Monthly Archives: July 2011

Repulsive And Wrong: Why Right-Wing “Blue Sky” Thinkers Are Out Of Time – Column 29.7.11

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 29.7.11
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IT’S TUESDAY EVENING; and I am listening to a Radio 4 programme in which a bunch of journalists discuss what they would write, if they were producing the leaders for tomorrow’s papers. By modern media standards, these journalists are a mixed bunch, from a wide range of geographical and political backgrounds. They discuss Britain’s current poor economic performance; and several times both a man from Wales, and the journalist in the chair, draw attention to the fact – not disputed, by serious economists – that if you want to make tax cuts that will really boost your domestic economy, then the most reliable way to do it is to put more money into the pockets of lower income groups, who tend to spend it immediately, in the local economy.

Yet every time they say this, a pair of giggling right-wingers on the other side of the table dismiss these arguments as “sentimental”, and assert shrilly that the thing to do is to cut the 50% tax rate on the rich, so that they will hang around in London doing business. No one picks them up on it; but in truth, their characterisation as “sentimental” of a perfectly rational case for improving the purchasing-power of poorer people speaks volumes about the ideological climate in which Britain’s elites are now living. It’s not just that they have an almost religious belief in greater marketisation and reduced public spending as good things in themselves. It’s that in order to maintain their belief in policies that often involve inflicting pain on blameless people, they have had to create in their own minds a rigid dichotomy between what is right and compassionate, and what is realistic or practical; they have to believe that virtue is never practical, and that being nasty is always right and effective.

And once that false dichotomy is set up, there is no end to the craziness to which it can lead. It led, this week , to some truly disgraceful coverage of the Norwegian shooting, dripping with schadenfreude, and with the patronising assumption that the high levels of trust and cohesion in Norway’s successful social-democratic society were somehow a sign of “naivety”, now corrected by an inevitable blast of nasty “reality”.

And no sooner had Norway begun to fade from the headlines, than we were treated to some fresh thoughts from the sado-right, in the shape of the latest wisdom of one Steve Hilton, a “blue sky thinker” in the Prime Minister’s office who caused tremendous excitement when it was discovered that he had been responding to Britain’s recent weak economic performance by suggesting that we abolish maternity leave and all forms of consumer protection, and ignore all European legislation in areas like working time and conditions.

Now there is something to be said, in the depths of a recession, for being careful not to load businesses, particularly small businesses, with too much regulation. There is, though, little point in trying rationally to debate such issues with people who have come to associate effective policy-making with a systematic attack on compassion itself, and a visceral hostility to every form of social protection introduced in Britain since the high Victorian age.

In that sense, Steve Hilton’s assault on maternity rights is a locus classicus of this debate. It frames motherhood and maternity as purely a matter of individual choice. It flatly refuses to acknowledge society’s collective interest in giving women the chance to be both good mothers, and productive workers. It plays to the gallery of old social reactionaries at papers like the Daily Mail, who tend to dislike anything that empowers ordinary women. And it is based on a false account of the existing situation; for in fact, decent maternity rights in Britain, insofar as we have them, have not led to a decline in female employment – rather the reverse. Across a whole range of policies – from health and higher education to the assessment of disability – it’s possible to trace the same influence of these extreme market ideologues, proposing solutions that are unpopular, unpleasant, and supported by no evidence of actual benefits; but that aways have the advantage of hammering the poor and the middling, while freeing the rich to get even richer.

And the point about these people – of whom Mr. Hilton is only the most obvious current example – is that their continuing dominance of British public debate, through their friends in the media and elsewhere, is effectively disabling us from making rational progress out of our current impasse. Their solutions are ridiculous, and based on a hopelessly skewed analysis of the current economic situation; Britain’s problems arise, if anything, not from too large a state, but from excessive inequality, low and declining real wages, and the consequent existence of a large, unproductive and unmotivated underclass. And beyond that, their presence effectively stifles debate on real, practical reform of the public sector; since it reduces everyone who understands the role of public services in our society to a position of stubborn resistance to change proposed by those whose motives they plainly cannot trust.

Britain’s economic situation is bad and deteriorating, in other words; and we need to agree a plan for getting out of it. The truth is, though, that there is no chance of such agreement until politicians end their 35-year love-affair with the wild men of the ideological right, and accept that most people want to live in a generous state that cares for them. The good society demands a balance between security and freedom; the job of politics is to strike that balance. Those who are not interested in balance, but only in a headline-grabbing private crusade against the whole idea of state provision, are functionally useless in that discussion. Nor would they ever have gained such a powerful influence over public discourse in Britain, if their agenda did not so strongly serve the interests of those elites which have convinced themselves that the only “realistic” policy is to continue to protect their own wealth and privilege; regardless of the cost to the ordinary people of Britain, and – above all – to the most vulnerable among them.

