Monthly Archives: June 2012

Fraud At Barclays Bank; And Why This Year’s Reith Lecturer Is Wrong, About The Forces Corroding Our Public And Priivate Institutions – Column 29.6.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.6.12
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THURSDAY AFTERNOON: and in a couple of hours, this year’s Reith Lecturer will be arriving at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, to give the last in his series of 2012 lectures, under the title,“The Rule Of Law And Its Enemies”. As a woman of the left, of course, I am inclned to question whether this year’s lecturer, Professor Niall Ferguson, is really the right person to be carrying the torch of Reithian wisdom at all. One of those upwardly-mobile Scots who enjoys dismissing his beautiful homeland as a deadbeat last bastion of dinosaur socialism, Ferguson has spent the last 30 years stridently defending Thatcherism in all its forms, neoliberal, neoconservative, and just plain nasty.

So in the first of his lectures, he strove to blame the entire baby-boomer generation, rich, poor and middling, for the current state of government finances across Europe; welfare, it seems, is the culprit, corroding our moral fibre, and bankrupting our institutions. And in the second, he argued that what our banking and financial system needs is not more regulation, but better regulation; a view difficult to dispute, if only we could avoid the suspicion that for the western world’s increasingly out-of-control financial bosses, any regulation that works always counts as “too much”.

In truth, though, even as Ferguson speaks, events seem to be conspiring to make his thesis look more fragile; for when it comes to the rule of law and its enemies, the finger of publc blame points ever more conclusively not to the left, but to the right, and to a global elite who seem to have convinced themselves, long since, that whatever rules are in force simply do not apply to them. This week did not begin well for the banking industry, with the Royal Bank of Scotland, already bailed out at vast public cost, apparently unable to achieve even a minimum of competence in dealing with a serious breakdown in its transaction systems.

The RBS debacle paled into insignificance, though, when news broke that Barclays Bank were being fined a sum of £290 million for attempting to rig the inter-bank lending rate, known as Libor, throughout the financial crisis; it is thought that many other major banks were also involved, and that the Barclays affair is only the tip of a massive iceberg of deception. The Chancellor, George Osborne, claims that there may be no criminal law under which those involved can be prosecuted; some active citizens disagree, and have reported the senior management of Barclays to the Metropolitan Police, for prosecution under the Fraud Act of 2006.

We know, though, that we cannot expect imminent arrests; from News international to the Barclays boardroom, the culture of impunity and deference surrounding the super-rich and their behaviour has become so entrenched in British society that it takes months or years to break, in any given case. Yet it also has an infinitely corrosive effect on every aspect of our society; to put it bluntly, there is no longer a single reason why any ordinary person in this country should listen to another word from any member of our governing elite on the subject of fairness, or legality, or benefit fraud, or even the kind of looting that took place during last summer’s riots; snce when it comes to looting other people’s wealth for their own gain, many of the supposed leaders of our society make the average thug in a hoodie look like an amateur.

If we are ever to move on from this condition of helpless fury, though, we now urgently need not only to bring individual offenders to justice, but also to nail and challenge the belief-system that led our economic institutions to this pass. And this is where Professor Ferguson and his defence of Thatcherism re-enters the picture; for it seems to me that if there is one factor that has corroded the integrity and values of our public and private institutions, over the last generation, it is the widespread post-Thatcherite assumpton – call it junk Thatcherism, if you like – that everything and everyone has a price, and that all human interactions can finally be reduced to the model of some kind of market transaction.

As those of us currently engaged in the row over arts funding in Scotland have cause to know, this kind of ugly, reductive language and thinking now pervades almost every area of British government and social policy, even in Scotland, where the ideological resistance to it has always been strong. And everywhere it goes, it depresses and demoralises those who have to work with it, degrades language, and drives good people out of major institutions altogether, so blatantly inadequate is its account of what human beings are, and of the richness and potential of their social interactions.

Heaven knows, in other words, what sad, cheap, narrow little thoughts were going through the minds of Barclays’ senior managers, or those in other banks, when they decided to deprave the basic system of fair dealing on which ther own already weakened industry depends. What we can say, though, is that they were operating within a belief-system that, over a generation, has given them permission to disable every part of their moral and intellectual being, except the part that understands crude self-interest and self-advancement as the only law.

And as Adam Smith himself so briillantly understood, it is not the only law; not for human bengs interested in living rich and fulfilled lives, not for societies interested in their own integrity and survival, and not for the kind of trustworthy institutions around which free societies can be built. So from those – including Professor Ferguson – who have defended the legacy of Thatcherism for much too long, a period of humble silence would now be welcome; along with some serious thought about how we can begin to reintegrate the demands of basic economic freedom with those of our deepest moral sentiments, recognised by Adam Smith, expressed in the outlne of our laws, and treated with such notorious contempt by those from whom we had the right to expect much greater integrity, much more intelligence, and a much deeper wisdom about how human societies must conduct themselves, if they are to survive and thrive.

