Monthly Archives: September 2011

Why Ed Miliband, The Westminster Bubble Boy, Just Doesn’t Cut It As Labour Leader – Column 30.9.11


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 30.9.11

NICE GUY, Ed Miliband. He may have pushed his own brother aside in ruthless style to win the Labour leadership, a year ago this week; and he may look like every other identikit “leader” of our time – male, heterosexual, fortyish and upper middle class, with a smooth complexion, and attractive wife and kids.

It seems fairly clear, though, that he fought for the leadership because he believed – after the financial crisis of 2008 – that his party had to be saved from another round of uncritical Blairite thinking, too far to the right to offer a new beginning; and it’s also clear, following this week’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, that he means what he says about moving on from the uncritical pro-market values that have powered British politics for the last generation, and ending his party’s collusion with the antisocial behaviour of the rich. It’s therefore no accident that Ed Miliband’s finest political hour, so far, came when he decided, against the received Westminster wisdom of the last two decades, to break with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp over the phone-hacking case, and to denounce the company’s behavour as unacceptable.

That, though, is about as far as praise can go, when it comes to the Labour leader. For in truth, he makes about as convincing an alternative Prime Minister as Iain Duncan Smith did, during his ill-fated Tory leadership of 2001-2003; and the reason lies not in his political beliefs, but in his all-too-obvious membership of a generation of polticians who are not in fact politicians, but glorified back-room boys and girls, lacking in many of the basic skills of the job they seek. And if we look closely at Ed Miliband’s big speech to the Labour Party conference, we can see this problem of the leader who is not really a politician writ large.

In the first place, there is the abject failure of language; for despite all its fine sentiments about a “new set of rules” for British society, which will reward hard work, decency and real achievement, this is a speech without a single vivid image, a single memorable phrase. It may be that Ed Miliband is hostile to the culture of the soundbite, and rightly so. But describing possible futures in ways that people find memorable, vivid and transforming remains one of the key tasks of political leadership; and it’s obvious from the banal and plodding texture of this speech not only that Ed Miliband lacks that creative gift himself, but that no-one in his office even understands the problem.

This failure of language, though, is no superficial thing, to be remedied with a few tweaks of vocabulary; because it reflects a whole culture of rootless elite policy-making around Westminster and Millbank, think-tank driven, jargon-heavy, and increasingly severed from the real life of the voters. The decline of the Labour Party as a grass-roots social movement, the old-fashioned Blairite obsession with severing trade union links, the growing separation of the leadership from the nuts-and-bolts organisation that creates political strength on the ground, and makes true radicalism possible; all of this has produced a generation of young would-be leaders with only a vague focus-group image of the society they would lead, and often no knowledge at all of its rich pattern of popular and local culture, and of how those cultures interact with the task of political organisation. It’s therefore hardly surprising that Ed Miliband was revealed, yesterday, as the kind of Labour leader who cannot even remember all the names of those competing to lead the party in Scotland; in terms of Labour history, he is the ultimate Westminster Bubble Boy, brought up in the protected environment of the kitchen cabinets of the New Labour years, and barely acquainted with most of the MP’s he leads, far less with the party’s MSP’s and councillors.

And then finally, there is the question of ideology; that is, of a working political theory, tempered and developed through years of political argument to the point where it can inspire a whole people to seek serious change. The speech Ed Miliband gave on Tuesday contained a laudable statement of values, and a decent critique of the current “quiet crisis”of British society – the crisis of those who do the right thing, and are not rewarded. But there was just one clear – if modest – policy commitment, to reduce the maximum university fee in England; and what is missing, in that yawning gap between values and policy, is a rigorous, witty, workable and energising vision of the kind of society towards which we should strive, and in terms of which all policies must make sense.

In that vital speech, for example, Ed Miliband could have denounced conventional definitions of economic growth, and put flesh on his pieties about the environment by committing Britain to new, sustainable ways of assessing its economic performance. He could have declared himself in favour of a Nordic-style social democracy, with a strong and unapologetic 50/50 balance between the public and private sectors. And he could have talked about the need to forge new international partnerships, if we seriously want to end the most damaging practices of unregulated capitalism. In the end, though, he did none of these things; and the result may be the worst of all possible worlds, a speech radical enough to arouse the dismissive fury of Britain’s right-wing establishment, but not nearly thrilling and sharp-edged enough to rouse the people, and make them demand a new deal in British society.

