Monthly Archives: February 2011

Vicky Featherstone Interview – NTS Fifth Anniversary

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JOYCE MCMILLAN interviews VICKY FEATHERSTONE for The Scotsman, 26.2.11
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26 CIVIC STREET, GLASGOW, is not a glamorous address. The building is a piece of workaday Victorian architecture, like the office or counting-house of a long-vanished mill; the location is a windblown patch of industrial park just north of the M8, at the old Port Dundas basin of the Forth and Clyde Canal. Yet for all its unassuming appearance, Civic House – as it aptly calls itself – is the headquarters of the National Theatre of Scotland; and inside its front door, the little building buzzes with activity, from the row of modest offices on the first floor, to the small rehearsal room near the front entrance, where a company of five actors and musicians are rehearsing the NTS’s current touring pub show, The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart.

The show is a post-modern remix of the Border Ballads tradition, written by leading Scottish playwright David Greig, with music that ranges from traditional reels to the songs of Kylie Minogue; and from time to time, exuberant waves of sound make their way up to Vicky Featherstone’s little first-floor office – a room with a view across the motorway, towards Cowcaddens underground station – as she looks back over the first fierce half-decade of the organisation she leads. Founded on a completely new model for a national theatre institution – one devised by the Scottish theatre community itself, in the late 1990’s – the NTS is famously a “theatre without walls”, neither a building not an acting company, but a body charged with using its £4.5 million a year of public money, direct from the Scottish Government, to enrich Scotland’s theatre culture by working with and through existing companies and groups of artists. True to its brief, the company launched its work, exactly five years ago this weekend, with ten experimental site-specific shows on the theme of “Home”, staged simultaneously in non-theatre locations all across Scotland, from a Drill Hall in Dumfries to the car deck of the Northlink Ferry, docked in Lerwick harbour. And since then, the NTS has staged no fewer than 137 shows, ranging from high-profile Edinburgh Festival productions like last year’s much-criticised Darien drama, Caledonia, to year-long youth and community projects in areas from Caithness to Fife.

There is no doubt, though, that the ride has often been a bumpy one, marked by controversy about the company’s repertoire – edgy, post-modern, and addicted to the new – and by question-marks over the its success in fulfilling one of its major remits, which is to provide world-class large-scale drama for Scotland’s big touring stages. Of the 137 shows, just two – the legendary Black Watch, launched during the Edinburgh Festival of 2006, and Dominic Hill’s fabulous Dundee Rep co-production of the almost unstageable Ibsen masterpiece Peer Gynt, in 2007 – have been unambiguous large-scale successes. For the rest, there has been a gorgeous cacophony of site-specific experiment, exciting new work, and innovative projects with young people in specific communities, producing occasional small-scale gems, like the wonderful 2007 touring adaptation of Luke Sutherland’s complex Orkney novel, Venus As A Boy; and certainly no one could fault the NTS’s massive effort to reach out beyond the central belt, and to form special bonds with communities from Orkney to Fife.

On the main stages, though, the company has struggled to exorcise the ghost of Black Watch, a study of Scottish squaddies in the Iraq War so magnificently staged by Featherstone’s new work director John Tiffany that it emerged as one of those rare once-in-a-generation theatre events with the power to attract whole new audiences the art-form. The NTS’s other large-scale shows, though – like Caledonia last summer, or David Greig’s dark version of Peter Pan, launched last spring – have often been dogged by a nagging combination of sheer bad luck and slight misjudgment, as if the very scale of the resources available had slightly dulled the artistic decision-making. And those who look to the National Theatre to provide a more conventional diet of Scottish stage classics – led by the veteran campaigner Paul Henderson Scott – have been famously disgruntled by the company’s refusal, so far, to start ploughing its way through the back-catalogue of established Scottish drama; disgruntled, in a few cases, to the point of making shameful jibes about the fact that neither Featherstone nor Tiffany was born in Scotland, although both have demonstrably shown far more commitment to living and working here than many native Scots in showbusiness.

Despite the brickbats that come with the job, though, Vicky Featherstone seems remarkably upbeat, as she surveys the world from her tiny office sofa. “Of course, you do take a lot of criticism in this kind of job,” she says. “And yes, there could be a tendency to develop a kind of bunker mentality, where you just stop listening. But our response, I suppose, is always to resist that by trying to shift to the opposite extreme, to open up the debate rather than closing it down, and to try to include as many people as possible.

“So this year, for the fifth anniversary, we’re trying to do three things, which I think will strengthen our relationships both with audiences and with artists. One thing that strikes me, for example, is that the model we operate is so complex, and so flexible – in that we like to be responsive to ideas that come in, and not to have the same pattern of work each year – that people often find it difficult to see the whole picture of what we do. So this year, for the first time since 2006, we’ve announced the whole year’s work at once, so that people can see the whole range of what we’ll be doing, across 2011.