ENDS ENDS

Whatever Gets You Through The Night

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHATEVER GETS YOU THROUGH THE NIGHT at the ArchesTheatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 28.6.12
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4 stars ****

IN A DEEP, DARK space at the Arches, an audience of a hundred or so gather, and take their places on old bus seats, kids’ chairs, cushions strewn across the floor. There are three or four stages dotted around, backed by huge screens; then there’s a band playing a moody tune or two, and a glittering woman on a trapeze who morphs into a girl on a night out, meeting her friend, plunging into a throbbing clubworld projected on the screens, and reflected in the music.

This is the beginning of Whatever Gets You Through The Night, a huge multimedia show – which also involves a film, an album and a published text – directed by Cora Bissett, and designed to tell a series of stories of what happens across Scotland between the hours of midnight and four am; and it involves a team of more than forty leading Scottish musicians, writers, songwriters, and performers, with the musicians often taking the lead, as Ricky Ross and a terrific list of indie stars create a superb original score of more than 25 songs.

Although the list of writers credited is as long, though, in the end there’s just one man whose mood and thinking seems to shape the evening; and that’s dramaturg David Greig, who seems, consciously or unconsciously, to have formed this show into a 15-years-on little sister of some of the great Suspect Culture shows of the late 1990’s, with their wry sense of a middle-class, yuppie Scotland in which people search restlessly for a sense of love and completion, in an endlessly fragmenting society. The mood and ideas are not new, and the non-musical writing sometimes seems a shade lightweight. In the end, though, this is a fiercely likeable evening of theatre, rich in talent and musical inspiration; and as elegant, intelligent and touching as Suspect Culture ever was, at its world-beating best.

ENDS ENDS

The Tempest (Botanics), Kng John, Still Game, Ordinary Days

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TEMPEST at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, KING JOHN at Oran Mor, Glasgow, STILL GAME at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and ORDINARY DAYS at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Ednburgh, for Scotsman Arts, 28.6.12
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The Tempest 4 stars ****
King John 3 stars ***
Still Game 3 stars ***
Ordinary Days 3 stars ***

COMEDY AND TRAGEDY; we’re used to seeng them as the two contrasting masks of theatre, but in truth, they often come closely entwined. The new outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s Tempest which opens this year’s Bard In The Botanics season in Glasgow has not had its sorrows to seek, since its launch last week; I was fortunate, last Saturday, to catch the only performance so far not disrupted by drenching solstice rainstorms.

Yet if the skies over the Botanics are stormy, they are as nothing to the darkness of mood that finally seizes Jennifer Dick’s strange and intriguing production of a play most often interpreted as a redemptive late comedy. For what Dick has done is to dream up a Tempest in which almost everything that happens – not just the masques and magical creatures, but all of the characters except Prospero and Caliban – are only figments of Prospero’s imagination, truly “the stuff that dreams are made on”. And the final moment when his beloved daughter Miranda fades away, revealed as nothing more than a long-lost dream, is as heart-rendingly tragic as any moment of Shakespeare I have seen.

It would be good to report that Dick’s production as a whole matches the strength of her concept; but alas, it comes nowhere near it. The staging is so poorly choreographed, in places, that only a close reading of the programme – which lists most of the characters as “spirits of the isle” – makes the concept clear; and Prospero is so often in the wrong place on stage that several of the play’s most heart-stopping speeches are delivered with his back to half of the audience, and his staff in front of his face.

In the end, though, there’s no resisting the deeply original tragic impulse behind this retelling of the tale, or the sheer excellence of some of the acting. Stephen Clyde’s Prospero is commanding, vocally beautiful, and finally heart-rending; Paul Cunningham’s Caliban is electrifying in his rage; Nicole Cooper’s Miranda is magnificent, sad, passionate; Tom Duncan’s Ariel haunting and chilling. It’s a long wait for the final fifteen minutes of this show, when the idea behind the production plays out with crashing, heartbreaking power; but when it comes, the moment is unforgettable, and very brave indeed, in its sense of the tragic truth beneath the surface of this most complex of comedies.

There’s little comedy in Philip Howard’s short, shocking, and slightly mind-blowing version of Shakespeare’s little-performed history play King John, this week’s Classic Cut lunchtime show at Oran Mor. Thanks to designer Kenny Miller, though, there’s plenty of aggressive grand guignol, as the characters stalk the stage like giant puppets, in rustling skirts and sky-high heels. Sam Heughan’s terrfiyingly handsome King John is a very bad man, at war with almost everyone except his sly and seductve mother – a terrific Anne Lacey – and his frighteningly ambitious illegitimate nephew, Philip The Bastard, played in fine style by French/Moroccan actor El Razzougui.