And what is even more worrying, for the future of democracy in the UK, is that given the growing weakness of our political parties as real channels for grass-roots representation, a nice, presentable backroom guy like Ed Miliband, with decent left-of-centre instincts, is about as good a Labour leader as we are likely to see, any time soon. We are doomed, in other words, to a long period of Conservative government at Westminster, with or without the fig-leaf of coalition; to more SNP triumphalism at Holyrood, with or without real political content; and to a grim decade for social justice, as the forces of economic inequality and environmental destruction grind on through our lives, largely unchallenged, and unchecked.



Arches Live! 2011 (3)


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2011 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 30.9.11

Squish 4 stars ****
Confessional 3 stars ***
Santa: A Very Merry Businessman 3 stars ***
I Don’t Want To Talk About It 2 stars **

IN ITS FINAL WEEK, Arches Live! 2011 moves beyond analysis, into a high-speed explosion of new performance ideas. At the more shapely end of this week’s midweek programme stands Room2Manoeuvre’s Squish, a vivid 25-minute dance piece-cum-monologue in which dancer and creator Tony Mills uses the idea of a squash game – and the geography of a squash court, marked out on the floor – to explore themes of competitio, masculinity and self-sufficiency that sit perfectly on his tall, powerful body.

Simpler but equally well-shaped – in a cupboard off the foyer – is Rosana Cade and Laurie Brown’s 17-minute Confessional, in which the sole audience member sits in a standard church confession-box, listening to a soundtrack in which actors reconstruct the responses of Catholic priests, across the city, to Cade and Brown’s confession of their gay sexual lives; the show emerges, unexpectedly, as a partial and tentative tribute to the diversity and general compassion of the church today.

In the Studio, there’s Gary Gardiner’s Santa, a fragmented but vivid reflection on the commercialised travesty that is our 21st century Christmas, much enlivened by two terrific performances from Gardiner’s son and daughter, aged about seven and five; after all, what’s Christmas without the kids? And as for Rachel Jury’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It, in the basement – well, I don’t want to talk much about this kind of tedious, self-absorbed performance-about-performance; except to note that it enjoys its right to fail at Arches Live!, as at no other festival in the Uk today.


Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ELEGIES FOR ANGELS, PUNKS AND RAGING QUEENS at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow for The Scotsman 29.9.11

3 stars ***

IF YOU WANT an instant history of the impact of the AIDS virus on American society, you could do worse than spend two hours watching this new Glasgow revival of Bill Russell and Janet Hood’s touching show, first seen off Broadway in 1989. Set in a half-deserted nightclub and punctuated by emotional, sometimes almost gospel-like musical numbers, the show consists of around 25 short monologues, in which a huge range of people who have died of AIDS, and been commemorated on the famous AIDS quilt, offer us a brief glimpse of their stories.

Some of the characters conform to the stereotype of the American AIDS victim as a young, city-dwelling gay man; there is a moving song called My Brother Lived In San Francisco that sums up this whole scene. One of the main points of the show, though, is to remember also the victims who don’t fit the pattern – the middle-aged man, the high-powered businesswoman, the grandmother, the self-hating church pastor; and to reflect on what all these people learned on the way to the grave, in the years before effective AIDS drugs became available.

For this new production at the Tron, Insideout and Upstage, two Glasgow companies specialising in theatre skills workshops, assemble an impressive 20-strong pro-am cast, including – for two performances – Glasgow-based Britain’s Got Talent star Edward Reid; there are some blazing demonstrations of acting and singing talent, backed by live cello and piano, and a good-looking nightclub set by Peter Screen, swathed in white muslin.

In the end, this remains a show of its time and place, a sentimental, sometimes absurdly upbeat Greenwich Village musical about the power of love to conquer all. But Paul Harper-Swan’s production is well-crafted and heartfelt; and it’s bound to mean a great deal to everyone whose life has been touched by by what was – and for many still is – a cruel, life-threatening and life-changing disease.