“Then secondly, we want to keep on building new relationships with theatre artists and companies in Scotland, as well as developing existing ones. It’s in the nature of the model we operate that we have to turn down more potential collaborations than we can ever take on, and that’s bound to cause a certain seething resentment in the theatre community.

“The advantage, though, is that I’m clearlty an artistic director, not an arts council buraucrat; I feel a tremendous responsibility for the public money we get, but it’s an artist’s responsibility, to the places in Scotland where we work, and to the stories that need to be told. So I’m happy to make those choices on an artistic basis, and to defend them on that basis; and I know within myself that I’m not making malicious decisions, so I can live with the criticism.

“And then finally, for this year, I want to do something about leaving a legacy for the future, in terms of leading the debate about Scottish theatre, and raising its profile as part of our national life. We’ve listened to what’s been said about our repertoire, and one of the things that’s become clear to me, as I’ve been doing this job, is that Scotland us full of conflicting ideas about what our theatre tradition is. Say what you like about English theatre – and it has plenty of downsides – there’s not much dispute about what the basic elements of the tradition are, about the position, say, of Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde. Whereas in Scotland, the story is much more fragmented contested.

“And increasingly, we want to be a platform for discussion about that. It’s partly reflected in our programme of productions for this year – one of the reasons we’re doing Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep, later in the year, and David Harrower’s Knives In Hens, is that we’re asking, what is a Scottish classic? And in addition to that, we’ll be running a whole series of debates and events, throughout the year, that will looks at the history of Scottish theatre, the strands of work within it, and the canon of plays that has emerged; I’m hoping Alan Cumming may be able to curate an event on the variety tradition, for example. Because I do feel that I am just the guardian of all this for one moment in time; and one of our roles should be to support that debate, so that the whole thing can become sustainable in its own terms, and be handed on into the future.”

There’s no sign, though, that Featherstone – who is bringing up her two children in Glasgow, with her scriptwriter husband Danny Brown – wants to make that handover any time soon; in fact, she shouts with laughter at the question. “No, in many ways I feel I’m only just realising how to do this, it’s just a complex job! And the model has its challenges, but in the end I think it is a genius model that the Scottish theatre community came up with. It absolutely forces us to be at the forefront of theatre, thinking all the time about why we want to do what we do; and I would defend it to the death. So I love the job more than I ever did, and I don’t have any view about leaving at the moment. We’ve got a packed programme coming up, including two plays I’m directing myself, that I can’t wait to get started on. And I’ve got so many ideas about discussions we could stage, from a session about Glasgow School of Art and its impact on Scottish theatre, to a debate – say – between David Greig and Paul Scott about the language we use in theatre. There’s so much to talk about, so much to do. And to me, it all feels as if it’s just beginning.”

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: FIVE PAST NTS HIGHLIGHTS, FIVE EVENTS TO WATCH OUT FOR IN 2011 – VICKY FEATHERSTONE SIDEBAR
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PAST HIGHLIGHTS

1) February 2006 – NTS signals its radical intentions by launching not with a glittering premiere in a big-city theatre, but with “Home”, a series of ten simultaneous site-specific shows staged in non-theatre venues across Scotland, from Dumfries and East Lothian to Stornoway and Shetland.

2) August 2006 – audience, including Sir Sean Connery, emerges shaken, stirred and thrilled from the Edinburgh Fringe premiere of the mighty Black Watch, the NTS’s multiple award-winning global hit about Scottish squaddies in the Iraq War. Black Watch tours across three continents, and is still on the road today, with upcoming dates in Glenrothes, Warwick, and Chicago.

3) September 2007 – in Tay Street, Dundee, the arrival of a pink party limo full of shrieking, karaoke-singing wedding guests signals the start of Dominic Hill’s masterly post-modern production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which goes on to thrill audiences in Edinburgh, Glasgow ansd London.

4) June 2009 – In the bright Orkney midsummer, the NTS presents its oustanding youth project Mixter Maxter, created for and with younger secondary schoolchildren, and exploring the dynamics of teenage island life, with its recurring dreams of escape. The show is great; but the installation, at an old ropeworks near the waterfront, is unforgettable.

5) February 2010 – At the SECC in Glasgow, Vicky Featherstone enrages her critics, and boldly prods the boundaries of theatre, by starting the year’s programme with a show called Wall of Death, featuring the Fox Family trouple of wall-of-death bike-riders. Was it theatre? No-one could agree; but it certainly kicked up a rare dust of debate.

AND EVENTS TO WATCH OUT FOR, THIS YEAR –

1) MEN SHOULD WEEP – the NTS finally commits to a production of Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1940’s classic of tenement life, recently staged to great acclaim at the National Theatre in London. Opens at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, September 2011

2) DUNSINANE – in a first-ever co-production with the Royal Shakespere Company, the NTS presents the Scottish premiere of David Greig recent variation on the Macbeth story, in which the queen, Gruoch, played by Siobhan Redmond, survives the carnage, and goes on to play havoc with the English army of occupation. Opens at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, May 2011.