There’s no denying that Howard’s attempt to stage this huge hstory in 50 minutes is a tad over-ambitious; there’s a cast of sixteen characters, played by seven actors in a series of dizzy doublings and hauntings. Yet like Dick’s Tempest, the show has something fascinating to say, in this case about a play set in a mediaeval Europe of the mind, where modern national boundaries mean little, where warriors range from Jerusalem to the Welsh border in a lifetime of battles, and where ideas about sexuality are also less rigid than today, as Anne Lacey’s Cardinal totters on in gleaming red stilettos, and the English and French kings seal their alliance with kisses full on the lips.

Meanwhile, at the Tron, tragedy and comedy are masterfully combined in the original 100-minute stage version of much-loved television sit-com Still Game, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill’s iconic tale of three male pensioners in a Glasgow tower block, now revived by ambitious young Glasgow company Sonic Boom. The audience are out for a laugh, of course. Yet there’s no denying the underlying pathos – and the redeeming self-mockery – of three fine performances from Gary Miller, John Love and Christopher McKiddie; or of the story of three ordinary working-class lives approaching their end, in a 1990’s world where ordinariness is out of fashion, and old age is increasingly framed as an intractable social problem, rather than a trumph of human survival.

And at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, last weekend, young Edinburgh musical theatre company Green Room tried their hand at a kitsch and cutesy New York version of the tragi-comic mix, with a simple but hugely enjoyable production of Adam Gwon’s small-scale 80- minute musical Ordinary Days, set in post-9/11 New York. The music is the kind of tinkling, rambling sub-Sondheim that begins to grate on the nerves after half an hour or so; the Friends-style story of young middle-class New Yorkers in search of themselves is self-indulgent at best, and a shade tasteless when it finally attempts some gravitas by referring back to 9/11.

What’s undeniable, though, is the stellar quality of the performances delivered by director Michael Richardson’s Green Room company. Their set consists of a few simple boxes, their resources are minimal; but the two women in the company, in particular, sing and act their roles brilliantly, with Sarah Haddath making a fine job of restless student Deb, and Caroline Hood moving many of the audience to tears, with her touchng performance as Claire, in search of closure and a chance to move on, after a young life changed forever by unimaginable tragedy.

The Tempest at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 7 July. King John at Oran Mor, and Still Game at the Tron Theatre, both until Saturday, 30 June. Ordinary Days, current run completed.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

As real Tempests sweep the Botanic Gardens, this year’s CATS award-winning actor Stephen Clyde offers an intriguing, thoughtful, and finally heartbreaking performance as Prospero, in a tragic reading of Shakespeare’s Tempest which leaves the exiled ruler caught between passionate love for the increasingly fragile memory of his daughter Miranda, and ferocious conflict with Caliban, the angry native of the island where Prospero has found refuge.

ENDS ENDS

Murder On The Nile

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MURDER ON THE NILE at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.6.12
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3 stars ***

THE TIME is around 1930, and the place is a Nile cruise ship populated by the usual cast of characters. There’s an heiress with a new husband, a vengeful ex-fiancee, a dotty old aunt with a pretty niece-companion, a young Englishman in rebellion against his birthright, a doctor with a German accent, and a canon of the Church of England. And the servants, of course.

Yet somehow, in its seventh year, Joe Harmston’s Agatha Christie Theatre Company – part of the Bill Kenwright touring stable – has developed such a way with the work of the mistress of crime that they can tick all the traditional boxes of Agatha Christie production, and still give the stories a strangely contemporary feel. In this case, the cruise ship makes its way through an Egypt riven with unrest, and short of tourists; and the passengers are themselves divided between those who placidly accept the extreme inequalities of wealth back home in Britain, and those with every reason to detest both the pretty heiress, Kay Mostyn, and the financier father whose dodgy deals founded her fortune.

The play is oddly structured, and ends in a strange revelatory dialogue between just two characters, with the rest – including the murderer – bafflingly absent. With an ever-glamorous Kate O’Mara offering a fine comic turn as the gin-toping aunt, though, and Dennis Lill stroking his beard as clerical sleuth Canon Pennefather, this latest Agatha Christie show offers a good-looking, amusing and occasionally thought-provoking entertainment, for a warm summer evening.

ENDS ENDS

The Dalai Lama And The SNP: Why The Party’s Reluctance To Do The Right Thing Is Not Only A Moral Problem, But A Political Mistake

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 22.6.12
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MIDSUMMER’S DAY in Edinburgh, and the city is lashed by the usual solstice rainstorm, under skies as dark as December. In the chamber of the Scottish parliament, though, the Deputy First Minister is wearing a bright rose-pink jacket, as she rises to take Alex Salmond’s place at First Minister’s Questions.