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The Pitmen Painters, Pericles

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE PITMEN PAINTERS at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and PERICLES at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 28.7.11
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The Pitmen Painters 4 stars ****
Pericles 4 stars ****

EVER SINCE he wrote the script for the global stage and film hit Billy Elliott, a dozen years ago, the Newcastle-born playwright Lee Hall has been recognised as one of the leading voices in 21st century English drama, and a passionate advocate for the often unheard voices of ordinary working people. He has experimented with hard-edged surrealism in plays like Cooking With Elvis, and recently hit the headlines in a fierce dispute with Northern Opera over a glancing reference to homosexuality in an opera for performance by schoolchildren.

If you want a glimpse of the straightforward, passionate heartland of Hall’s work as a writer, though, then you can do no better than to head for the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, which plays host this week to the only Scottish dates in the current tour of his 2007 play The Pitmen Painters, co-produced by the National Theatre in London, and Live Theatre of Newcastle. Inspired by a book by art critic William Feaver, The Pitmen Painters tells the astonishing story of the Ashington Group, a collective of more than 30 miners from Ashington in Northumberland who in the 1930’s attended a Workers’ Educational Association art appreciation class in their village hall, and soon began to paint themselves, creating a remarkable body of work that, for a while, became the toast of the British arts establishment.

For the purposes of his drama, Hall reduces the number of miners involved to five, and spins a powerful episodic drama – in short, Brecht-style scenes introduced by projected slides giving date and location – around the story of their interaction with the art world, first in the shape of their tutor, Robert Lyon, and later of the wealthy art patron Helen Sutherland. From the start, the weekly art class at Ashington becomes a fierce and often sharply comic arena for debate about the purpose and nature of art, about the relationship between the figurative and the abstract (“That’s nowt but a blob, that is…”) and about the economic circumstances that support, shape or destroy creative lives. Hall’s point is that the pitmen, despite their fierce Northumberland accents and lack of formal education, are far from stupid; and more than capable – once the outlines of debate are made to clear to them – of joining in, on their own terms.

The dramatic crux of the drama, though, lies in the tension between the most talented of the painters, Oliver Kilbourn, and the patron Helen Sutherland, who wants him to give up coal-mining and live on her patronage, in order to develop his painting. At the core of this debate, there lie some aching questions about the tension between the individual and the collective, in the development of a creative life; and about the economic base for visual art in particular, in a market always shaped by the preferences of the rich.

In the end, Hall’s play begins to look like something of a tragedy, as the strong collective experience that gave the men’s work its mighty energy also places limits on their creative development; and as they express their high hopes for the nationalisation of the mines in 1946, mocked by the later history of strife, closure and economic decline which we all know. Hall himself says that the very existence of a story like Billy Elliott – which shows a former mining community still alienated from the idea of a career in the arts, fifty years on – demonstrates the failure of those hopes.

Throughout Max Roberts’s powerful production, though, every member of the play’s eight-strong cast – led by Trevor Fox as Oliver Kilbourn – acts as if the future of the nation still depended on their argument, with an intensity mirrored in Martin Hodgson’s fierce sound design, and in the paintings themselves, projected behind the action. And in the end, we’re left with an unforgettable sense of how old industrial communities were able to create a collective life, and reaffirm the humanity and potential even of the most battered coalface worker; as we try to navigate our way through a world so much richer in material goods and in its sense of individual freedom, and yet so relatively poor in the quality of its shared cultural experience, and in its confidence that the best in life can and should be available to us all.

The Bard In The Botanics season, meanwhile, is never shy of bringing the most rare and demanding of Shakespeare’s plays to its wide-ranging Glasgow audience; and if the obscure late romance Pericles is not exactly the bard’s finest work – it is thought that he only wrote about half of it – it still has a surreal, fantastical and disturbing quality that recalls some of the wilder shores of 20th century symbolism, and offers rich food for thought.

Graham Barr’s fine and fascinating short version, staged with a few ship’s-chandler-style props and costumes inside the beautiful Kibble Palace, lasts for just 95 minutes; and it rightly avoids dwelling for too long on the detail of any one episode in this bizarre story, which involves a young prince fleeing across the Mediterranean to avoid the wrath of an incestuous father whose crimes he has discovered, finding himself shipwrecked on the shore of a city-state with a beautiful young princess, marrying her, and burying her at sea after she apparently dies giving birth to their little daughter Marina.

The story of how the three are evdentually reunited is a strange one indeed, full of weird coincidences and unsettling sexual neuroses. Yet Barr’s four-strong cast – superbly led by Beth Marshall as storyteller and mother-figure – handle it with a lightness and wisdom that spins real magic out of this strange tale; and a sense that in the dreamlike moment when life, death and desire meet, there are almost certainly, as the man himself said, more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

The Pitmen Painters at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, and Pericles at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 30 July.

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Blood Wedding/It Snows

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLOOD WEDDING/IT SNOWS at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 27.7.11
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Blood Wedding 3 stars ***
It Snows 4 stars ****

LORCA’S BLOOD WEDDING is notoriously one of the most difficult plays in the whole classical canon, combining an intensely dramatic story – in which a young bride is driven by erotic obsession to flee from her own wedding, along with the man she truly desires – with episodes of self-conscious modernist symbolism that are notoriously hard to stage.