3) STAGING THE NATION (1) – a year of debate on the history and tradition of Scottish theatre kicks off at the Traverse Theatre on 15 March, as playwright Chris Hannan chairs a session in which John Byrne and director David Hayman debate Byrne’s great Slab Boys trilogy of the ealry 1980’s, and its lasting impact on Scottish theatre.

4) FIVE MINUTE THEATRE – on Midsummer’s Day, for 24 hours non-stop, the NTS presents a live online staging of five-minute plays written by anyone in Scotland, in any style, about anything. To pitch your idea, or just find out more, go to http://www.fiveminutetheatre.com.

5) THE MISSING – John Tiffany directs a new stage version of Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful 1995 book about the texture of Scottish small-town life in the 1960’s and 70’s, and those who slipped through the gaps in the social fabric. Opens at the Tramway, Glasgow, September 2011.

ENDS ENDS

The Comedy Of Errors (Propeller)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE COMEDY OF ERRORS at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 26.2.11
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4 stars ****

IT MAY BE difficult, these days, to justify presenting Shakespeare with an all-male cast as much more than a marketing ploy. But all the same, Edward Hall’s 14-strong Propeller Company are a seductive bunch, a jolly group of men who relish their Shakespeare as if it were some kind of theatrical extreme sport – which, if you think of the demands it makes, is not a bad analogy. I finally succumbed to their charms during the interval of their second show of the week, when I found them playing an impromptu gig on the foyer stairs in aid of Save The Children; the musical element of their shows is always impressive, but their no-holds-barred version of Madonna’s Material Girl was plain irresistible.

As, in the end, is their wild and brightly-coloured take on one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies, a play full of over-elaborate foreshadowings of great works to come. In The Comedy Of Errors, there are two sets of long-lost twins, the two noblemen called Antipholus, and their two servants, both called Dromio; and in an afternoon of financial and amorous mayhem, they succeed in driving themselves and everyone around them close to madness, before the source of the confusion is revealed.

It’s a lightweight play, but a merry and beautifully-constructed one; and Hall’s production, set in a garish and heavily-policed Mediterranean holiday resort, enjoys every nuance of the comedy, ruthlessly updating its ragbag of cultural and magical references. In the end, the pace becomes so hectic and shrill that the actors almost leave themselves with nowhere to go. But Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is in outstanding form as Antipholus of Syracuse, with an excellent Robert Hands storming round the stage in footballer’s-wife gear as his brother’s outraged spouse. And the live music, as ever, is used with fantastic skill; to punctuate, comment, interrupt and deflate, in the true comic spirit of the play.

ENDS ENDS

Women In Britain’s Boardrooms: Lord Davies’s Report Reveals A Culture Tired Of Feminism, But A World Still Run By Men In Suits – Column 25.2.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 25.2.11
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THURSDAY MORNING, and a former banker called Lord Davies of Abersoch is being interviewed on Woman’s Hour about his new report on the position of women in Britain’s boardrooms. His report is some forty pages long, with many statistics and graphs. But what it says about the position of women in Britain’s boardrooms can be summed up thus: essentially, they are still standing behind the tea trolley, or sitting neatly crossed-legged next to the chairman, taking the minutes.

For in truth, the situation the report describes would be almost laughable, if its implications were not so serious. Of the FTSE top 100 companies, eighteen have not a single female board member, either executive or non-executive; just imagine what jolly, clubby occasions those board-meetings must be, as the chaps bond over the tea-trolley with a bit of chat about rugby, and a bit of joshing of the tea-girl. Overall, men outnumber women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies by a majority of seven to one; and astonishingly, across the wider field of the FTSE 250, the proportion of companies without a single female director rises to almost half.

Now I know that many people, across Scotland, will already be gnashing their teeth with irritation at the very fact that Lord Davies’s report even exists. Women, we are repeatedly told, are now equal in every aspect of the law. The battle for women’s rights is over; and people must be left to make their way on their own merits, regardless of gender.

What the Davies report exposes, in other words, is a female working population caught in the grip of a cruel paradox; between a culture tired of feminism, and a working world still almost entirely dominated, at decision-making levels, by endless phalanxes of men in suits; nor is business, at boardroom level, the only area of our public life where female representation remains shockingly low.

So what is to be done? The classic small-c conservative answer, of course, is that nothing should be done: that women “naturally” have different priorities from men, and that most of them simply do not want to rise to the highest levels of power and influence. You might have imagined – I certainly did – that we were past the stage of arguing that it is right for women to be largely excluded from public life and decision-making because of their historically heavier domestic responsibilities; but now, this shamingly reactionary argument surfaces again. Of course it is not right for the world to be run by a self-selecting cadre of workaholic men who, by definition, care less about their quality of their personal relationships than most women, and many other men. Of course it is right that fact, the duty and the joy of family responsibilities should be factored into our working lives, rather than excluded as some kind of personal liability. What we have learned, though, is that that process of factoring-in is costly, not only in cash, but in effort; and some people, it seems, no longer think that the effort is worth the candle.

