Monthly Archives: August 2012

Government Basks In The Paralympic Glow Of Inclusive Britain, While Its Policies Tell A Different Story – Column 31.8.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 31.8.12
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A FEW months ago, I travelled north to Dundee to catch the only Scottish date of Reasons To Be Cheerful, the wonderful Ian Dury tribute musical created by Graeae, Britain’s top theatre company led by people with disabilities. Directed by the company’s brilliant artistic director, Jenny Sealey, the show was a riotous celebration not only of the late Mr. Dury, his music, and his radical spirit, but also of something even deeper; of the fierce erotic and theatrical energy unleashed by disabled performers who, through their own experience, have freed themselves from some of our society’s most oppressive assumptions about beauty, body-image and success. To put it briefly, they are people who have learned, in the truth of their own struggle, that we don’t need to be perfect – physically, emotionally or in any other way – in order to deserve love, or our share of desire, pleasure and joy.

So at one level, I wasn’t surprised by the sheer beauty and energy of Wednesday night’s Paralympics Opening Ceremony, jointly directed by Jenny Sealey and Bradley Hemmings, with its fabulous celebration of human curiosity and discovery, of our bold determination to travel beyond what once seemed the limits of possibility, and of what Ian McKellen, in the role of Prospero, called “the glorious diversity of humanity.” As Britain’s great Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson argued in the Daily Telegraph last weekend, these games offer a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the image of disabled people, and emphasise the positive contribution they make; and as Paralympics team GB entered the stadium, in a glittering shower of ticker-tape, it was hard not to feel both pride in the achievement of those who have fought so tirelessly over the years to transform the lives of disabled people in this country, and hope that these games will mark another turning-point in public attitudes to disabiity, across the world.

Yet beneath the roar of celebration, things are less than rosy, for many of Britain’s 8 million disabled people. Most of the members of team GB, for example, entered the stadium with their white team jackets tightly zipped to the collar; this, so it’s said, was to ensure no television exposure for the team GB lanyards supplied by Paralympics sponsor ATOS, the very company contracted by the UK government – under just one of the £3 billion-worth of government contracts it currently holds – to drive down the number of people claiming disability benefits by subjecting them to rigorous and often humiliating work capability tests.

And it’s arguable that companies like ATOS would not exist at all – scooping up huge government contracts to run public services at a profit, and undertaking to deliver on contracts which simply assume that government spending is excessive, and should be reduced – if we did not live in a political climate that consistently bears down on the most vulnerable in our society. On one hand, the anti-state ideology of the age constantly corrodes and threatens the public provision on which many disabled people depend for their quality of life.

And on the other, it tacitly and sometimes explciitly encourages people to embrace cruel prejudices about dependency culture, and about alleged benefit scrounging, in order to justify policies that are otherwise indefensible. The latest figures from the Department of Work and Pensions suggest that less than 0.3% of disability benefits – less than £1 in every £300 – is overpaid because of false claims; and yet for this sum, almost negligible compared with the billions lost to the public purse through tax evasion, disabled people across the country are being made to to undergo a bizarre, cruel and expensive process of collective punishment, delivering huge profits for ATOS while inflicting untold anxiety and uncertainty on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people.

The government, of course, will now be basking in the positive image of Britain projected by these games, as a place where disabled people are cherished and supported, and encouraged to be all they can be. Yet as with Danny Boyle’s affectionate vision of a creative and egalitarian welfare-state Britain, expressed in the now-legendary opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympiad, the truth is that both the current UK administration, and its New Labour predecessor, are basking in the afterglow of a kind of society which they have done little to promote, and a great deal to undermine.

For in the end, the protection and cherishing of the vulnerable requires strong public insitutions, which adhere firmly to their own values, stay at strict arms’ length from the massive lobbying-power of big corporations and other wealthy vested interests, and do not – under the guise of “meeting people’s concerns” – pander to waves of ugly prejudice whipped up by the most irresponsible elements in the media, or by the reactionary, victim-blaming “comedy” of shows like Little Britain.

Yet it is now more than three decades since Britain last saw a government that was prepared to embrace that proper role. Instead, successive governments have allowed themselves to be seduced and bamboozled by a theory of social Darwinism that implicitly leaves the weak and imperfect for dead; the idea that unchained market competition meets all needs that matter, that public services should be “reformed” along market lines, and that the needs the market fails to meet are – by definition – mere self-pitying fictions. The presence of ATOS and its “work capability tests” in British public life is a symptom of that ideology, and by all accounts an unpleasant one.

