The Tempest, Pygmalion, Eight

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TEMPEST at Dundee Rep, PYGMALION at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and EIGHT at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 14.3.12
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The Tempest 4 stars ****
Pygmalion 4 stars ****
Eight 3 stars ***

PREPARATION FOR LIFE; it’s one of the goals of education, now often interpreted in the most rigidly vocational sense. Yet as someone who has had the privilege of spending much of my professional life in theatres, often experiencing in live performance the great plays I studied as a student, I know now that there is nothing on earth so profoundly helpful or strengthening, in facing the thousand natural shocks of human experience, than a close relationship with great, unshakeable works of art, such as Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest.

On Tuesday evening, just a few days after the opening of their bold new staging of The Tempest, the Dundee Rep ensemble – by definition the most close-knit company in all of Scottish theatre – was shaken to the core by the sudden death of longstanding company member Robert Paterson, who played the “good old lord”, Gonzalo, in this first Rep production by Jemima Lavick since her appointment, with Phlip Howard, as the company’s new joint artistic director. And although it will take the Rep company some days to bring the show back to the stage, after such a shock, it’s difficult to think of a piece of writing more brave, powerful, or empowering, in its sense of the fleeting magic and sheer fragility of human life, than Shakespeare’s great magical fantasy about an exiled ruler who builds a new kingdom of wisdom and magic on a distant island, and gradually draws his- or her – enemies towards the magic isle, for revenge, penitence and redemption.

There’s no easy familiarity, though, about Jemima Levick’s take on the production, which first replaces the traditional male Prospero – the exiled duke – with a female sage and ruler, in the shape of superb Rep actress Irene MacDougall; then also turns the island into a complete matriarchy, by having Prospero’s warped and rebellous servant, Caliban, also played by a woman – the wonderful Ann Louise Ross – and completing the trio with an uncanny female Ariel, Emily Winter.

And if that gender shift represents a radical challenge to the play, it’s fully matched by Ti Green’s breathtakingly relentless post-apocalyptic design, which envisages the place not as a natural island, but as one of those hideous landfill sites where groaning, splitting bags of rubbish, broken screens, and oceans of plastic waste and twisted metal, are piled one upon the other on some bleak sandbank. The effect is grim and chilling, wth all the island characters dressed in boiler suits, like survivors of a nuclear meltdown; and when Prospero works her magic, and some of the towering twisted metal comes alive like a giant imax screen, the impact is both breathtaking and melancholy, as if we were watching images of a world long gone.

Against this background, both Irene Macdougall as Prospero, and Kirsty Mackay as her daughter Miranda, struggle a little to make full contact with the astonishing beauty and power of Shakespeare’s poetry. Macdougall has yet to find the right between a hardened anger empowered by knowledge, and the rich maternal wisdom and love that finally enables her to forgive and let go; Mackay needs to lower her voice an octave, and let the power of the language do the emotional work. The overall effect of the show, though, is as powerful and disturbing as it is difficult to forget; and all the more so now that we know that old Gonzalo’s words of blessing over the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand – “be it so, amen” – were to be the last we would hear, from an actor, writer and director who gave so much good humour, dedication, and hard work to Scottish theatre, over more than three decades.

If life must go on, though, there’s no theatrical voice more bracing – or more interested in the life-force, in all its forms – than that of the great George Bernard Shaw, this week’s joyful victim of Play Pie And Pint’s delicious summer season of cut-down theatrical classics. Sandy Nelson’s short Edinburgh-accented version of Pygmalion, which opens the 2012 lunchtime season of Sol Classic Cuts, is a minor work of genius, somehow capturing almost every significant moment of Shaw’s great drama about language, class and gender politics within its short span. And it’s illuminated not only by truly brilliant leading performances from Steven McNicoll as a fierce Higgins, and the lovely Rebecca Elise as Eliza, but also by an knock’em dead design from the hand of Kenny Miller, full of a light-touch elegance that forms the perfect backdrop to a magnificent hour of comedy, as deep, clever and thought-provoking as it is hilarious.

Meanwhile at the Tron, the Royal Conservatoire-based group New Up North Scotland open their account with a full-length production of Ella Hickson’s Eight, a series of monologues about contemporary Britain which caused an award-winnng sensation on the Edinburgh Fringe of 2008. For myself, I preferred Hickson’s show in its original format, when audiences voted before the show – after hearing short biographies of the eight characters – for the four voices they wanted to hear that day. Performed complete, over two hours, the monologue-cycle sounds a shade repetitive, with only one of the eight voices representing the 99% who don’t belong to Britain’s boss class; the play also belongs, unavoidably, to the period before the current economic crash, when it seemed that financial good times would never end.

Yet the quality of Hickson’s writing remains astonishing, with a huge, angry energy and poetry; and in Mark Stevenson’s production, the eight characters interact in increasingly fascinating ways, moving in and out of each other’s stories like passing shadows in a fragmented society, while each lone voice continues to tell its tale.

The Tempest at Dundee Rep will resume performances from 21-23 June. Pygmalion at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and Eight at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, both until Saturday, 16 June.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

It’s big, it’s brave, it’s controversial; but everyone in Scotland who cares about Shakespeare on stage should make the pilgrimage to Dundee to see Irene Macdougall’s remarkable performance as a female Prospero in the blasted landscape of Jemima Levick’s Tempest. A proud ruler seeking restoration of her dukedom, an angry victim of treachery seeking vengeance, and a passionately protective mother seeking a future for her daughter; Macdougall is all fo these and more, in a performance that redefines one of the greatest roles in theatre.

ENDS ENDS

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