Then secondly, there are those – including Lord Davies and the present Prime Minister – who think that something should be done, but nothing much. They concede that there is clearly a business case for trying to expand the talent pool from which company directors and other leadership figures are drawn.
They have, though, a horror of “quotas” – i.e. the mandatory figures for female representation on boards that have been introduced in countries like Norway and Spain. They apparently feel that if women were appointed by quota, the boardrooms would rapidly fill up with female mediocrities, appointed only because of their gender, and unable to command the respect of their peers.

Now of course, the barest glance at the statistics shows that this argument is ridiculous. Unless we actually believe that women are born less competent than men, then we must accept that there are hundreds of women in business who could do as good a job on various boards as the men currently sitting there, given the chance. Even more laughable, given recent ecomnomic history, is the idea that all the people – mainly men – currently holding those positions are there “on merit”. But so long as we remain mealy-mouthed about the shameful old-boy network through which so many mediocre men achieve company directorships, I suppose we will remain reluctant to take even modest legislative steps to remedy the situation.

Or thirdly, and finally, we can accept the obvious truth; that although much has been done in our society, over the last two generations, to promote women’s equality, there is still much more to do, and a dangerous cultural backlash to be confronted and reversed. The current UK government, of course, believes in rolling back the state, in ways which traditionally drive women back into the home, and into economic dependence, by removing the public services that assist them in their caring responsibilities.

There is, though, uncomfortable news for people who embrace this small-state ideology while still fancying themselves as supporters of women’s equality; for the two positions contradict one another completely. Women need a strong state, offering reliable family support, if they are to have anything like an equal chance with men to work, to contribute, to leave failed relationships behind, and to shape our public life. Equality costs money, in other words, and lots of it. But as revolution sweeps the Arab world, we can see how investment in the energy and talent of young women reaps an unimaginably rich reward, doubling the resources of creativity on which a society can draw in its public life. And even if the freedom of women were not a good practical investment, it is still an ethical imperative for any society that calls itself civilised; and which wants to feel that it is moving forward into the future, rather than backwards towards a past in which biology was destiny, and in which women were content to rock the cradle, while men – after their fashion – ruled the world.

ENDS ENDS

Richard III (Propeller)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RICHARD III at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 25.2.11
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3 stars ***

HERE’S A WARNING, first of all.  If you like your Shakespeare solemn, serious, and respectful, then Propeller Theatre’s version of Richard III – at the King’s until Saturday, in repertoire with the Comedy Of Errors – is possibly not for you.  Edward Hall’s touring company is famous for performing Shakespeare with all-male casts, in a tribute to the original style of the theatre for which Shakespeare wrote; and here, the element of play implied in dressing up boys and men to represent assorted queens seems to sweep through the whole show in a spirit of giggling grand guignol, transforming Richard Clothier’s impressive Richard into a suave racing demon of an anti-hero, who sniggers like an evil child over the fate of his victims.

To add to the sense of hysteria, Hall’s production is set in some kind of madhouse, where medical screens frame the action, and the guards wear  rough orderlies’ overalls.  Add a highly satirical musical subtext – with the 14-strong cast delivering magnificently nuanced performances of religious chants, music-hall songs and merry mediaeval catches while doing bloody murder – and the whole show looks, at first, like something of an ironic romp; a playful varsity send-up of Richard III, rather than the drama itself.

In the second half, though, as the political drama takes shape, the irony implicit in Hall’s style begins to bite, and to emerge as a powerful commentary on the hellish violence that often underpinned the outward piety of the English state, in its formative years.  In this week of all weeks, audiences hardly need a heavy-handed visual reminder of the essential madness of tyrants.  But we do need Shakespeare’s magnificent and subtle poetry about the horrible logic of political ambition, cast adrift from all moral restraint; and in the end, despite several playful ideas too many, this production delivers that shuddering poetic climax, with great force.

ENDS ENDS 

The Age Of Arousal, Marilyn, Gagarin Way

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE AGE OF AROUSAL at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, MARILYN at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and GAGARIN WAY at the Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, for Scotsman Arts 24.2.11
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The Age Of Arousal 4 stars ****
Marilyn 4 stars ****
Gagarin Way 3 stars ***

DESPITE THIRTY YEARS of talk about equal opportunities, the latest wave of feminism has failed to make much of a dent on the traditional gender balance in theatre; plays with all-male casts remain common, those with all-female casts vanishingly rare. So it’s both exciting and fascinating, this spring, to see two of Scotland’s main stages occupied by new plays by and about women, at least one of which scores a roaring success in getting straight to the historic heart of the “woman question”. Based on George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, and co-produced by the Royal Lyceum and Stellar Quines, Linda Griffiths’s The Age Of Arousal is set in London in the 1880’s, in and around the school of typewriting run by ex-suffragette Mary Barfoot and her young lover Rhoda Nunn.