Mr. Salmond, of course, is still travelling back from his trade mission to the United States, partly designed to promote Scottish tourism on the back of the Hollywood animation movie Brave. Nicola Sturgeon is in pretty good form, though, as she tackles a series of questions from Labour leader Johann Lamont about the SNP’s falure – as governing party, and controlling force on several leading local authorities – to give a high-profile welcome to the Dalai Lama, who arrives in Scotland today for a short visit; unlike her boss, Sturgeon has an invigorating tendency, under pressure, to get onto the front foot about the extent to which Labour Unionism condemns us to be governed by a bunch of vacuous right-wing Tories, whenever the people of the south of England feel like voting for them.

Yet on the substance of the Dalai Lama issue, Sturgeon seems to know that she is on a pretty sticky wicket; at one point, she is even reduced to arguing that there is no need for any Scottish Government minister to meet the Dalai Lama, because no UK government miinister is meeting him either. And in a trice, this routine, point-scoring exchange between two leading Scottish politicians begins to look like part of a much bigger and more troubling question; the question of what Scotland might want its independence for, and of what kind of country an independent Scotland would really aspire to be.

There are reasons, of course, why these questions of substance often go unanswered in the independence debate. For ideological nationalists – of whom there are plenty, in the SNP – it is self-evident that an independent Scotland would be a better naton than the UK; they see Scotland as an authentic nation which should be governing itself, whereas the UK, in their book, is a false construct, marked with the scars of various forms of internal colonialism.

The difficulty for the SNP, though – and for everyone who tries to pursue analogies between, say, the Scottish independence debate and recent Irsh history – is that most Scots do not see ther identity in quite such clear-cut terms. They are accustomed to feeling both Scottish and British, in different measures and at different times; and there are deep reasons – to do with religion, culture and political history – why it was always much easier for most Scots to sustain that dual identity than it was for most Irish people. Even the SNP concede that the “social union” between Scotland and England is profound and unbreakable. And so the question becomes a relatively practical and nuanced one, about which constitutional arrangement offers the people of Scotland the best prospects for the future; and which gives them the best chance of living in the kind of country they want.

And this is where the question of how we receive the Dalai Lama gains real significance; because most Scots will rightly conclude that there is no point in going through the rigmarole of becoming independent if, at the end of it, our government is going to be indistinguishable from all the other goverments of the day – that is, from all those serried ranks of suits who stand around at international meetings talking the talk of sustainable development and social justice, while all the time schmoozing the wealthy, deferring to those with maximum economc clout, and worshipping the false gods of unllmited materal growth.

If support for independence has been in decline in recent months, in other words, it must partly be because of Alex Salmond’s failure to distance himself from some of the ugliest and most reactionary aspects of recent western politics, notably the influence-peddling around Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire, and now, the new habit of deference to the government of China, probably the biggest hitter in the entire global economy. It’s no secret to anyone in the arts world, for example, that the Scottsh Government has been very eager, of late, to promote joint cultural projects with China; and of course, it’s easy to imagine the economic pressures which might make Dundee City Council prevaricate about whether it is really co-hosting the Dalai Lama’s visit to the city, or that might encourage the First Minister to leave the task of welcoming the Dalai Lama to Edinburgh to the parliament’s Presiding Officer.

Yet in the end, there are forms of realpolitik so shabby-looking that they are profoundly counter-productive, in all but the shortest of terms. In that sense, the defeat of British Unionism at the moment should be an easy matter for the SNP; drenched in a knee-jerk negativity about Scotland’s capacity to run its own affairs, the Unionist camp currently completely lacks the kind of vision of the Union as a progressive, forward-looking project that has traditionally sustained Scottsh support for it, both in the fast-developing heyday of Empire, and during the postwar construction of the welfare state.

The hard truth for the SNP, though, is that no-one in 21st-century Scotland needs a new independent nation, unless the party proposing it can demonstrate, through its every action and gesture, that that nation intends to be better than the one that it replaces; better in practical terms, and also better in terms of political crediblity, inspiration, and pride. And that means that the SNP – whether led by Alex Salmond, or by his increasingly impressive Deputy – now need to raise their game, and to start making a much sharper assessment of the downside risks of associating themselves too closely with an economic system in global crisis, and a way of doing political business that is now increasingly discredited. Otherwise, the people of Scotland are likely to conclude that the SNP are no better than any other bunch of current politicians; and that the “independence” they offer is nothing more than a constitutional bauble, increasingly irrelevant to the real business of power, and to the big patterns of wealth and influence that truly shape our world.