And unless we begin to challenge and reform the many structures in our public life which now reflect that credo, we will struggle to maintain the kind of generous and inclusive society evoked in those two magnificent Olympics ceremonies; to the grief not only of disabled people striving to live full and dignified lives, but of every one of us. For in our hearts, we all know that one day we will be among the vulnerable. And our simmering hostility towards disabled people often reflects nothing so much as fear of our own future, in a society that does not care enough; as well as fear of those living every day with the truth of their own profound dependence on others, which the rest of us often strive so mightily to deny.

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Wonderland

EIF THEATRE
Wonderland
4 stars ****
Royal Lyceum Theatre

NORMALLY, four stars above a Scotsman review means that a show is recommended to our readers. In truth, though, I would recommend Vanishing Point’s Wonderland only to those rare, brave spirits who are ready to spend 90 minutes in a grim exploration of one of the ugliest aspects of 21st century culture.

Loosely inspired by the disturbing imagery of Alice In Wonderland, this latest show in director Matthew Lenton’s series of international works involves a journey through the computer screen, into the darkest reaches of internet pornography. John is a middle-aged married man increasingly obsessed with sadistic online porn; his daughter Alice has split from her parents over her determination to become a porn actress. And through nightmare layers of darkness and illusion, shadowed by filmed images and live video, the two gradually approach one another, until the story reaches an almost laughably gruesome conclusion.

In a sense, what Matthew Lenton is producing is no longer living theatre. In overcoming differences of language, he has developed a theatre of soundless voyeurism that robs actors of the chance to connect directly with audiences; what emerges instead is a visual and aural poem – stunningly designed here by Kai Fischer and Mark Melville – that dwells relentlessly on a single note of alienation and despair, defying every rule of drama.

Yet in the end, it also compels us to look at what is actually going on today in the erotic imaginations of millions, and at the industry of abuse spawned by the demand for such images. Its story is of a naive man who fails to resist the reductive lies about male sexuality implicit in the porn he uses, and of a confused girl who believes that this commercialised vileness represents freedom. And if resistance to such lies has to begin somewhere, then Matthew Lenton’s brave and relentless show may just be one of those starting-places; bleak, terrible, and necessary.

Joyce McMillan
Until 1 September
EIF p.16

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Fringe First Winners 2012

FRINGE FIRST WINNERS 2012

WEEK 1

ALL THAT IS WRONG   Ontroerend Goed, Traverse Theatre
CONTINUOUS GROWTH   Pleasance Dome
JUANA IN A MILLION    Pleasance Dome
MARK THOMAS: BRAVO FIGARO!    Traverse Theatre
WHY DO YOU STAND THERE IN THE RAIN?   C Chambers Street

WEEK 2

AS OF….  DANIEL KITSON   Traverse Theatre
DIRTY GREAT LOVE STORY    Pleasance Dome
EDUCATING RONNIE   Assembly George Square
THE LIST    Summerhall
MIES JULIE    Assembly Mound
THEATRE UNCUT   Traverse Theatre

WEEK 3

FLANEURS Jenna Watt at Summerhall
MONKEY BARS Chris Goode and Unicorn at Traverse Theatre
RAINBOW Boxed Cat/Sell A Door at Zoo Southside
THE SH*T/LA MERDA Cristian Ceresoli/Silvia Gallerano at Summerhall
SONGS OF LEAR Song Of The Goat at Summerhall
THREAD Nutshell at Assembly St. Mark’s
THE WHEELCHAIR ON MY FACE Fishamble at Pleasance Courtyard

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Dream Plays 7, 8 and 9 – Room 7, National Health, Skeleton Wumman

THEATRE
Dream Play – Skeleton Wumman
4 stars ****
Dream Play – National Health
4 stars ****
Dream Play – Room 7
3 stars ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

AS THE TRAVERSE’s breakfast-time Dream Play season rolls into its second week, it becomes increasingly obvious that the remit of writing scenes “from a play I’ll never write” – because of its scale, or ambition, or sheer craziness – is not one that the current generation of playwrights find easy. Most are offering early scenes from plays that they might well write; and only a few – Sabrina Mahfouz in the first group, Gerda Stevenson and Linda Radley here – are diving straight off the deep end, into uncharted seas.