As part of their mission to save women from powerlessness and economic dependence, the two start to give lessons to the impoverished Madden sisters, two batty old spinsters and one twenty-year-old minx; but their plans are disrupted by the entrance of the one man in the story, Mary’s handsome nephew Everard. As good as his name in matters sexual, Everard seduces the young minx Monica, falls in love with Rhoda, and generally creates chaos in the hearts and minds of women who want equality and freedom, but who also want sex with men, and the babies men can give them.

All of this is tremendous fun, unleashing avalanches of witty dialogue – and even wittier private asides – about the state of gender relations, and the power of desire to upset the best-organised ideological apple-cart. In terms of plot, The Age Of Arousal is no textbook of feminist theory; in the best post-modern style, it sometimes comes close to rejecting the whole dream of equality as an unrealisable project.

In Muriel Romanes’s gloriously bold and inventive production, though, it emerges as a truly radical piece of theatre, presented in short, vivid, free-flowing episodes on a sparsely furnished stage backed by a screen against which each fraught tableau of characters is silhouetted. Janet Bird’s costumes represent a glorious styisation of late-Victorian dress, with hoops and bustles bursting out of their fabric shells. And the performances, from Romanes’s six-strong company, are simply immaculate; from an inspired Ann Louise Ross as Mary Barfoot, to Hannah Donaldson as the youngest of the three sisters – the one who pays the old price of womanhood by dying in childbirth, leaving the others with a member of a new generation to raise, in their own highly debatable image.

There’s slightly less to celebrate in Sue Glover’s new and vivid take on a famous episode in the life of Marilyn Monroe, produced jointly by the Citizens’ and the Royal Lyceum. Marilyn is set in a suite at the Beverley Hills hotel in spring 1960, when Marilyn and her co-star Yves Montand were working on the filming of a feeble sex comedy, Let’s Make Love. Marilyn and her husband, Arthur Miller, and Montand and his wife, the fabulous actress Simone Signoret, stayed in adjoining suites; and Glover’s play imagines the three-way relationship between Monroe, Signoret, and a studio hairdresser called Pattie, a down-to-earth Hollywood working woman.

These three women often look, in Glover’s drama, like three characters in search of a play. There are plenty of half-explored themes lying around Kenny Miller’s lushly dramatic and decadent set, from Marilyn’s fury at the refusal of studios and producers to treat her as a serious actress, to her desperate need to seduce every attractive older man she meets, to the risks she ran for her anti-McCarthyite political stance; none of them ever comes fully into focus.

What the show offers, though, in Philip Howard’s good-looking production, is a fascinating and touching theatrical spectacle, in which classic images of Marilyn as the pouting sex goddess constantly play against the reality of a woman trying to sustain her career while ageing fast, and failing to command the artistic respect she craves. Frances Thorburn gives a fine performance as Marilyn, singing some of her familiar songs with a heart-stopping poignancy; Dominique Hollier is magnificently glamorous and fierce as Signoret; and Pauline Knowles is superb as Pattie, the one who values Marilyn not for her legendary body, but for her qualities as a good employer and a loyal friend, in a ruthless town that will soon destroy her for good.

At Dunfermline, meanwhile, Michael Emans’s Rapture Company has launched a spring tour of a classic Scottish all-male drama, Gregory Burke’s mighty 2001 hit Gagarin Way. Set in a computer factory in Dunfermline itself, Burke’s play tells the story of two workers, Eddie and Gary, who respond to their fundamental powerlessness in the face of global capitalism by plotting to kidnap and kill the latest high-level international consultant sent to assess the viability of their plant. The plan begins to go pear-shaped when the international boss turns out to be a self-made man from Leven; but in the meantime, Burke’s glittering and hilarious dialogue has laid out a memorable and increasingly timely map of the landscape of working-class masculinity in post-modern times.

Michael Emans’s thoughtful production treats all of this a shade too respectfully for my taste, as if it was some kind of naturalistic drama, when in fact the elaborate rhythms of its dialogue are more akin to opera. And the result is an unnecessarily muted evening, with a little less pace, swagger and surrealism than this great play demands; despite the presence in the cast of such fine actors as Dave Anderson, Jordan Young, Jimmy Chisholm and Finn Den Hertog, whose performances will surely become sharper and more assured, as the show tours on over the next five weeks.

The Age Of Arousal at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 12 March, and on tour until 16 April. Marilyn at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 12 March, and at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 15 March-2 April. Gagarin Way at Cambuslang, Stirling and Kilmarnock this weekend, and on tour until 29 March.