ENDS ENDS

The 39 Steps, Ubu Roi, Glasgow Refugee Week: Some Other Mother

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE 39 STEPS at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, UBU ROI at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and SCOTTISH REFUGEE WEEK: SOME OTHER MOTHER at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 21.6.12.
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The 39 Steps 3 stars ***
Ubu Roi   3 stars ***
Scottish Refugee Week: Some Other Mother   4 stars ****

IN THIS WEEK OF SURPRISINGLY intense debate about whether Armando Ianucci – as creator of fierce political satire The Thick Of It – was right to accept his Queen’s Birthday honour, it’s worth remembering that the relationship between drama and power has always been a complex one, particularly in English culture.  Often celebrated as a crucible of dissent, and an ideal forum for giving a voice to the voiceless, theatrical entertainment has also often been the plaything of kings and courtiers, paid to flatter, to celebrate, and to poke the kind of gentle fun that only strengthens the status quo, by suggesting that those in power have a sense of humour.

And if Armando Ianucci now finds himself caught between the roles of serious satirist and licensed court jester, then he has long been preceded into that awkward position by many other British comic writers, including Patrick Barlow of the National Theatre Of Brent, once a key player in British Fringe theatre, but now best known to the world as the author of a hugely successful four-person stage version of The 39 Steps, drawn primarily not from John Buchan’s original novel of 1915, but from the famous Alfred Hitchcock film version of 1935, complete with additional love-interest in the shape of the comely blonde to whom hero Richard Hannay is handcuffed throughout much of the story.

Barlow’s 39 Steps has now been revived as part of the 2012 Pitlochry season by Richard Baron, who also directed a successful touring version of the show; and it makes for a jolly, lightweight evening of theatre, remarkable mainly for the sheer ingenuity of its staging, which manages to tell the whole, familiar swaashbuckling story using just four actors, two or three ladders, a portable lampost, a couple of window-frames, a large length of blue cloth, and – so we’re told in a programme note – 36 hats.   Dougal Lee makes a pleasingly world-weary and attractive Hannay, although he does look a shade older than the 37 years he claims; Kathryn Ritchie is gorgeous, pouting and brainy as the blonde, removing her stockings to impressive erotic effect; and David Delve and George Doherty pull off the required tour-de-force as all the other characters, from the doomed Mr. Memory to assorted goons, policemen and locals.

If the show has a meaning, beyond a celebration of its own inventiveness, then it’s almost entirely a reactionary one; it invites helpless nostalgia for an age when Brits were good, foreigners were bad, heroes had stiff upper lips, and everything in the imperial garden was hunky-dory.  Remembering and reaffirming a lost past, though, is one of the things theatre does best; and when it does it as amusingly as this, it’s easy to forget that for most British citizens and subjects, this particular past never really existed at all.

There’s no question of deference to power, though, in Alfred Jarry’s explosive 1896 satire Ubu Roi (King Ubu), this week’s subject of  the Classic Cut treatment in the Play, Pie and Pint summer season at Oran Mor.  In the case of Ubu – not a long play at the best of times – the task of cutting the action to around 50 minutes should be an easy one.   Jarry’s extended spoof on Shakespearean tragedies like Richard III and Macbeth – in which a buffoon of a guards officer and his pushy wife murder good King Wenceslas and take control of the Polish state – often proceeds by repetition, and by long riffs of vaguely obscene-sounding nonsense-language that responds well to some sharp editing.

Despite some fine casting, though – with Barrie Hunter and Helen McAlpine, in giant baby romper-suits, slapping the text around in fine style as the obscene Ubu and his detested lady – Marcus Roche’s Oran Mor version seems to lack inspiration.  Kenny Miller’s chess-board design is vivid and effective, and Paul James Corrigan of River City offers excellent support as a range of ambitious backers and usurped princes.  Yet somehow, this fairly faithful staging of the play fails to bring out the fierce contemporary relevance of a satire about a vulgar, greedy boss-class looting and impoverishing the nation; and then finally seeking to restore its political fortunes by the age-old device of starting a war.

There’s also a mood of dissent – gentler in tone, but even more heartfelt – in the Glasgow Refugee Week events that occupy both stages at the Tron Theatre over the next few days, offering music, drama, cabaret and readings inspired by the experience of asylum-seekers and refugees in Scotland.

As politics, Refugee Week is all about breaking down barriers of understanding around a community often demonised in the popular media; as art, it draws on incredibly rich sources of  inspiration, beautifully demonstrated on Tuesday evening not only in a brief preview of the musical Glasgow Girls – set to appear as part of the autrumn season at the Citizens’ Theatre – but in a reading of Allison Julia Taudevin beautiful work-in-progress Some Other Mother, about an asylum-seeker mother struggling to bring up her daughter in a Glasgow tower-block, and eventually losing the child altogether.