Para Handy, Singing Far Into The Night, Watching The Detective


JOYCE MCMILLAN on PARA HANDY – A VOYAGE ROUND THE STORIES OF NEIL MUNRO at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, SINGING FAR INTO THE NIGHT at Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, and WATCHING THE DETECTIVE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 29.9.11

Para Handy 4 stars ****
Singing Far Into The Night 3 stars ***
Watching The Detective 4 stars ****

LIGHTNESS, JOLLITY, pure comedic fun: it tends to be an underrated artistic quality, particularly in the best of times. When economic and political storm-clouds gather, though, stories like Neil Munro’s legendary Para Handy Tales – first published in Glasgow in 1905 – become increasingly irresistible. Like some P.G. Wodehouse of the western isles, Munro creates a poised and impervious world of light-touch humour and instantly recognisable human natureaboard the little west coast puffer crewed by philosopher-captain Para Handy and his three sidekicks, Dougie the mate, Macphail the engineer, and Sunny Jim the cabin boy; and it’s not for nothing that the boat is called The Vital Spark, as it sails forward like a little capsule of defiant human banter and storytelling, into the troubled waters of the 20th century.

And now, here comes veteran Scottish actor, writer, and director John Bett, with a big, generous touring stage version of the Para Handy Tales presented jointly by Eden Court and Open Book, and set to gladden hearts all over Scotland this autumn. Tracing its roots back to the original 7:84 Highland touring companies of the 1970’s, in which Bett played a key part, the show is dedicated to the former 7:84 fiddler and van-driver Allan Ross, who died this month, and reflects that open, empowering, ceilidh-like aesthetic in every detail of its staging. Annette Gillies’s set is a large affair, pleasantly at home on the big stage at Eden Court, where it opened last week; after a brief joke about 21st century waste disposal, it vaguely evokes the deck, cabin and bridge of the puffer, while allowing plenty of space for scenes on shore, notably Para Handy’s glacially slow wooing of the comely baker’s widow, Mary Crawford.

To the rear, there are big screens, showing archive footage of puffers and paddle steamers plying the Firth of Clyde and the west coast; and to one side, there is a band captained by composer and music director Robert Pettigrew, leading the cast through a fine mix of traditional songs and shanties – in which the audience are freely invited to join – and some thoughtful new ballad reflections on the changing world through which Para and his men moved with such insouciance.

The greatest richness of this show, though, lies in its acting company, who bring such a wealth of experience to the stage that it’s a joy to watch them, as they sing, act, and work their audience with limitless skill and charm. Jimmy Chisholm’s Para Handy, George Drennan’s Dougie, Peter Kelly’s Macphail and Sandy Nelson’s Sunny Jim are all fine character sketches; Annie Grace is magnificent as whole range of women, including the adorable widow Crawford. And although this is a show that’s easy to dismiss as lightweight, nostalgic fun, in fact it has a grace, a substance, and a true lightness of being that is far harder to achieve than it looks; and has something to do with the pure essence of art, lifting, shaping and energising the dull stuff of human experience, even in the toughest of times.

Mull Theatre’s current touring show Singing All Through The Night, by contrast, is a self-consciously serious attempt to tackle some of the biggest political themes of the 20th century. Written by Inverness-based novelist and dramatist Hamish MacDonald, the play is an epic two-act drama about two Glasgow brothers, Connal and Finlay MacNab. The story opens in 1930, when Finlay is a journalist and left-wing activist in Glasgow, and Connal a sailor serving in the British navy. In an all-too-familiar climate of government cuts and austerity, Finlay becomes a rising star of world communism, while Connal becomes involved in the 1931 Invergordon Mutiny against pay cuts in the British forces, with tragic personal consequences.

To say that MacDonald’s play is ambitious is to understate the case: at times, it visibly cracks under the weight of history and ideas it carries, as characters lecture one another tongue-twistingly about the politics of their situation. It’s inspiring, though, to see a new Scottish play with such a strong sense of political and historic perspective, and such a determination to do justice to forgotten aspects of history; and Alasdair McCrone’s four-strong cast – Harry Ward and Barrie Hunter as the brothers, Greg Powrie as various British establishment types, and Helen McAlpine as the woman both brothers love – bring terrific energy and understanding to a complex text, that still seems, in places, like a work in progress.

