North at Dancebase, Edinburgh) for Scotsman Arts 23.9.10
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4 stars ****

WHEN THIS beautiful show first opened in Edinburgh, early in 2008, it felt like a plea for the earth itself, whose “soft, impressable” material is so vulnerable to the tread of human feet.  Adapted by director Nicholas Bone from the material of Henry Thoreau’s famous 1854 book about the two years he spent living alone in a lakeside cabin at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, this quiet monologue has now been redesigned for touring, with the audience of 30 or so seated on a long, oval wooden bench around the small playing area; and the story told within this space is still profoundly about the relationship between humankind and nature.

In this new staging of the show, though, what comes across even more strongly is the need to challenge the relentless pace of our lives, and to adopt a slower, more meditative rhythm.  Cameron Mowatt gives a vigorous, youthful and thoughtful performance as Thoreau; and what he captures most vividly is Thoreau’s growing respect for the moment, for the whole universe of life and thought contained in each drop of time.  It’s an idea that links Thoreau’s thought to ancient traditions of mysticism, both eastern and western.  And its physical impact on the audience is powerful and visible; as they relax – first nodding a little, and then waking up more fully than before – into a world where a thrill a minute is not necessary, and where the things of the spirit, and of the earth, can truly begin to come first.

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Chess

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CHESS at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts 23.9.10
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2 stars **

IF YOU WANT a crash-course in the art of coarse theatre – loud, blary, spectacular and empty – then you could do a lot worse than head along to the Playhouse, and check out this touring version of the 1986 musical Chess, created by Tim Rice, with music by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of Abba, and directed by Strictly Come Dancing icon Craig Revel Horwood.

The idea at the centre of the story is a serously dramatic one; the show is set in 1979 and 1980, around a series of World Chess Championships in which a fictional Russian grandmaster, Anatoly Sergievsky, confronts the temperamental American Freddie Trumper, loosely based on the real-life Bobby Fischer.    There’s a love-interest in the shape of the lovely Florence Vassy, Freddie’s assistant and lover, who leaves him for Anatoly.  There are a couple of sharp if cliched political songs about the political atmosphere of the late cold war; and there’s one memorable, much-sung melody in I Know Him So Well, the famous love-song sung about Anatoly by his wife and mistress.

That’s it, though, as far as the positive aspects of this show are concerned.  For most of its length, it’s a musical, dramatic and stylistic mess, with the heroic cast of chess pieces – who also act as a live onstage orchestra – posturing around the stage in a weird and irrelevant celebration of 21st century post-erotic camp, and the meaning of the action almost overwhelmed by Christopher Woods’s spectacular light-show set.  As for the music, with rare exceptions it’s almost unbearable, either coyly  pastiching classical forms, or resorting to a loud, manipulative sub-Lloyd-Webber racket shamelessly designed to make the audience weep at nothing.  There’s a huge market for this kind of showy tosh; but in the end, it’s just theatrical junk food, full of superficial flavours and bright colours, signifying almost nothing.

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Arches Live 2010: Fatherland etc.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 20.9.10
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Fatherland 4 stars ****
Why I Try To Dig The Earth  3 stars ***
Helium   3 stars ***

GO ALONG to one of the Arches Theatre’s mini-festivals, these days, and you’ll feel as if you’ve fallen into a giant playpen full of blisteringly creative twentysomethings.   The artists and the audience merge, as they mill around watching each other’s work (30 performances and installations in the current 10-day festival alone); the question is whether the work has the discipline and momentum to create ripples beyond this small creative community.

In the case of Nic Green – the creator of the Arches’ recent smash-hit history-of-feminism show Trilogy – there’s no doubt about her capacity to reach a wider audience.  Her new piece Fatherland – part of a forthcoming diptych called Fatherland, Motherland – tries to get to grips with the contested idea of Scottishness, filtered into Green’s life through what seems to have been a distant relationship with an absentee Scottish father.

Wearing a huge, overlarge man’s suit – and then stripped naked, in swirls of blue woad – Green sings a couple of fiercely atmospheric old Scots songs, and explores the heavy, visceral, rhythms of Scottish patriotism in an astonishing piece of dance; meanwhile, a chorus of four men from the audience read out sections of dialogue between a girl and her father, and from Walt Whitman’s magnificent poem Song Of Myself.  The piece is at an early stage of development; but already it has a grace, a vividness and a profound thematic seriousness that make it a project to watch.

Elsewhere in the Arches, Murray Wason explores similar themes in Why I Try To Dig The Earth, a good-looking but theatrically underpowered poetic meditation on the idea of a native land, played out in a circle of earth, against a backdrop of video images, and then – 90 minutes later – under a drenching shower of water pouring down in blue light onto Wason’s naked body.

And finally, there’s Harry Wilson’s Helium, a light-touch 50-minute show about the fact that the world may soon run out of this most magical lighter-than-air gas.  Frankly, I could have done without the coy by-play between the two performers about how they’re managing the show; who on earth cares?  But there’s a powerful elegiac quality about this lament for a lost natural resource, that speaks volumes about the experience of a generation who have inherited a damaged and depleted planet; and I sense that there will be more of that mood to come, as the festival rolls on through this week, to its Saturday finale.

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