Many plays on this subject take a documentary approach, often to great effect; but Taudevin prefers poetry, and a deep, interwoven insight into two minds – the mother’s, and the little daughter’s – gradually fragmenting and splitting under the pressure of their situation.  The emotional impact is shattering; and beautfully conveyed, on Tuesday evening, by an outstanding cast, featuring Barbara Rafferty, Anita Vettesse, Callum Cuthbertson, and an unforgettable Mara Menzies, as both Mama the asylum-seeker, and her little daughter, Star.

The 39 Steps in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 8 October.  Ubu Roi at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Glasgow Refugee Week at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 23 June.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

The play is still a work-in-progress, the performance was only a reading; but Glasgow-based actress Mara Menzies gave a disturbingly brilliant and beautiful performance in Tuesday night’s Glasgow Refugee Week reading of Allison Julia Taudevin’s Some Other Mother, playing both a mother and a little daughter clinging desperately to their old shared stories as they try to negotiate the British asylum system, and finally torn apart, both internally and externally, by forces too strong to resist.

ENDS ENDS  

Love Bites/Occupy Meadows

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVE BITES/OCCUPY MEADOWS at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 19.6.12
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3 stars ***

IF YOU WANT to glimpse a model of youth theatre that really works – not only in passing on theatrical skills, but in helping young people deal with their lives – then you could do much worse than catch up with the Edinburgh-based group Strangetown, famous for working with new plays by young playwrights who know the group well.

So in this current double bill, Strangetown’s 15-18 group perform two new plays set in Edinburgh on a midsummer night. Sam Siggs’s Love Bites – beautifully choreographed by director Ruth Hollyman – is a gorgeously assured 65-minute variation on the theme of love and how human beings mess it up, filtered through a conversation on a park bench between a stray Edinburgh teenger (male) and a gorgeous young teenage Cupid (female), who is about to snap her bow and throw away her wings, so futile are her efforts to bring romance to Edinburgh’s gormless youth. There’s plenty of comedy here, some tremendously confident acting, and the occasional real touch of pathos.

Alan Gordon’s Occupy Meadows, by contrast, is a much bigger play that almost collapses under the weight of its own ambition, which involves creating 24 distinct teenage characters over 80 minutes, and weaving their stories into a fragmented, interlinked tragedy played out over one long evening on the Meadows. The play is sometimes difficult to take in its portrayal of a lost, cynical and negative younger generation interested only in getting drunk or drugged-up; it’s also written almost entirely in an agonising teenage text-speak, funny only for the first ten minutes. In the end, though – even while the pace often sags – it’s hard not to be impressed by the boldness of the play, its sense of tragedy, and its movingly political conclusion; as the kids gather their moral resources, and rouse themselves to protest at last.

ENDS ENDS

Macbeth (NTS/Alan Cumming)

MACBETH

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACBETH at the Tramway, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.6.12
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4 stars ****

FOR ALL its blood and horror, and its dark dealings with the supernatural, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is often a tragedy that lacks a real sense of human sorrow. Its hero begins as a warrior, and ends as a monstrous tyrant; and often, only his victims truly touch the heart.

There’s no chance of failing to feel overwhelmed by pity and sorrow, though, in the course of Alan Cumming’s astonishing 100-minute performance of Macbeth, which won a standing ovation at its premiere performance in the Tramway last night. Set by directors John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg in the bleak spaces of a psychiatric isolation unit, this Macbeth is performed by Cumming as a monologue, with occasional beautifully-pitched interventions from Myra McFadyen and Ali Craig as two medical attendants. The shifting of this mediaeval story of war and rebellion into the antiseptic spaces of a 20th century asylum – all towering walls of bleached turquoise tiles, surveillance cameras and flickering screens – is undoubtedly disorientating; there’s no sense of explanation here, and no systematic attempt to link the imagery of Macbeth’s story to this new location.

Yet from the first moment of the show, when we see Cumming’s small, vulnerable figure being gently stripped of his street clothes, we catch the sense that this is a study of almost intolerable human suffering; of a “mind diseased”, haunted by images or memories of terrible violence, and constantly fragmenting into different voices and perspectives, as Cumming plays witches and lords, the old King, Macbeth himself, and his lady. The action is punctuated by the surging, passionate music of Max Richter, full of sorrow and compassion; and often, this Macbeth seems locked in a dialogue with different versions or images of himself, captured on the big screens that dominate Merle Hensel’s memorable set.

There are moments when the intensity of Cumming’s interaction with the text seems to flag a little, and the huge stage looks briefly like an arena too large for a single solo performer, however gifted. For most of the show’s length, though, Cumming’s grasp of the poetry is so complete, and his raw emotional immersion in it so total, that the audience remains absolutely gripped by the narrative; and unable to resist the sense of being pulled by the story towards the very brink of hell – but a hell redefined for our individualistic age as a place of infinite loneliness and sorrow, where inner demons dog and destroy us, and will not be defeated.