If Singing Far Into The Night is a play crammed to bursting with words and dialogue, Paddy Cunneen’s new Oran Mor lunchtime solo show, Watching The Detective, is a memorably spare and searching piece of work, full of long silences, and direct audience interaction. The speaker – brilliantly played by Stuart Bowman – is a detective of some sort, arriving at a crime scene. Early in the show, he criss-crosses the whole space with quantities of police incident tape, lacing us all into complicity with the murder that has apparently taken place; then, interrupted by brief, cryptic phone-calls, he begins a ruthless exploration of all the cliches and tropes of detective fiction and drama, including our strange facination with violent death, our fantasies of solution and resolution, and our complicity in various other kinds of brutality. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of theatre so deliberately, disturbingly unresolved; but I’ve also rarely seen a fine actor so energised by a text that knows no boundaries, and digs so deeply into our shared culture of violence as thrill and spectacle, in the space of just 50 minutes.

Para Handy is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen until Saturday, the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 4-8 October, and Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, 13-15 October. Singing Far Into The Night is at Ardrishaig, Cove and Eastwood this weekend, and on tour until 28 October. Watching The Detective is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday.


Arches Live! 2011 (2) Putting Words In My Mouth, Bird, Smokies


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2011 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 26.9.11

Putting Words In My Mouth 4 stars ****
Bird 4 stars ****
Smokies 3 stars ***

AFTER AN opening round of shows mainly dedicated to an exploration of rule-breaking, Arches Live 2011! shifted its perspective, over the weekend, onto the more familiar territory of concern about humankind’s relationship with the rest of creation. In their genial 45-minute piece Putting Words In My Mouth, young Glasgow group Makeshift Broadcast explore our fundamental relationship with the food we eat, as they serve up dinner – a bowl of bean stew – to an audience of about 15 people. We sit around a square of trestle tables with the four characters – one man, three women – and watch while the bloke struggles with the news that his girlfriend is pregnant, and begins to consider the primal question of what he is going to put into his children’s mouths, as they grow, and what he is going to tell them about it.

Like any serious consideration of food culture, this short show, written and directed by Philippa Mannion, opens up rich seams of childhood memory, family history, ethical debate and political thought, even though it struggles to find language that is more than banal; and it acts as a perfect prologue to the more intense mood of Sita Preraccini’s Bird, a short 25-minute wordless piece – with a beautiful, delicate soundscape by David Pollock – in which a lone human figure in a hostile landscape forms a touching relationship with a little passing songbird, but then is driven by hunger to kill and eat it. It’s a simple idea, but Pieraccini is such a fine actor that her face and body seem to contain the whole tragedy of humanity’s double-edged relationship with nature in a single short show; and this despite levels of noise interference, from a Saturday-night Arches gig, that would have destroyed a lesser performer.

And then there’s Solar Bear’s Smokies, another wordless piece in which two feral fishwives, like grotesque ugly sisters, catch, gut and smoke herring, and then do the same for a half-drowned sailor washed up on their shore. It’s a vivid show, but a blitheringly misogynistic one; its aesthetic seems based on the reactionary idea that herring are stinky, ridiculous and horrible, and so are sexually eager women. It’s as memorable as it is unpleasant, though; and it boasts brave performances from Alison McFarlane and Hilde McKenna as the revolting sisters, and an impressive Daniel Livingstone, moving lyrically and beautifully through the role of the sailor.


Politicians, Corporate Power, And John Swinney’s “Tesco Tax” – Column 23.9.11


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 23.9.11

AS GOVERNMENT spending announcements go, John Swinney’s Scottish budget – rolled out at Holyrood on Wednesday – was hardly the stuff of radical politics. There was, of course, the ritual nod to the construction-heavy form of renewable energy policy that is one of the Scottish Government’s flagship commitments.