Nothing, though, daunts the young players of the senior Lyceum Youth Theatre Group, aged 14 and over; and although Steve Mann’s production for last week’s Summer On Stage celebration at the Lyceum comes no closer than most others to solving the problem of how to stage the play’s symbolic sequences, it demonstrates a terrific grasp of the basic outlines of the story, and some formidable performances. Hanni Shinton is staggeringly impressive and mature as the embittered mother of the bridegroom. And although Isla Cowan lacks the vocal range to sustain every detail of the role of the bride, she still brings a real, courageous intensity to this shocking story of a woman so helpless in the face of her own passion that she cannot but bring herself, and two grieving families, to utter ruin.

Blood Wedding was followed, in last weeks’s programme, by a memorably jaunty and touching production of Bryony Lavery and Frantic Assembly’s It Snows, performed by the 10-13-year-old junior LYT group. It Snows is a brief, delicious play with songs and dance about two young teenagers finding their way towards a mutual connection, despite problems with the weather, with their noisy school peer-group, and with the forlorn figure of a little girl who haunts a house in their street. Christie O’Carroll’s production is full of a beautiful, free-flowing energy, as if the 30-strong cast found this simple story a near-perfect vehicle through which to express themselves. And once again, there are a couple of truly admirable lead performances, from Louis Plummer as the lovely, Harry-Potter-like hero Cameron, and Beth Moran as Caitlin, the girl next door who is also the woman of his dreams.

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Merchant City Festival 2011

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MERCHANT CITY FESTIVAL 2011 for The Scotsman 26.7.11
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WE TRY to pretend it doesn’t matter; we’re used to it, we’re intrepid, we’ll sit through a three-hour play in blustering wind and showers, if necessary. The truth is, though, that when it comes to outdoor performance, sunshine makes all the difference; and if this weekend’s Merchant City Festival in Glasgow was the most successful in the history of the event – with crowds thronging the streets between George Square and the Tron, thriving street markets everywhere, and bars and cafes packed to the sunny pavements – then the gods of the weather have to take at least half of the credit.

Much of the other half, though, goes to the intrepid band of promoters, producers and performers who gave the event a classy touch of artistic edge, to go along with the food, drink, shopping, and get-set pre-Commonwealth Games event in George Square. My own Merchant City day started on the western edge, at Sloans Bar in the Argyll Arcade, where a blisteringly talented bunch of musicians, singers and actors known as Noise Opera were presenting a 75-minute fully-fledged modern classical work by composer Gareth Williams and librettist David Brook, known simply as The Sloans Project. Beginning in the bar, and then moving on to four other spaces on the upper floors of this beautiful historic building – a pub since 1797 – the show featured five musicians, five superb singers, and four actors, and a series of scenes involving a wedding, a funeral, and a strange historical flashback to a fierce moment of connection between a 19th century manageress of the howff, and Frederic Chopin, on tour in Scotland.

After that, it was out into the sun-soaked streets, to search out a range of events created by UZ Events Roofless programme, and co-commissioned by In Situ, the international street theatre network to which UZ belongs. These included a sequence of tours of the merchant city streets led by four different artists, under the title Derive; which is how I and a half-a-doze others found ourselves wandering along the Trongate and up Candleriggs in pursuit of Alex Rigg, a wan, corpse-like but strangely engaging Vivienne Westwood figure who looks like the wrecked ghost of a long-dead dowager, but talks like a lost child in search of his “mam”, poignantly interrogating every passer-by, and every sign in or on the road, for possible messages.

In King’s Court, near Paddy’s Market, I saw a Growling Tent devour a team of officials who approached to investigate it, in convincing style; and an old-style towing caravan being “pimped” by a gang of cutting-edge graffiti artists. Then, at the stroke of three, Ljud of Slovenia presented their street-theatre Invasion of fabulous pink figures, half man, half alien, with a touch of the sea-monster and the friendly farmyard animal. The crowds shrieked, screamed, then peered, poked, patted and tried to feed them; sometimes, the four performers would simply gather, and form shapes like a gleaming pink sculpture, in the sun.

And that, on a rough calculation, was only about one-thirtieth of all the fun, games and entertainment on offer. Rumour has it that Glasgow City Council are so pleased wth this year’s event that they’re now planning a much bigger one, for the Commonwealth Games year of 2014; let’s hope that the weather continues to smile, and doesn’t rain on their parade.

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The Edinburgh Companion To Scottish Drama – Book Review

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE EDINBURGH COMPANION TO SCOTTISH DRAMA for The Scotsman, 4.7.11
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The Edinburgh Companion To Scottish Drama, ed. Ian Brown, Edinburgh University Press, unpriced, 248 pages.