ENDS ENDS

Robert Paterson Obituary

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROBERT PATERSON – OBITUARY for The Scotsman 15.6.12
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Robert Paterson, actor, writer, and director
Born Glasgow, 1 October 1956
Died Alyth, Perthshire, 12 June 2012, aged 55

LAST FRIDAY evening, the auditorium at Dundee Rep was packed with theatre-goers, celebrating the opening night of The Tempest, the latest production created by the Rep’s famous ensemble company. The Rep Ensemble is the only theatre company in Scotland to hand real power to actors by offering them long-term employment, and allowing them, over the years, to build up an enduring relationship with each other and with the audience; and at the heart of its award-winning work, for the past decade, was the actor, writer and occasional director Robert Paterson, who took to the stage last weekend as Gonzalo, the “good old lord” among those shipwrecked on Prospero’s island.

It was therefore with huge shock that the company learned, on Tuesday of this week, that Robert Paterson had died suddenly at his home in Perthshire, apparently just before leaving for the theatre for that evening’s performance; and it is a mark of how central he was to the company’s work that performances of The Tempest have been suspended until Thursday of next week, to enable the company, and their new joint artistic director Jemima Levick, to recreate the production in his absence.

Born in Glasgow in 1956, and brought up partly in Australia, where the family lived for a while, Robert Paterson studied English and Drama at Glasgow Unversity, and after graduating, won a scholarship to continue his training at the London Drama Studio. He developed a strong persona as a thoughtful character actor wth a gift for dry comedy, but also a rare sense of emotional complexity and depth; and by the early 1980’s he was working steadily in Scottish theatre, as well as in film, television and radio. He was a board member of Annexe Theatre Company, set up in the 1980’s to encourage new writing for small-scale tours, and also worked extensively with the Citizens’-based theatre-in-education group TAG, with the Brunton Theatre at Musselburgh, and with the touring company Winged Horse, before moving on to main stages at the Tron, Perth Theatre, and the Royal Lyceum, where – during Kenny Ireland’s directorship – he played roles ranging from Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing to James Link in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. As a film and television actor, he played a priest in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Inspector Dare in Take The High Road, and featured in episodes of Taggart and Rebus; on radio, he worked with producers ranging from Patrick Rayner and Bruce Young to Anna Magnusson.

Robert Paterson found a true professional home, though, in 2002, when he took up an offer to join the Dundee Rep Ensemble, then being run by its founding director, Hamish Glen. Over the past ten years – as the Dundee directorship passed to Dominic Hill and James Brining – he made himself a permanent home in the Perthshire village of Alyth, and developed his work as an actor at the Rep through a huge range of roles, winning widespread acclaim for – among others – performances as the quietly lethal husband George in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and – just two years go – as the troubled psychiatrist Dysart, in Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

He also maintained his interest in writing, collaborating with Mull Theatre director Alasdair McCrone on the monologue Consider The Lilies, based on the work of Iain Crichton Smith, and on a version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped; in 2007, he wrote the Rep’s Christmas show, a clever and hugely successful version of Jack And the Beanstalk. And in February of this year, he directed his fellow Rep member Kevin Lennon in the Rep’s first co-production with the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint season, a fine and beautifully pitched monologue called Spirit Of Adventure.

To list Robert Paterson’s professional achievements, though, is only to hint at the depth of his lifelong contribution to Scottsh theatre, now being reflected in dozens of tributes from writers, directors, and – above all – younger actors, who revelled in his rare combination of wit, wisdom and geniality, his huge skill as an actor, and the sheer breadth of his cultural interests and knowledge. “Bob, I will miss your company, your friendship, your wisdom, your sense of humour, your music recommendations, your YouTube recommendations, your tales of computer game conquest, your insights, your foresights, your support, your encouragement, your multi-coloured jackets and trainers, your booming voice and laugh, your whole presence,” wrote his ensemble colleague Kevin Lennon this week. “Thank you for helping me throughout the years to keep grounded and sane; and for all your beautiful performances.” Robert Paterson is survived by his parents, his brother and sister, his two nieces, and his former wife and stlll great friend, the drama teacher and director Eve Jamieson; and by an army of friends and colleagues whom he helped to empower to become better theatre artists, not only through his own unfailinglythoughtful and generous performances, but also by simply being the man he was.