Stevenson’s wonderful 25-minute theatre-poem Skeleton Wumman, featuring one actress and two on-stage musicians, is a monologue for a rickle of bones lying on the seabed, long dead, but somehow still able to think. Once, she was a disabled woman with non-working legs, living in a seaside cottage with her mother and fisherman father; but in this traditional yet futuristic tale, told in rich Scots, a big wave from the rising ocean has come and swept away their village. Now, she lies on the seabed, with only dolphins, seaweed and the odd drowned church-bell for company; until some kind of redemptive miracle begins to take hold, driven by the power of love. Pauline Knowles gives a stunning performance in this remarkable story, inspired by native American tales as well as by Scotland’s huge tradition of sea stories; and although it takes a while to exert its grip, its strange, ecstatic ending leaves the audience gasping, with the power of its poetry and storytelling.

Linda Radley’s National Health is set – like Janice Galloway’s play last weekend – in a women’s psychiatric unit; but what’s delightful about this treatment of the subject is that within minutes, her three actors are also out and about, demonstrating to us that if the three women in hospital are disturbed, then the society around them is just plain mad. A really interesting wave of sharp gestures and sudden twitches ran through the audience, for example, as Lynn Kennedy and Rosie Wyatt, both in excellent form, acted out a dialogue between an elderly man and a bank clerk whose employers have just frozen his account through their own incompetence; clearly, Radley is onto something here, with her contention that the national health is being damaged not so much by cigarettes and junk food, as by the sheer uncaring bureaucracy and corporate capture of the world we live in.

Johnny McKnight’s Room 7 also emerges as a lively show about a society that commodifies everything, as pretty young new recruit Jessie, played with spirit by Hannah Boyd, turns up for a job interview with an organisation that calls itself an IVF clinic, but turns out to have much more sinister baby-farming intentions. In the end, though, this seems like a play that’s going nowhere even over a short half hour, as Ros Sydney, playing the interviewer Vera, rolls out her increasingly chilling line in demented corporate newspeak and double-think, and two of Scotland’s finest actresses, Jeanette Foggo and Joanna Tope, loll in front of their computer screens, watching the whole scene on security camera. It’s a strong situation, well set up in the first five minutes; but dramatic development is there none, and the play ends up repeating itself, in a way that’s both deliberately nasty, and just a shade boring.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 274

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Teach Me

THEATRE
Teach Me
3 stars ***
Hil Street Theatre (Venue 41)

SIMON IS EIGHTEEN, Emma is 28; and she never thinks of him as anything more than her friend’s wee brother, untl they find themselves in bed together after a drunken night out. Emma is in a bad place anyway, caught up in a messy relationship with a married man, and exhausted by the increasingly gruelling round of other people’s hen nights, weddings and christenings; Simon is just inexperienced, and feels he needs to be taught the ways of love, or at least of sex.

And that’s about it, in this lightweight rom-com from the talented Edinburgh group Strange Town, as conventional as it is well-made. Playwright Alan Gordon clearly has a sharp eye for the ups and downs of modern romance, articulated as much through Facebook pages as through the traditional phone calls and dates, and Amy Drummmond and Andy Peppiette turn in two delightful performances, on a set that consists entirely of one big bed. Of the despair on Amy’s side that might form the real backbeat to this story, though, we see very little; and the rom-com format ensures an ending as reassuring as it is unconvincing

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
p. 326

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Female Gothic

THEATRE
Female Gothic
4 stars ****
Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

IN YOU ARE looking for a handsome, well-turned out, value-for-money Fringe show, that will offer you a superbly professional 75 minutes of pre-lunch entertainment without rearranging your life in any way, then Dyad Productions’s Female Gothic is exactly the show for you. Written and beautifully performed by Rebecca Vaughan, in a most elegant Victorian dress, it tells three Gothic tales of supernatural horror, each linked by a faint sense of the ongoing 19th century battle of the sexes.

So in the first, an arrogant student is pursued across Europe by the unquiet spirit of the loving young fiancee he jilted. In the second, an obsessive scientist is condemned to eternal horror by the passion for experimentation that led him to reject the woman who loved him. And in the third, the narrator tells a tale from her own life, of a friend seized by death soon after giving birth to her first child, and of the friend’s distraught husband, whom the narrator perhaps once loved.