A FEW WEEKS ago, on Midsummer’s Night, the National Theatre Of Scotland celebrated its fifth birthday by launching its latest bold challenge to traditional ideas of what theatre is, or might look like. Presented by 235 different groups or solo artists across Scotland – and, in a few cases, far beyond – Five Minute Theatre was an experimental event which involved each group performing or recording a five-minute show in front of a live audience, and making it available for live streaming on the internet as part of a 24-hour NTS celebration of grassroots dramatic energy across the nation. Most observers – and not a few theatre professionals – were sceptical about the project when it was first announced; words like “gimmick” were freely bandied about.

Yet the results – ranging from a spellbinding moment of storytelling in a house in Sutherland to a five-minute teenage version of Tam O’Shanter at Alloway Kirk, and from a hugely professional short movie about the culture of apology from Dundee Rep, to groups of kids in Lanarkshire improvising on anti-sectarian themes (“we’ve been wrong, we’ve been so stupid and wrong”) – were compulsively, magnificently, gloriously interesting, with dozens of the most successful pieces still circulating on the internet, several weeks on. And because of the NTS’s insistence that each piece should have a live audience, however small, it felt like an event that subtly redefined the whole idea of theatre in Scotland; and showed, definitively, that what happens in formal theatre buildings is only the tip of the dramatic iceberg, in a nation drenched in possibilities for performance, oratory, live storytelling, showing-off, and making fun, often in the most thrilling contemporary and historical settings.

And it’s this sense of a theatre differently defined, and emerging from a much wider range of public and social experience than the word “theatre”normally allows, that gives the powerful initial impulse to the new Edinburgh Companion To Scottish Drama, edited by academic and playwright Ian Brown. In its early chapters, this book of seventeen collected essays, with an Introduction by Brown himself, mounts a fierce and convincing argument against the common assumption that for two or three centuries after the Presbyterian revolution of the 1560’s, theatre in Scotland was almost entirely suppressed, and had no continuing tradition of the kind that existed in London.

On the contrary, both Brown’s Introduction, and Sarah Carpenter’s compelling opening chapter on Scottish drama before 1650, conjure up a vivid image of a society in which old mediaeval traditions of civic and religious pageantry, May Day celebrations, and public entertainment were far less thoroughly suppressed than is sometimes imagined, and in which the Presbyterian tradition of thunderous preaching only added to the range of dramatic experience available; the spirit of popular satire against the abuse of power, famously expressed just before the Reformation in Sir David Lindsey’s Ane Satyre Of The Thrie Estaites, seems never to have died out in the towns and cities of Scotland, and was often expressed through witty monologues written for insertion into traditional pageants and celebrations. And it is worth considering how the emergence of the National Theatre Of Scotland, which famously defines itself as a “theatre without walls”, is beginning, after half a decade of grassroots work across Scotland, to reconnect with that old tradition of local satire, busking and comment; and to bridge what has sometimes been a substantial gap between that tradition, and what became, during the 18th and 19th centuries, an increasingly anglicised world of professional theatre.

In that sense, Brown’s wide-ranging collection of essays would probably benefit from a slightly tighter, and perhaps more circular, structure, describing the context of the current Scottish theatre scene and its rich range of possibilities, before plunging into an account of its historical roots, and remarkable resilience. As it is, it dives straight into the historical argument, conjuring up a powerful sense of a theatre tradition not so much non-existent, as simply hidden from history, through a lack of continuous national memory and self-awareness; Brown’s Introduction refers to this absence of memory as a “creative amnesia”. From Carpenter’s chapter on theatre before 1650, the book moves on to record now widely forgotten periods of theatrical creativity – with their own cohorts of Scottish playwrights, venues, actors and impresarios – from 1650 through to the hugely successful “national drama” of the early 19th century, largely dedicated to lavish mainstage versions of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and other luminaries of the romantic age. There is a short but valuable note from Michael Newton on the dramatic content of the Gaelic song and storytelling tradition; and a persuasive argument, in Barbara Bell’s chapter on the National Drama, that it was the coming of the railways in the second half of the 19th century – and the relative ease, thereafter, of touring big commercial productions out of London – that led to a decline in professional theatre production in Scotland, rather than any lack of native enthusiasm, talent or tradition.

And as Paul Maloney’s chapter on 20th century popular theatre makes clear, the decline was in any case partial, and short-lived. The Scottish pantomime and variety traditions survived in rude health; and they were accompanied, from the earliest years of the 20th century, by a series of initiatives designed to present Scottish-made work to Scottish audiences, and to connect theatre in Scotland with wider developments across Europe – from Glasgow Rep to Glasgow Unity, from the Citizens’ to the Gateway, from the Scottish National Players to 7:84 and Wildcat, and from the Traverse to the Tron. That impulse was strengthened and enriched by the coming of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, and of Glasgow’s Mayfest in the 1980’s; and as public funding for professional theatre rapidly increased, from the 1960’s onwards, it began to find a rich and full expression in the sheer variety of work, across a range of fifteen or twenty production centres, that characterises professional theatre in Scotland today.