Otherwise, though, the model of economic “recovery” embraced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary was a wholly conventional one, based on the idea of a rapid return to continuing material growth. The infrastructure projects on which new money is to be spent consist mainly of road-building, rather than investment in – say – public transport, or proper home insulation; the Scottish Government’s already tiny walking and cycling budget has actually been slashed, by a swingeing 25%. And John Swinney has also accepted the Westminster government’s decrees on the reduction of what are, in most cases, already modest public sector pensions; there was no contribution, in his speech, to any global debate on how to escape from a failed economic model which, in steadily destroying the real puchasing-power of millions of ordinary citizens, effectively undermines its own chances of future recovery with every ill-conceived “austerity” package it imposes.

Was all of this small-c conservatism enough, though, to delight the business lobby, and win for Mr. Swinney the approval of “the markets”? Not a bit of it; for somewhere amid this litany of orthodox measures, there bloomed a single tiny flower of rebellion, in the shape of the Scottish Government’s decision to revive the idea of a “Tesco Tax”. This tax, if it ever materialises, would be a special levy imposed on large retailers who sell cigarettes and alcohol; the idea would be to use the money to help deal with the health problems caused by Scotland’s unusually heavy addiction to both. And if you want a snapshot of how little room for manoeuvre modern governments are allowed, before the princes and potentates of the corporate world bring them to heel, then you could do worse than contemplate for a moment the yelps of rage provoked by this modest suggestion.

For there is no doubt that Britain’s major supermarket retailers could all afford at least a few million pounds a year in extra tax, earmarked for such a good cause. It is no secret that the supermarkets have been raking in revenue, in recent years, partly by selling cut-price alcohol for home consumption, sometimes even as a loss leader. In a time of serious recession, when pubs have been closing by the dozen, supermarket drink sales have boomed, and supermarket profits with them. In April 2011, Tesco’s reported record group annual profits of £3.8 billion, and Sainsbury’s registered a 12.8% year-on-year increase in pre-tax profits to more than £800 million; only this month, Morrison’s reported a record half-yearly figure of more than £440 million.

Now of course, it is perfectly reasonable, within the logic of commerce, for supermarket companies to do everything the law allows to attract customers and enhance profits; and Scotland’s Parliament notoriously failed to pass legislation fixing a minimum price for alcohol. But for retailers’ representatives to pretend that they cannot now afford to pay a small Scottish tax levy on their booming profits, without slashing investment and cutting jobs, is graceless and bullying, as well as implausible; and it’s to be hoped that John Swinney will not be deterred by their noisy shroud-waving, or by the shameless pro-industry whingeing of the Labour opposition.

Long after the matter of the Tesco Tax has been resolved, though, the deeper issues raised by the presence of major supermarkets, and of other huge commercial institutions like them, will continue to trouble and torment our increasingly weak and ineffectual political class. Modern consumers love their supermarkets, of course, and with some reason. At the most basic level, it’s the complex chain of supply run by our major food retailers that feeds our cities, and keeps us that crucial three or four days away from the brutal moment when the veneer of civilisation cracks, and we start fighting in the local corner-shop over the last available can of beans. And in terms of long-term policy, supermarket companies often put governments to shame with their growing interest in local sourcing of produce, and in encouraging the development of high quality organic and slow-food products.

There’s no doubt, though, that the huge influence of the supermarkets raises questions that elected government should, in theory, be powerful and confident enough to address. Their power over farmers, producers, and the whole pattern of land-use, sometimes seriously abused in the past, has to be scrutinised and held to account. Their impact on the quality of life of communities needs constant monitoring, as they suck revenue and vitality from smaller High Street shops; the extent to which they encourage the use of cars for shopping trips has created a whole car-based retail culture, around the edges of our cities, that has profound environmental implications.

Yet despite the obvious massive public interest in the intelligent regulation of this vital sector of the economy, it seems that governments no longer have the economic power or the moral authority to meet them, or any other major corporate interests, as equal partners. The current Scottish Government, for all its flaws, is about as good as it gets in the western world at the moment, outside the wealthy Nordic countries; it has a sound majority, social democratic principles, and a healthy scepticism – at least in theory – about the arguments for the Westminster government’s glaringly unjust “austerity” programme.