ENDS ENDS

Four Parts Broken

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOUR PARTS BROKEN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 23.2.11
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4 stars ****

VENEZUELA, Argentina, now Brazil: in its third week, the current series of lunchtime plays from Latin America, staged at the Traverse and Oran Mor by Play, Pie and Pint and the National Theatre of Scotland, has reached the biggest and most populous country on the continent; and Fernanda Jaber’s fierce forty-minute drama has plenty to say about a society under stress.

The central characters, in Abigail Docherty’s version for performance in Scotland, are two “feral” boys called James and Philip, who have grown up in a children’s home. Philip has recently been adopted by a middle-aged foster-mother, and James has run away from the home and is living rough; but both seem unable to express any emotional connection or need, except by lashing out, rejecting and thieving. The wonderful Meg Fraser, meanwhile, plays a woman called Nina, a care worker in the home who tries to comfort James, and is beaten up for her pains; meanwhile, her husband Jason languishes in the same hospital where Philip ends up after a fight, unable to live with Nina, her love, or her need.

Four Parts Broken is a brief, grim sketch of men so damaged that love and connection are utterly beyond them, and of the women whose lives they maim and sadden. Yet it has a vividness, a sharp-edged poetry, and a powerful kinetic energy that makes it a pleasure to watch; and David Betz-Heinemann’s production feartures a series of fine performances, not only from Meg Fraser as Nina, but from Stewart Cairns as her helpless husband, and from Tom Vernal and Conor McCarron as the boys, fighting like animals for some sense of connection to the world, and – at the end – just catching a glimpse of a possible better life.

ENDS ENDS

Like This….

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LIKE THIS…. at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.2.11
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2 stars **

IT’S AN AMBITIOUS first play about an important theme; but all the same, the presence of Julie Tsang’s Like This… in the Tron’s Changing House, at this stage in its development, is something of a mystery.  Strongly promoted by leading Scottish playwright Iain Heggie, who also directs, the play deals with the vital subject of the pressures on women, in our increasingly porn-driven culture, to take part in sexual games that are subtly abusive or even violent.

Ruth, played by a wide-eyed Stephanie Falls, is a young woman increasingly drawn into a relationship with handsome and romantic Karl, whose scenarios for their life together include asking her to wait on street corners pretending to be a prostitute while he kerb-crawls, and leaving her tied up for a whole night on her own bed.

The trouble is that the guy is also charming, and genuinely obsessed with her; and so the play drifts into a long, repetitive triangular wrangle in which Ruth’s friend Janice tries to persuade her to leave Karl, without much success.  Padded out by a glaringly unnecessary interval, the play extends a bare 60-minute scenario to an hour and three quarters; and its dramatic style – endless short scenes punctuated by fades to black and clumsy furniture-shifting – is as distracting as it is inept.  The actors do their best, with Gavin Purdie in compelling form as Karl; but overall, this is a low-energy production that does no-one involved many favours, least of all a young writer with plenty to offer, but lots to learn about theatre, and how it works.

ENDS ENDS   

 

Smalltown

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SMALLTOWN at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 18.2.11
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3 stars ***

AS EVERY OBSERVER of Scottish culture knows, Ayrshire produces far more than its fair share of gifted writers. “There must be something in the water,” quipped one critic a few months ago; and that throwaway remark became the inspiration for this evening of raunchy, roistering popular comedy, penned jointly by Ayrshire playwrights Douglas Maxwell of Girvan, D.C. Jackson of Stewarton, and Johnny McKnight of Ardrossan, with McKnight in the director’s chair.

The result is a noisy three-part show, with each writer contributing an episode set in his own home-town. The idea is that in an effort to raise some cash, Ayrshire Council has been flogging off bottled water from a well at the spot where Robert Burns supposedly lost his virginity. The water, though, is having weird effects, which vary from town to town; and so we plunge onto a rollercoaster of over-the-top comedy, ranging from Gogol-esque municipal satire in Girvan – where the water merely kills tourists – through to spoof zombie horror in Ardrossan, where it transforms harassed catering workers into the living dead.

And in Stewarton – well, in Jackson’s Stewarton the water literally turns the natives into randy, rutting animals; so that after dutifully losing her virginity so as to be upsides with the rest of her class, teenage heroine Ruby sips some, and morphs into a shudderingly sensual lady fox. For my money, this Stewarton episode is by far the funniest of the three, ferociously rude and sexy, with a terrific line in quick-fire teenage dialogue beautifully handled by Jonathan Holt and Sally Reid.

When the young Tron audience came to vote, though, on which of the three endings we would like to see, the zombies of Ardrossan won hands down; which says more about the perennial popularity of the movie spoof than it does about the quality of the drama, in a night of lightweight fun that’s now set to tour across Scotland, with final dates at the Traverse in March.

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The End Of The Party? Why A Century Of Labour Politics May Be Coming To An End – Column 18.2.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 18.2.11
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IT’S A COLD, SLEETY MONDAY lunchtime in Glasgow; and as my taxi weaves its way around the potholes on Bath Street, a familiar voice emerges from the radio. It’s the voice of Tony Blair, international envoy on the economic and security aspects of the Middle East conflict; and he is giving his view on the events in Egypt, a view which seems to have changed a great deal since the previous week.