The latter chapters of Brown’s anthology focus more strongly on individual playwrights or groups of playwrights, from Barrie in the early 20th century to Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead, still writing today. For the sheer thrill of analysis, perhaps the finest of these chapters are Gerard Carruthers’s thoughtful account of the career of James Bridie, Steve Cramer’s insightful essay on the intensely political Traverse generation of the 1980’s and their 1990’s successors, Ksenija Horvat’s wonderfully rich account of the career of Liz Lochhead, and Trish Reid’s masterly account of the changing landscape of dramatic writing after devolution; although despite extensive reference to the changing role of women playwrights, not one of these chapters analyses their recent relative eclipse by a new generation of male writers, following the “in your face” moment of the mid-1990’s

In the end, this focus on the dramatists – rather than the actors, the directors, the designers, the venue managers who also help shape Scottish theatre – slightly unbalances the book, tilting it away from an account of drama as a live art, towards an account of drama as an aspect of literature; it is less of a companion to Scottish drama than an interim reflection on it, necessarily selective, and not always strongly balanced.

It remains, though, a rich and often fascinating study of an art-form traditionally under-recognised in Scotland, often contested if never completely suppressed, and still widely ignored to this day, even by those who consider themselves well-informed about our national cultural life. And at the heart of its central argument about the rich, resilient, yet often forgotten tradition of drama in Scotland, there lies a deeper question, and and implied warning. For if we have succeeded, so often in the past, in losing our memory of whole movements and generations of theatre-makers, and in compelling each new generation in Scotland, ignorant of the past, to reinvent the same wheel and to challenge the same stereotypes, then there is no guarantee that the current golden age for theatre production in Scotland, with all its award-winning shows and internationally-acclaimed playwrights, may not eventually suffer the same fate.

This is a cycle of forgetting to which the coming of the National Theatre Of Scotland should make some difference; one of the classic roles of such an institution is to act as a focal point and memory-bank for theatre culture, where achievement can be remembered and celebrated, as in the NTS’s current series of Staging The Nation events. The question of whether the NTS can successfully fulfil this role, while remaining the cutting-edge 21st century theatre producer it aspires to be, provides the starting-point for the next chapter in any comprehensive story of Scottish theatre. For the time being, though, Ian Brown’s useful and sometimes exciting collection offers plenty of food for thought; and plenty of vital information about a culture often lost, but now – just possibly – beginning to be found again, and to forge itself a new and firmer place, at the heart of our national life.

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Whatever Happened To Benny Hill?

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BENNY HILL? at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 23.7.11
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3 stars ****

THERE’S SOMETHING COOKING, in Grant Smeaton’s clever and thoughtful new 70-minute show about the slow showbiz death of global comedy star Benny Hill; but it’s difficult to resist the impression that although all the ingredients have been mixed in – probably in a vintage British Kenwood Chef – the show isn’t quite ready, yet, to be served up to the public.

Performed by a team of just three actors – Smeaton himself as Benny, with Richard McLean as all the other men, and Karen Fraser Docherty as a dazzling range of women – the show takes the form of a fragmentary series of sketch-like scenes, starting from the devastating moment, in 1988, when Thames Television cancelled Benny’s regularly weekly show, and then weaving back and forwards through key turning-points in his career, up to his sad death in 1992. And the show has some powerful assets, both in its clever visual and video design – which perfectly captures the decor, atmosphere, and television style of Britain in the postwar period, all projected on a screen behind the action – and in the quality of the performances, not least Smeaton’s uncanny representation of Hill himself.

Yet for all its haunting alternations between the cheeky, seaside-postcard energy of the comic scenes, and the bleak shapelessness of Hill’s lonely private life, this short play seems, in the end, a little unsure of what it wants to say. On one hand, it wants to celebrate Hill as a neglected and mistreated comic genius. Yet on the other, it seems partly convinced by the idea that Hill’s comedy was the sad product of an age of repression and a problematic mother-son relationship, best consigned to the past; and it needs to find a more shapely and purposeful way of expressing that tension, if it’s to do full justice to the quality of its own material.

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“Friends” In High Places: The Web Of Boss-Class Power And Collusion That Must Be Broken, Before We Can Move On – Column

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 22.7.11
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DAY UMPTEEN of the Great Murdoch Crisis; and voices are beginning to be heard, suggesting that it’s time for the self-obsessed British media to leave the story alone, and “move on”.  The Prime Minister says we should be focussing on the economy; and well-intentioned folk argue that the mighty famine in Somalia should now be commanding most of our attention.  

The truth is, though, that the impact of the scandal on British public life is so huge that “moving on” has become almost impossible; given that in every area of real-world policy where action is essential – from Europe to the future of the NHS – the British public are now likely to be left wondering just who is really making the decisions, what pressures have been placed on the politicians involved, and who exactly can be trusted to enforce any legislation in an even-handed manner.  On Wednesday, Reuters news agency – hardly the world’s most radical source of journalism  – published a devastating critique of the current structure of power in Britain, under the headline, “Is Britain More Corrupt Than It Thinks?”.   It painted an all-too-recognisable picture of a nation that has become subject to what it calls “elite capture” by a group of wealthy and privileged people – across government, business, the media – who collude with one another to run public policy in their own interest, and to create an ever-growing gap between rich and poor; while the voices of ordinary people increasingly go unheard.