Yet even Alex Salmond and his crew can be seen far too often bowing the knee to big corporate interests, and kow-towing to economic powers from which – as assessors, regulators, and representatives of the public interest – they should be keeping a proper and independent distance. Which is why this modest Tesco Tax proposal is finally a little more significant than it seems: as a symbol of a government which, on occasions, will still resist the might of corporate lobbying; and which, on a clear day, can still distinguish the public interest from the demands of short-term economic growth, and set its policy accordingly.


Arches Live! 2011 (1)


JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2011 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts 23.9.11

4 stars ****

IN A WHITE STUDIO SPACE in the basement of the Arches, a group of eight people are standing in a semicircle, staring at the strange arrangement of objects in front of them. They are the audience for Euan Ogilvie’s Bystander Effect; and they are standing by a wooden contraption with the odd wheel and lever about it, attached by a rope and hook to a deflated inflatable human figure, full of pig’s blood. Ogilvie has introduced the scene, forbidden us to cross the ropes that mark the area where the body lies, and left, saying he will return in ten minutes; but 25 minutes on, we’re still standing around abandoned in the room, gently pressurised not to leave by an usher at the door, while some bold souls clinb the ropes to take a closer look at the figure, and other – like me – just waste time arguing the toss.

Infuriating, thought-provoking, and preoccupied with when and how it’s OK to break the rules, Ogilvie’s installation makes a fine curtain-raiser to the first round of shows in this year’s autumn Arches Live! festival, which features no fewer than 32 shows, installations, and events over the next ten days, all designed to explore the outer limits of contemporary performance. Across the corridor from Bystander Effect is Tom Scullion’s Play(Station), an open invitation to spend minutes or hours playing retro 1990’s video games, while questioning the assumption that by enjoying ourselves in this way, we are somehow “wasting our time”.

Next door, we’re about to receive a blast of Beats, the latest work-in-progress from Kieran Hurley, whose last Arches piece Hitch has become a major Fringe success; to judge by the fragment presented here, this short show about the rave phenomenon of the 1990’s, promptly outlawed by the UK government, is set to become another blisteringly well-written piece of stage poetry about a generation’s struggle to redefine the world in its own terms. Later in the evening, there’s Flatrate Theatre’s Backbone And Navel No. 3, a female creation myth – with a text full of quotes from writers like Theodor Adorno and Helene Cixous – that explores the great transgressive moment when Eve bites into the apple.

And down at the rough end of the basement, in a bare tunnel of a room, there’s composer Nichola Scrutton’s Songs For A Stranger, a 25-minute piece that moves beyond the limits of language into five segments of abstract electronic sound, accompanied by the increasingly fierce and brilliant vocal improvisations of Scrutton and her performing partner, Celine Hanni. There’s a central moment of meditation – titled Solitude – that recalls the deep resonances of Tibetan chant; then a final, shattering visit to what sounds like a dying rainforest, as a fierce richness of animal sound gives way to crackling cataclysm, and the soft, low sigh of a final breath. Arches Live! 2011 is up and raging, in other words; and the only question is whether it can move beyond protest against the flawed rules of a failed system, towards a serious blueprint for new times.


Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, The Missing, Men Should Weep


JOYCE MCMILLAN on MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS GOT HER HEAD CHOPPED OFF at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, THE MISSING at the Tramway, Glasgow, and MEN SHOULD WEEP at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 22.9.11

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off 4 stars ****
The Missing 4 stars ****
Men Should Weep 4 stars ****

IF THEATRE is a great arena for the retelling of shared histories, and for the healing of the old, common wounds of a nation or community, then Scotland, this week, should be on the road to a whole new phase in its history. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, our four leading theatre companies – the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Lyceum, Dundee Rep and the Citizens’ Theatre – have together launched three major shows, which try to address three mighty, traumatic scars in Scottish history; and if none of them quite achieves the dazzling, transformative level of energy that makes theatre into a healing art, all three remain powerful and worthwhile fragments of history, with a huge potential to generate debate both about Scotland’s past and future, and about the wider world in which we have to make our way.

Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in Edinburgh in 1987, and now revived by the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep, is one of the greatest verse dramas of the 20th century, a lurid and sizzling two hours of dramatic poetry structured around the conflict – drenched in both religious and sexual politics – between Scotland’s glamorous 16th century queen, Mary, and her clever English cousin, Elizabeth 1. In the rich texture of its language, and the flashing glamour of its cabaret style, the play addresses both the deep roots of sectarian division and violence in Scotland, and the complex gender politics of a moment when Scotland’s Protestant leader, John Knox, famously wrote a pamphlet denouncing the “monstrous regiment” of women – that is, the whole idea that women could govern at all.

Tony Cownie’s patchy production, staged by designer Neil Murray in a 21st century junkyard that tells us precisely nothing about the atmosphere or meaning of the play, never comes close to getting the full measure of this mighty text. It handles the sectarian dimension of the story fairly well, although Liam Brennan’s gloomy Knox misses the sizzling demonic energy of the text; but it shows almost no understanding – in its slightly aimless leading performances and unimpressive verse-speaking, or in the basic choreography of the production – of the gender politics between Mary and Elizabeth on which the whole structure of the drama depends. It does, though, boast a tremendous narrator-figure in Ann Louise Ross’s glamorous, punk-rock Corbie; and it redeems itself in the final scene, with its sudden rush forward through history, and its sharp focus on the uncomfortable truth that violent sectarianism is with us still, unthinking, instinctive, and often fiercely misogynistic in its impact.

If Lochhead’s play is a great text shining through a mediocre production, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing – staged by the National Theatre Of Scotland at the Tramway – is a tentative and problematic story about the long-term emotional and social legacy of violent crime and murder, given a hauntingly beautiful staging by the NTS’s John Tiffany. First published in 1995, The Missing is a genre-busting book, a semi-documentary meditation which begins with O’Hagan’s experience as a young journalist covering the Fred and Rosemary West murders in Gloucester, and expands to take in both some key missing persons cases which haunted O’Hagan’s 1970’s childhood in the new town of Irvine, and a wider questioning of whether our society has changed in ways that make some people more “killable”, more likely to slip through the cracks.

There’s no pretending that O’Hagan’s own stage version of the book is dramatic, in any conventional sense; in fact there are moments – in its slow series of searching interviews with the bereaved – when its theatrical energy dims to a subdued flicker, as if we were watching the recording of a radio essay.

In the end, though – powered by David Paul Jones’s beautiful, thoughtful score, often fragmented, then suddenly soaring into an organised chorale of unresolved grief – The Missing emerges as a moving and memorably open-ended piece of theatre, which both pays full respect to the human suffering of those who still mourn the disappeared, and raises some vital questions about the searing gaps in the fabric of our not-so-big society. Tiffany’s direction is impeccable; and the play – which comes accompanied by a Graham Fagen video installation, a thoughtful short community performance, and a powerful audio-journey around the Tramway – draws a remarkable series of performances from its six-strong cast, led by Joe McFadden as the young journalist-narrator, and by Barbara Rafferty, Brigit Forsyth and Myra McFadyen as the kind of middle-aged women who remember too much, and can never forget.

If sectarianism and violent crime are both issues Scotland needs to confront, though, neither seems quite as wide-ranging in its impact as the theme of Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1947 play Men Should Weep, which famously deals with the corrosive effect of poverty and unemployment on family life. The play’s heroine Maggie Morrison is an exhausted mother of seven, trying to hold things together in a cramped room and kitchen in the Gorbals, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s; and the drama reaches its unresolved crisis at the moment when it becomes clear – to the abject humiliation of Maggie’s beloved husband John – that the family’s only hope of escape, essential to save the life of wee tubercular Bertie, lies in accepting the “whore’s winnings” of eldest daughter Jenny, whose generous allowance from the lover who has set her up in a West End flat represents the largest sum of money the family has ever seen.

Lamont Stewart, in other words, has an unparalleld ability to understand and stage true dramatic conflict; this final cataclysmic row between Jenny and Maggie on one side, and John on the other, is only the last in a tremendous series of confrontations, each one illustrating more powerfully than the last the sheer impossibility of living a decent, joyful, and morally uncompromised life when there isn’t enough money in the house to feed the kids. Graham McLaren’s production – cramped and confined within a single metal container, a one-line joke of a set that places infuriating self-imposed limits on the epic scale and rhythm of the drama – is disappointingly umambitious in style; it comes nowhere near the operatic confidence, beauty and deep humour of the recent production at the National Theatre in London, and often sinks towards a dreary domestic miserabilism that fails to reflect the wit and energy of the text.