The driver snorts; and I wonder exactly why anyone is still asking Tony Blair what he thinks about anything. Then on Tuesday and Wednesday, the story beings to emerge of the man known to the Pentagon and the British security services as “Curveball”, an Iraqi chemical engineer who escaped from his country in 1995, and – in an effort to hasten the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime – set about making up stories for British and American intelligence about a non-existent chemical weapons programme in Iraq. By 2002, these unverified stories were being presented as fact to the United Nations, to the US Congress and UK parliament, and to the British and American people, as the justification for launching a war of invasion against Iraq; and across the western world, ordinary people feel a growing sense of anger and despair, that our governments could have led us into a war that has cost so much, in lives and treasure, on such a basis.

And here in Britain, the party that Tony Blair once led increasingly seems like a spent force, unable either to defend his increasingly indefensible legacy, or to repudiate it with the full force it deserves. In the UK, reports of the death of political parties are usually much exaggerated. It’s barely more than half a decade, after all, since serious commentators were predicting the demise of the Tory Party; and no large party has suffered a serious slide towards obscurity since the Liberals were shouldered aside by Labour, some 90 years ago.

Yet there is something about the current plight of the Labour Party that is beginning to seem different; historic, intractable, and almost beyond remedy. It’s not only that the Blair government’s lies about Iraq delivered a body-blow to the party’s unity and credibility, driving tens of thousands of decent people out of membership, and aligning Britain’s supposedly centre-left governing party with a discredited and extreme form of American neoconservatism.

It’s also that the whole, related Blairite project is bust, exposed as a failed attempt to square the circle of social justice while cosying up to conservatives like George W. Bush, and leaving uncontested all the forces that are driving ever greater inequality in our society. In the good times, those intellectual and moral cracks could be papered over with free-flowing public cash, often transferred to the less well off by stealth. Now, though, the contradictions stand brutally exposed; with Britain after 13 years of Labour rule more socially and economically divided than at any time in the past century, and less capable of providing real equal opportunities for its young people than it was even in the 1980’s.

And it seems to me increasingly doubtful that the Labour Party can now survive this double failure, both foreign and domestic, moral and intellectual. To make itself match-fit for the times we live in, the Labour Party would have to do at least four things. It would have to stop apologising for its roots in the history of organised labour, while recognising that ordinary people in the west no longer have much power as workers, and extending its grassroots poliics into the world of organised and enlightened consumerism. It would have to begin to distance itself from the universal but increasingly absurd mainstream political mantra of unlimited conventional economic growth. It would have to rededicate itself to the ideals of freedom and human rights that are central to any progressive political project, and end its recent ugly flirtation with new forms of state authoritarianism.

And it would have to begin to shift its centre-left politics, and its critical approach to extreme capitalism, from the national to the international level; abandoning any notion that the west knows best, and recognising too that the relatively affluent electorates of the west are no longer at the cutting-edge of the global movement for human rights, social justice, and basic human dignity.

There is, though, not the faintest sign of any force, group or individual in the Labour Party with the radicalism, the nerve, or the intellectual energy to begin any such transformation. Here in Scotland, Labour Party membership is said to have dwindled to less than 15,000, a tiny and pathetic core membership for an organisation that until so recently dominated our national life. The former Scottish Labour leader Wendy Alexander has joined the exodus of brains and talent from frontline Labour politics; the party’s ten-point lead in the Scottish polls has melted, as voters face the possibility of a weak Labour government at Holyrood negotiating with the Tory-led coalition in London.

And in Glasgow, the city that voted Labour for so long, this winter’s hard weather has opened up those huge, shaming potholes in the city’s once-dignified streets. They seem like symbols of that failure to stand decisively and decently for the common good, for public space, for social solidarity and collective wellbeing, that has so weakened the Labour Party over the last generation. And now, that failure at home and abroad seems to leave the party stranded by history, neither radical and visionary enough to be able to reinvent itself as a centre-left party for the 21st century, nor worth voting for as the party of the soft centre-right that Tony Blair tried to make it. It is possible, in other words, that Tony Blair and his New Labour acolytes have finally destroyed the party that some of them claimed to love; not immediately, not quickly, not obviously, but with the kind of moral wound that saps the energy and weakens the heart over months and years, and finally robs the patient of the ability to recover, even if life itself lingers on.