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Hollow Men: The Leveson Inquiry, And A Generation Of Politicians In Denial About Their Betrayal Of Democracy – Column 15.6.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 15.6.12
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AT THE ROYAL COURTS OF JUSTICE in the Strand, the Leveson Inquiry grinds on, slowly teasing out the detail of the relationships between politicians, police and press in 21st century Britain. Most people, of course, have long since lost interest in the proceedings; even when, as this week, the witnesses include Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, and the UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Yet beyond all the dry, repetitive questioning, there are vital political questions lying in the background of the Leveson debate, ignored and often untirely unnamedt. From the media side, of course, the story is one of structural decline and sharpening competition, which helped shape a newsroom culture where, in some newspapers at least, ethical and lawful conduct towards the subjects of their journalism – often innocent victims of crime, like the McCann and Dowler families – became a dead letter.

If the accusations against the media are serious, though, then the accusations against the police and politicians – the other key players identified by Leveson – are even more so. For that culture of illegal media conduct to flourish, after all, many blind eyes had to be turned. Police officers had to be bought, squared or flattered; and even more unnerving is the extent of the complicity among our political class. Until the day last July when Ed Miliband decided that enough was enough, and spoke out in the Commons with those prepared to damn News International for the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, there was scarcely a front-bench politician of any hue who dared to say “boo” to Rupert Murdoch and his power.

And if you stand back a little from this week’s Leveson questioning, the picture – however confused by defensive wordplay under fire – soon becomes unpleasantly clear; in the aftermath of the 2010 UK general election, both the UK and the Scottish governments were prepared to support the complete News International takeover of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB, despite the fact that this takeover would give the Murdoch company control of an overwhelming proportion of the British media market, far more than would be allowed in the United States, or almost any other western democracy.

Alex Salmond expressed his support directly, claiming to have been persuaded that the takeover would bring jobs to Scotland; David Cameron expressed his indirectly, by removing from the role of deciding on the takeover a Liberal Democrat minister who had declared his opposition to Murdoch’s power, and replacing him with a Conservative minister, Jeremy Hunt, who had strongly declared his support for it. Both Alex Salmond and David Cameron, in other words, will struggle to escape the suspicion that they sold the real interests of the British people – in a genuinely diverse media – to a corporation whose American television channel, Fox, poisons the entire public life of that nation with a diet of toxic lies, and whose British operations were increasingly engaged in criminal breaches of privacy; and that they did so – explicitly or implicitly – as a quid pro quo for the support of those newspapers in the elections they faced.

Now there is no point in waxing morally indignant about this; wily politicians have struck such unspoken or half-spoken deals with the big beasts of the media throughout the modern age, and have always denied doing so, sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the arrangement.

What is alarming, though, is the extent of the misjudgment involved in this compulsive schmoozing of the Murdoch empire, at a time when it was becoming ever more vulnerable to ethical, legal and commercial challenge, and when politicians’ failure to stand up to it was fast becoming a national scandal. It bespeaks a generation of politicians – Conservative, Labour and SNP alike – so drenched in neoliberal thinking that exaggerated deference to wealth becomes their default response to any political situation; a generation so ethically and politically confused that even a once-robust Labour poltician like Gordon Brown, and his strikingly sensible wife, ended up indulging in excruciating displays of social bonhomie with media bosses who detested their politics, and who had already betrayed their personal confiidence by exploiting their sick child for journalistic gain.

What this demonstrates, in other words, is that polticians who lose their sense of popular mandate, and who become more concerned with placating and flattering their boss-class friends, are really office-holders without purpose or dignity, hollow men in the most profound sense of the phrase. Wealth and power, after all, can always look after themselves. The whole purpose and dignity of democratic politics lies in speaking up for those who are otherwise powerless, and who depend on democracy to give them their say; and polticians who fail in that function, by becoming mere mouthpieces for the wealthy, are effectively destroying their own trade, and bringing their profession into disrepute.

Small wonder, therefore, after a generation of this kind of failure, that voters are increasingly unlikely to turn up at the polls at all, and that politicians are held in lower esteem than at any time in the past century. “They Work For Us”, says the political website of that name, which encourages people to hold their elected representatives to account; and in theory, of course they do. But in practice, what Leveson offers is a portrait of a political class increasingly comfortable woth the idea of working not for us, but for the likes of Rupert Murdoch, and for their friends in his social circle. They did it not only out of cowardice – out of fear of Murdoch’s power, and of what he could do to their electoral prospects – but out of sheer ideological laziness; a willingness to buy too easily into the right-wing lie that the interests of big corporations always coincide with the interests of the people.

And even today – in their generally evasive approach to Leveson – their visible unwillingness to pick up the cudgels and fight, at the moment when it becomes clear that corporate power is damaging the interests of the people, is gradually corroding the very idea of democracy; and making the idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people seem less like the foundation-stone of western politics, and more like some kind of naive pipe-dream, fading rapidly into history.

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