JOYCE MCMILLAN on 5 MINUTE THEATRE online and everywhere, AFTER THE END at Dundee Rep, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 23.6.11
5 Minute Theatre 4 stars *****
After The End 4 stars ****
A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3 stars ***
IT’S LATE on Tuesday evening, and the playwright Daniel Jackson is posting on Facebook. “Could not have been more cynical about 5 Minute Theatre,” he writes. “Could not have been less interested. Could not, now, be more transfixed….” And all across Scotland, I guess there are people – perhaps just dozens, perhaps hundreds, perhaps a few thousand – who, over a magical 24 hours, have come to feel the same about the National Theatre of Scotland’s extraordinary midsummer experiment in online theatre, still running as I write.
The event involves 235 short five-minute plays, created and produced by a dazzling range of individuals and groups across Scotland and beyond; from a man called David Till, at the Universal Hall in Findhorn, delivering an extraordinarily funny and polished monologue in the shape of a one-sided telephone call to a tetchy female God, to a joyful bunch of kids at a stately home in East Kilbride using a “there’s been a murder” format to expose the moral decadence of the landowning classes. All of the plays were streamed online, some of them live, some in recorded form; but all had to be performed in front of a live audience, in whatever house, park, garden or theatre they took place – so that on Tuesday night, very late, I found myself watching a pleasingly surreal battle for supremacy between tubs of low-cholesterol margarine and spreadable butter, performed in front of a cheerful gathering in Clissold Park, London.
There’s no summing up an event so staggeringly diverse in every way – in style, in location, in dramatic quality, in the age and expertise of the performers, and in the myriad different techniques used to bridge the gap between live performance, and online film or video. For some shows, there is nothing more than a single camera pointing at a distant stage, across the heads of the audience; in others – like Knox Academy’s astonishing multiple one-on-one drama Secrets And Lies, broadcast live on Wednesday morning – the camera almost becomes one of the actors.
And if the variety of the shows fairly dazzles the mind, there’s no denying that the complexity of the event raised serious technical difficulties; one glitsch that really should have been sorted as soon as the event went live was the infuriating tendency of the on-screen information – absolutely essential, in navigating such a complex event – to get completely out of synch with what was happening, so that some shows ran their entire length with the wrong title, credits and location displayed beside them.
What can be said, though, is that this brave and ground-breaking event has subtly changed the landscape of Scottish theatre for ever, reconnecting with a myriad of grassroots impulses to dramatic expression that have long been undervalued or marginalised. Completely original in concept, performed live yet mediated through the internet and through a constant babble of online comment, this was a 21st century event that expressed and celebrated the wild and beautiful diversity of Scotland today in a thousand different voices, and from dozens of thrilling locations, from Alloway church in Ayrshire and a back court behind a Glasgow tenement, to a village in Sutherland and Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. For a nation used to seeing itself reduced, on the small screen, either to a picturesque image of Highland desolation, or a backdrop for violent urban murder-stories, the glimpse of that diversity, and the sound of all those wildly different voices, is hugely liberating; and for those who became “transfixed” by the 5 Minute Theatre experience, possibly even life-changing.
And afer that – well, all other theatre events seem traditional indeed, even when they venture into spaces never used for performance before. In the silo-like props store at Dundee Rep, there is a fine summer production – the second in Scotland within a few weeks – of Dennis Kelly’s terrfying 95-minute drama After The End, in which a young man called Mark imprisons Louise, the pretty office colleague with whom he’s obsessed, in a nuclear shelter in his back garden, eventually torturing her to the brink of death when she refuses to return his “love”.
Emma Faulkner’s Dundee Rep version features a notably strong performance from Helen Darbyshire, as a Louise who fights for her life like a tigress, only to suffer a terrifying low-burning defeat in the aftermath of her ordeal. And the show’s Scottish inflection – well reflected in Tony McGeever’s performance – throws a sharp sidelight onto the play’s dark political undertones, as Mark’s inability to live with his own controlling sexual drive spills over into a quest for power and status that finds expression in a war-seeking, paranoid racism that is all too recognisable in every western culture, but is not often acknowledged as part of our own.
At Oran Mor, meanwhile, the ever-lovely Mel Giedroyc – of comedy duo Mel & Sue – graces the tiny stage as Titania, in this week’s lunchtime Classic Cuts production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ruthlessly reduced by adaptor-director Andy Gray to a mere 45 minutes. Gray dispenses with the four young lovers, with Oberon, and with all but one of the Rude Mechanicals; and he spends too much time, towards the end, wringing easy laughs from a hectic one-man version of the Mechanicals play, delivered by his Bottom, Ryan Fletcher.
Where it matters, though, he shows the poetry more than enough respect. And in merging the two male figures of Oberon and Puck into the single, spell-weaving presence of Jordan Young’s astonishing Puck, he raises some powerful questions about the bullying masculinity that lies behind their scheme to humiliate Titania; even going so far as to suggest that in the end, they might get their come-uppance, and that Fletcher’s enthusiastic Bottom – weaver, and amateur artist extraordinary – could be the one to get the girl.
All 235 5 Minute Theatre plays are now available to watch again online, at . After The End is at Dundee Rep, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Oran Mor, Glasgow, both until 25 June.