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Death Of A Salesman, Rob Drummond: Wrestling, The Archivist and Instruction For A Butterfly Collector

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DEATH OF A SALESMAN at Perth Theatre, ROB DRUMMOND: WRESTLING at the Arches, Glasgow, and THE ARCHIVIST and INSTRUCTIONS FOR A BUTTERFLY COLLECTOR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 17.2.11
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Death Of A Salesman 3 stars ***
Rob Drummond: Wrestling 4 stars ****
The Archivist/ Instructions For A Butterfly Collector 4 stars ****

ANYONE WHO HAS WITNESSED the huge sucess of the Royal Lyceum’s recent series of Arthur Miller plays could be forgiven for assuming that audiences in Scotland have an almost unlimited appetite for Miller and his work. In truth, though, the success of the Lyceum series has been dependent on the quiet brilliance of the director, John Dove, who has steered each of these mighty modern dramas through the rip-tides of epic emotion, and safely into port; and Ian Grieve’s brave but flawed Perth production of Death Of A Salesman, set to tour on to Aberdeen and Inverness, demonstrates all too clearly how even the greatest tragedies can fail to carry audiences with them, if the production loses its tight focus on the essential arc of the drama.

Death Of A Salesman famously tells the story of 63-year-old Willy Loman, a salesman for a women’s-wear company who, in economic terms, is coming to the end of his useful life. In Miller’s play, the drama seems to focus sharply on the narrative of Willy’s rejection by the system to which he has given his life, on the failure of his unsuccessful sons Biff and Happy to supply an alternative source of pride and meaning, and on the inevitability of his death, fought every inch of the way by his loving wife Linda.

In Grieve’s production, though, the spotlight seems to shift subtly onto Biff and Happy, played with great energy by Ewan Donald and Robert Jack, and on the very complex reasons for their failure to master the system in which their father so strongly believed. What emerges is an interesting study of how the American dream interacts with certain ideas of masculinity – notably the idea of always being a winner – in ways that eventually become toxic for ordinary working men, forcing them to live a lie, or to acknowledge the devastating truth that they are not winners, after all.

In the end, though, the production’s emphasis on Willy’s failed sons leaves Ron Emslie’s impressive central performance slightly stranded; so that the play’s ending seems increasingly confused, unfocussed, and badly paced. “Sometimes, when they were all shouting, I couldn’t even tell what they were shouting about,” muttered one audience member, on the way out. Yet what they are shouting about, in Death Of A Salesman, is the success or failure, in human terms, of the mercantile dream on which the whole economy of the planet is now founded; and a production that fails to make that clear is in some kind of trouble, for all the visual eloquence of Ken Harrison’s design, and all the obvious good intentions of an unfailingly thoughtful show.

Ideas of masculinity also loom large in Rob Drummond: Wrestling, the huge Arches Theatre project that culminated last weeken in four sweaty, rip-roaring performances in Glasgow. The idea was for thoughtful, cerebral solo theatre artist Rob Drummond to spend several months “manning up”, and training to become an all-in wrestler; that is, to challenge his own physical cowardice, and his fear of conflict with stronger men, by plunging into the most dramatically brutal and confrontational sport of all.

In Rob Drummond: Wrestling, Drummond recounts the experience in a rambling three-part show, which begins with a typically self-questioning meta-monologue from Drummond, then suddenly opens out into a raging full-scale wrestling match featuring Drummond and three professional wrestlers, and finally – after an interval – treats us to a short film showing how the whole experience was put together.

In a sense, Drummond’s show raises many more questions than it answers, about the role of violent physical confrontation in constructing male identity. Among other things, it unsparingly exposes the artficiality of much of the conflict that takes place in the wrestling ring, and its element of theatrical fiction; the wrestlers are all effortlessly fine actors, as the film makes clear. Yet at another level, the act of pitting his pale, slim body directly against those of other men seems to free something in Drummond, and to offer him a primitive satisfaction hard to achieve in any other way: suggesting that without some direct experience of physical conflict, most men are always going to feel at a disadvantage in the world; and that we need to see more performances of Rob Drummond: Wrestling soon, if only because every teenage boy in Scotland needs to experience it, and to discuss what it means.

At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the joint Play, Pie and Pint/ National Theatre of Scotland season of Latin American plays storms on with a double bil from Argentina about what happens when the pathology of macho violence becomes the whole basis of government. Both The Archivist by Hector Levy, and Instructions For A Butterfly Collector by Marina Eva Perez, focus on the trauma of children taken from their left-wing parents, during the dictatorship of the 1980’s, and brought up by families connected to the regime. In the first play, a young woman confronts the lazy, unimaginative records office bureaucrat who cannot be bothered to help her find the family she has lost; in the second, Lucianne McEvoy delivers a heart-stopping monologue about a woman’s intense imaginary relationship with the brother who was taken from her soon after his birth. Both pieces have power and poignancy; but it’s the monologue that plunges beyond the obvious, into the nature of the damage inflicted by such a horrific form of political violence, and the way it wounds the human spirit, so that it no longer knowns how to fly.

Death Of A Salesman at Perth Theatre until 26 February; His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, 1-5 March; and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 8-12 March. The Archivist and Instructions For A Butterfly Collector at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, next week, 22-26 February.

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