The point about this kind of corruption, though, is that it can be difficult to trace; partly because it operates not through the direct bribery of public officials that is often criticised in developing countries, but through networks of kinship and “friendship” at the highest level of our society.  This is not, of course, friendship as you or I might define it – that is, the lifelong mutual affection and loyalty of people who know one another well, and who will stand by one another in good times and bad.

No, this is the kind of opportunistic “friendship” that subsisted between the Prime Minister and Rebekah Brooks; or between the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police, Sir Paul Stephenson, and the man who owns Champneys Health Spa; or, most incredibly, between the talented and sensible Sarah Brown, and Wendi Deng Murdoch, a woman famous for nothing – at least until Tuesday’s foam pie incident – except marrying two very rich older men in succession by luring them away from their previous wives.

Now of course, there is a welcome element of comedy in all of this, and not only in the incident of the pie.  It is difficult to imagine any social event more hilariously awful than the girls’  “slumber parties” apparently shared by Sarah Brown, Wendi Deng and Rebekah Brooks.  It is difficult not to to laugh like a drain, when we consider the miasma of lies, bad faith, fixed smiles and hypocritical air-kissing that must have hung over the average social event hosted by Mr. Murdoch or Ms. Brooks, and eagerly attended by Labour and Tory politicians alike.

As for Sir Paul Stephenson, and his petulant insistence, in his resignation statement, that he “did nothing wrong” in  receiving a £12,000 freebie from his “friend” at Champneys, nothing could more clearly demonstrate all that is rotten in the state of Britain’s ruling class than his laughable failure to grasp that it was unacceptable – indeed downright peculiar – for a man in his position to accept such a compromisingly generous gift from anyone at all, far less from a man connected to the web of influence-peddling around News International. 

Yet in truth, the situation is not funny at all.  All across this nexus of power in the UK, personal relationships are being founded on three big, collusive, self-serving lies: that the huge salaries and perks enjoyed by everyone involved are only middling, and not really that generous; that all those involved are therefore entitled to a little help from their “friends”, in the shape of freebies and unearned job opportunities; and that everyone involved is a jolly nice person who has reached a position of eminence entirely through personal merit.  And the more these people mix only with each other, and talk only to each other, the less they know, or really care, about the reality of life for the rest of us, struggling by on average incomes ten times less than the £250,000 Boris Johnson once described as “peanuts”.  They are becoming, in effect, a kind of Bourbon aristocracy; deaf to reality because they cannot bear too much of it, at home only with each other, and categorically unfit to run any society on behalf of what Gordon Brown once called “the many, not the few.” 

The political questions that face us are therefore of the deepest kind, and not to be answered by a simple “moving on” of the news agenda.  We need nothing less than a radical shift in the relationship between government and global  capital, which will enable us to regain our political and democratic sovereignty, re-establish the impartiality of our law enforcement systems, and reduce corrosive inequalities in our society.  In Scotland, some will see independence as the obvious answer; and it might indeed provide us, north of the Border, with a kind of fresh start.

It would be complacent, though, to ignore the deeper causes – including the entrenched ideology of uncritical worship of wealth – that has led the once-admired UK political system to this pass; or to underestimate the crisis we now face.  For the truth is that we stand paralysed before all the urgent issues of our time, because we now lack a political system that we can trust to deal with them in a way that serves the interests of us all.  Nor is there any obvious place to turn, in the quest for a new political dispensation that truly understands the meaning of words like friendship and solidarity; and would never dream of applying them to the kind of seedy and self-interested boss-class alliances that are now creeping into public view, fuelled by nothing but greed, ambition, expediency, and a strong mutual aversion to too many incovenient truths.

ENDS ENDS 

Contribution to Stellar Quines Debate on gender in theatre – for the Scotnits network, 21.7.11

Hi Everyone –

Just adding a few observations to this debate, which I’ve been reading with interest all week. First, I would say it is broadly true that is there is not much overt gender prejudice in theatre, and that the position of women in theatre is stronger than it was – say – twenty years ago. People who work in theatre are generally liberal in their views, and would not consciously exclude people on grounds of gender, race or class. It’s also true that a new generation of women directors are emerging in British theatre, that the NTS is led by a woman, and that the traditional very disadvantageous gender balance in casting is shifting, although much faster in small, unfunded and informal companies than in big mainstage production. The rise of theatre for children in Scotland has also changed the gender balance, although for the traditional reason than women tend to be more prominent in anything to do with provision for children.

There are, though, some aspects of this debate which do concern me. First, we still take it for granted that many plays, particularly on main stages, will have all-male or nearly all-male casts. The recent Lyceum smash hit Dunsinane is an excellent exampe – one real speaking part for a woman, at least half a dozen for men. Black Watch is all male. Gagarin Way is all male. This is something that seems so “normal” to our eye that we never even think about it, but it still means that when it comes to mainstage shows, male actors in speaking parts normally outnumber women by about two to one, if not more. And women are often included in non-speaking capacities, to bump up the numbers – see the recent NTS production of Knives In Hens, which featured an extra woman who never speaks, or the female chorus in Dunsinane; the effect of this – men speak, women float about or play an instrument in the background – can actually be worse than excluding women altogether.