It does, though, feature two memorable central performances, from a sweet and spirited Lorraine McIntosh as Maggie, and from Michael Nardone as her true love John, a good man almost broken by poverty, and unable to match his idea of masculinity to the humiliation of his fate, in ways that must reflect the story of tens of thousands of Scottish families, from the 1930’s to the present day.

Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 15 October, and at Dundee Rep, 19 October-5 November. The Missing at the Tramway, Glasgow, until 1 October. Men Should Weep at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 October; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-12 November; and on tour to Arbroath, Inverness, Aberdeen and Perth.




JOYCE MCMILLAN on SUPPLY at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 21.9.11

4 stars ****

FROM TO SIR WITH LOVE to Glee, the schoolroom drama featuring the naive and idealistic young teacher is one of the most familiar genres around. It’s rare, though, to see the idea re-worked with such an explosive freshness as in this week’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show, by Scottish-based writer Cathy Forde. Davy Small is young supply teacher, sent to supervise a fourth-year foundation class that has just made mincemeat of its last teacher, Mrs. Cheddar; and when only two class members show up – a pair of gorgeous, mouthy 16-year-olds called Chelsea and Sharon – he still insists on trying to teach them a lesson on the joys of the haiku form.

What’s striking about Cathy Forde’s script is the sheer intensity with which, in 45 short minutes, it succeeds in excavating all the complex layers of Chelsea and Sharon’s indifference to formal education. Bright, fast-talking and infinitely clued-up on every form of online communication, the two nonetheless present themselves as a pair of empty-headed mobile phone addicts, refuse to admit to having read any books despite contrary evidence (“we were Mrs. Cheesy’s pure creme de la creme, Mr. Wee…”), and effortlessly conceal from him the truth that they have, in fact, been taught this lesson on haiku many times before.

Emma Callander’s flawless production achieves a fantastic level of pace and exuberance, as the girls use YouTube to unearth Sir’s history as a failed rock star, and generally floor him with their energy, sophistication and sexual confidence; it draws three terrific performances from Gareth Glen, Claire Gray, and SYT star Katie Barnett. And if there is, somewhere in the text, a sadness about the total eclipse of the formal culture once transmitted in schools, the bleakness is trumped every time by the explosive energy of youth, surfing deftly through the culture of an entire planet, as if it owned the place.




JOYCE MCMILLAN on KES at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman 20.9.11

3 stars ***

IF YOU ARE a fan of Barry Hines’s fine novel A Kestrel For A Knave – a serious, interested, grown-up fan, who also appreciates Ken Loach’s great 1969 film version of the story – then you’ll find plenty to enjoy and reflect on in Catherine Wheels’s sombre new 70-minute stage version, rightly recommended not for young children but for “everyone aged 10 and over”, and on tour around Scotland until November.

Set by designer Karen Tennant on a broken junk-heap of 1960’s working-class dreams, Rob Evans’s thoughtful two-handed version brings the 15-year-old boy Billy Caspar, who finds joy in training up a kestrel chick he has found in the woods near his loveless home, into confrontation with his middle-aged self. The older self – Billy as he might have been today, in his late 50’s – is a wiry ex-miner, perhaps on the brink of death; a kindly figure who tries to prevent the final disaster towards which Hines’s narrative drives so inexorably.

In the end, Evans’s version – staged in a searching, elusive style, with beautiful but enigmatic filmed images of woodland and countryside – often seems more like a history lesson in the horrors of 1960’s working-class life and schooling, than a full and balanced evocation of Hines’s story. The soaring beauty the boy finds in his relationship with Kes is described but not fully seen, unlike the brutality of his family and teachers; and the result is a version that lacks the driving, yearning narrative energy this story should always embody. What it does offer, though, is a pair of deeply moving, meditative performance from James Anthony Pearson as Billy, and Sean Murray as his older self; and if their story is often dense and demanding in the telling, the image of the distraught older man, trying to save the unloved boy from the tragedy that will darken his life, is one that haunts the memory.