Secondly, with a few striking exceptions, Scottish playwriting tends still to be a pretty male-dominated affair, still affected – 15 years on – by the hyper-masculine “in yer face” moment of the mid-1990’s. A recent academic book chapter on Scottish playwriting at the Traverse over the last 20 years featured Harrower, Greig, Hannan, Arnott, Clifford and Greenhorn, all of whom were male when they achieved fame, although Jo Clifford is now a woman. It could have added Henry Adam, Gregory Burke, and – beyond the Traverse – Anthony Neilson. Only a few women with a sustained playwriting presence emerged from the same generation – Zinnie Harris, Nicola McCartney – and I think it’s fair to say that they have not achieved the same level of recognition as Greig, Burke, Harrower or Neilson.

Finally, I have to say that I am surprised by the petulant anti-feminist tone of some of the contributions to this debate. I would have thought that people on this forum would have understood that the idea that feminism is over, and that women now enjoy fully equal opportunities in our society, is a reactionary myth peddled by – among others – the newspapers of the Murdoch press. If the position of women in theatre is slowly improving, in many other areas of public life it is actually deteriorating; just look at the pathetic number of women in the current UK cabinet, or the declining percentage of women in the Scottish Parliament, or the four-to-one dominance of men at Westminster, or the total absence of women from a high proportion of Scottish boardrooms. I have written many columns on these subjects, backed by statistics, if people want to look at my blog. I am particularly concerned by the re-emergence of the ancient 1950’s style argument that men and women are “just different”, and have different preferences, and that this – not prejudice or nurture – accounts for the imbalances in power and influence which are so obvious in our society. This argument has been a cover since time immemorial for those who think it is OK for women to be excluded from public life, and to stick to their own sphere of activity – i.e. making costumes rather than doing tech, raising babies rather than sitting in parliament, and cooking the dinner and organising the household rather than taking part in the big decisions that shape our world.

So just to say it again, loud and clear. A sane world needs both men and women equally represented in its public life, including its cultural and theatre life. For this to happen, women need to be free of the lie that the decision to have a family life – a basic human need, not a consumer option – is entirely their individual choice, and one for which they individually have to carry the can, sacrificing their careers in the process. Women have as good as right as men to both love and work, the two things which make life worth living. I have seen the generations of women who have been forced to sacrifice one or the other, damaging themselves and those who love them in the process, and it is not right. We are slowly making progress away from this world. But in some areas, we are also moving backwards, particularly under the economic pressures of recession; and we will never succeed if we frame this as a battle between men and women, or if we fall for the lie that this is now an old struggle, about which neither men nor women any longer need to bother their heads.

With thanks to everyone who has contributed to a very interesting discussion,

Joyce McM.

Privates On Parade, Hamlet

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PRIVATES ON PARADE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and HAMLET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 21.7.11
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Privates On Parade 4 stars ****
Hamlet 4 stars ****

ARMS AND THE MAN. It’s never an easy subject, but the relationship between war and masculinity has been one of the great themes of drama since earliest times; and now, Pitlochry Festival theatre offers a new production of one of the boldest plays about men and militarism to emerge from 20th century Britain.

First staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977, Peter Nichols’s Privates On Parade is a show that often wrong-foots audiences and critics, so thoroughly is it drenched in the style and the aesthetic of light-hearted British concert-party entertainment – rude and silly, camp and comic, sometimes sentimental, and full of song and dance. Yet beneath its often hilariously camp surface, the play seethes with undisguised contempt for the blinkered British officer class, its sexual hypocrisy, its reckless endangering of young men’s lives and health, and its arrogant assumption that the Malay people should have “Christian civilisation” imposed on them at any cost.

Nichols’s play tells the story of a quaint British army outfit called Sadusea (Song And Dance Unit, South-East Asia) which is charged with entertaining the troops in Malaya during the “emergency”, or independence uprising, of the late 1940’s. Many of the men in the unit are homosexuals, seeking a safe refuge from a hostile world; slightly ahead of its time, Nichols’s play suggests clear links between sexual dissent from what was then a rigid social norm, and a wider sympathy with those engaged in struggles against power. There are eight male soldiers in the cast, ranging from the officer in charge – the clueless Major Flack – to the naive raw recruit, Private Steven Flowers, impressively played by Sandy Batchelor; plus lovely leading lady Sylvia, and, crucially, two silent Malay servants called Chen and Lee, who are ignored by everyone, but who turn out, in a fine and accurate political twist, to be the main drivers of the action.

Richard Baron’s Pitlochry production pulls no punches in staging this disturbing and sometimes hard-hitting play, which contains plenty of “bad language” – although less than you would hear in any real army unit – and some sequences of full-frontal nudity; a few Pitlochry patrons, although only a few, left at the interval.

What’s striking, though, is the ease with which the multi-skilled Pitlochry company are able to move between the musical and dramatic dimensions of the show, each one casually picking up an instrument, or breaking into song; and the sheer quality of some of the performances, notably from Chris Vincent as the cross-dressing Captain – a gorgeous Vera Lynn lookalike with a beautiful baritone voice – and from Sam Pay, Fred Broom, Matthew Romain and Alan Steele as other members of the troupe. There are time when the production – and Kate Bonney’s effective concert-stage design – seem a little short of historical context; it’s not difficult to imagine ways in which it could have evoked more clearly the austere postwar Britain from which these men have come, and to which they must return, if they are lucky enough to survive. At its best, though, this is a brave, skilful and beautifully-performed production of an important play about an ill-fated British military campaign, full of resonances for our own time; and it whets our appetites for the autumn, when Nichols’s masterpiece A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg takes the stage at the Citizens’ in Glasgow.

From the Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow, meanwhile, comes a reminder that intelligent and thoughtful men have always struggled to fit the mould of the unquestioning warrior, always ready for battle. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a hero famously balanced on the cusp of tradition and modernity; part conventional son bound to avenge his father’s death by acts of righteous violence, part complex, self-reflecting modern hero, full of psychological nuances, doubts, hesitations, suicidal impulses, and a dark questioning of his own motives, which – by his own account – include lust, cowardice and weakness.

Rained off twice in first four days of its run, and still seeking the measure of what some believe to be the greatest play in the whole dramatic canon, Jennifer Dick’s Bard In The Botanics production nonetheless offers an impressive shoestring account of this mighty drama, staged on a sloping lawn surrounded by storm-tossed trees, and lit during the first half by the last rays of the setting sun, in a natural lighting scheme that seems peculiarly suited to such an immense tragedy. As usual at the Botanics, the acting is a shade variable, with some actors making a better job than others of handling Shakespeare’s magnificent verse, and some lacking the vocal power to compete with the elements.

Where it matters, though, Jennifer Dick’s cast rise powerfully to the occasion. Finlay McLean is a memorably sorrowful Ghost and Player King, Carole Ann Crawford is a passionate and beautifully-spoken matronly Gertrude, and Paul Cunningham a fine, moving Hamlet, whose impressive intelligence and presence compensate for a slight lack of vocal range and flexibility; the trio of Stephen Clyde as polonius, Nicole Cooper as Ophelia, and a fine Tom Duncan, as Laertes, achieve a stronger sense of the tragedy of the Polonius family than I can recall seeing on any stage.

The production lacks the Fortinbras dimension, and therefore a key sense of the political weight of the tragedy; it ends on Horatio’s elegiac “Good night, sweet Prince” speech, not, as Shakespeare indicated, on Fortinbras’s looming final line as he takes over the governance of Denmark, “Go bid the soldiers shoot”. Yet in the contrast between the initially hesitant Hamlet and the furiously vengeful Laertes, the play still poses some powerful questions about models of masculinity, and Hamlet’s right not to be that conventional soldier-prince; and in the fading light of a soft West End evening, it gives this magnificent play its due, bringing some members of the audience to their feet, in a small standing ovation.

Privates On Parade in repertoire at Pitochry Festival Theatre until 14 October; Hamlet at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 30 July.

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Hairy Maclary

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HAIRY MACLARY AND FRIENDS at Howden Park Centre, Livingston, for The Scotsman 20.7.11
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3 stars ***

MOST OF THE CHILDREN in the audience know the outline of the story already. They know about Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, the scruffy, naughty, good-hearted wee black dog whose adventures form the centre of the story. And they know about all of his five cheerfully rhyming friends – from the great dane Hercules Morse (as big as a horse) to the dachshund Schnitzel von Krumm (with a very low tum).

Their familiarity with the characters is a tribute to the huge popularity of Lynley Dodds’s little Hairy Maclary books for toddlers, with their simple, satisfying short stories all recounted in the kind of verse that encourages kids just learning language to revel in its rhythms and patterns. And it’s a mark of the success of Nonsenseroom Productions’s current touring version – now heading for St. Andrews – that it taps instantly into this endless supply of goodwill towards Hairy Maclary and his mates.

The show is a long way from perfection, for reasons that probably have to do with budget constraints. It certainly needs a movement director, to introduce a slightly more dog-like shape and rhythm to the prancing and scampering of the cast members playing the dogs; and some of the costumes don’t look quite right – Hercules Horse, for example, is just the wrong colour.

From the moment that Carrie Mancini’s cheerful Miss Plum steps in front of the audience, though, and starts to talk about her cheeky, lovable little dog, the audience knows it is in safe hands, so far as the important aspects of the story are concerned. There’s some fine use of old-fashioned pantomime tricks to draw the audience into the story, and each little yarn is told in a jolly, rhythmic song; and when, after 55 minutes, the show came to an end, one little girl behind me just burst into tears, wailing that she didn’t want it to end at all.

ENDS ENDS