All three tales are delivered with impressive eloquence and quiet passion, in a ladylike but intense performance that holds the audience in the palm of its hand. And if 11.45 in the morning is a strange time to be enjoying this near-perfect piece of after-dinner theatre, it still offers a great deal of pleasure, to those who like their theatre polite and handsome, but not without an edge of sharp intelligence.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August
p. 278

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Oh The Humanity/Once In A House On Fire

THEATRE
Oh The Humanity And Other Good Intentions
4 stars ****
Once In A House On Fire
3 stars ***
Northern Stage at St. Stephen’s (Venue 73)

IT’S BEEN A quiet presence on the 2012 Fringe, the first-ever Northern Stage season at St. Stephen’s Centre. Yet there’s been no shortage of respectable audiences for the strong and well-crafted programme of work there; and no show displays that commitment to quality more clearly that the Northern Stage/Soho Theatre co-production of New York writer Will Eno’s Oh The Humanity, playing at St. Stephen’s in the early evening.

On a subtly lit set of five screen doors which challenges the technical capacity of the venue to its limit, actors John Kirk, Tony Bell and Lucy Ellinson move swiftly through an 80-minute programme of five short plays, including two monologues, two two-handers, and one brief piece that involves all three actors. From a struggling New York sports coach delivering an imaginary speech to the press that reveals his inner heartbreak over a broken relationship, through a pair of middle-aged singles trying to compose their profiles for a dating website, to a hopelessly out-of-her-depth airline spokeswoman trying and failing to say the right thing after a fatal crash, his characters all seem lost, their disorientation reflected in the slightly surreal quality of his drama. In the finest piece of writing, The Bully Composition, he even invites us, the audience, to enter into a strange psychic communion with a group of soldiers photographed during the Spanish-American War of 1898, as we too prepare, in the middle of our lives, to have our group image preserved in time by one of the two speakers, an eminent photographer; and everywhere in this five-cornered pattern of shows, there is a sense of exploration, not only of the characters, but of the fragile possibility of communication between characters and audience.

Andrea Ashworth’s Manchester memoir Once In A House On Fire, also at St. Stephen’s, represents a much more familiar kind of northern drama, and is slightly disappointing in the predictability of its content and style. The story revolves around two young sisters growing up in Manchester in the 1980’s, with a series of abusive or unsatisfactory stepdads visited on them by their loving but gullible mother. There’s plenty of Smiths music, a lot of violence, and a real struggle for escape, on the part of the clever older sister, Andy. Yet somehow, the story seems familiar even before it starts; and it offers up enough stereotypes about how life is “grim up north” to get a powerful fire going, if the time ever came to consign some of those well-worn images to the blast-furnace of history.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August
pp. 305, 305

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)

EIF THEATRE
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)
5 stars *****
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

THE SEATS in the stalls are covered with dust-sheets, the stage is bare. Then from the back of the auditorium, with a volley of shouts like a bunch of removal men shifting a piano, Dmitry Krymov’s astonishing 20-strong Moscow company appear, hoisting chunks of a giant tree down through the audience, until it disappears backstage, never to be seen again.

This is the brilliant opening of Krymov’s joyous, anarchic and completely alive and beautiful 90-minute response to Shakespeare’s Dream; and it’s a gesture with a point, in a production that puts the “rude mechanicals” – and their play about lovers Pyramus and Thisbe – at the centre of the action, while a well-off-looking stage audience saunter in and take their onstage seats, flaunting their designer clothes, and displaying their prejudices.

There are acrobatic routines, passionate songs, an adorable performing dog, and two of the strangest and most poignant giant puppets you will ever see, playing the lovers. Beyond all the free-flowing fun and laughter, though, this gentle circus of a show has something vital to say about class; and about the need for theatre itself to live in the love of the common people, rather than treating them as light relief to be laughed at for a few minutes, towards the end of the play.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August
EIF p.14

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Camille O’Sullivan Sings The Rape Of Lucrece, While George Galloway Rolls Out The Same Old Excuses: Why Rape Remains So Difficult To Bring To Justice, 400 Years On – Column 24.8.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 24.8.12
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SOMETIMES, art has an extraordinary way of anticipating life, and even of foreshadowing the news headlines. On Wednesday evening, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, the wonderful singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan gave the Edinburgh premiere performance of her remarkable solo version of Shakespeare’s great narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece, about the beautiful young wife of a Roman general savagely raped by the arrogant Prince, Tarquin.

O’Sullivan’s show is just one of a series of superb dramas about rape or sexual violence that have won acclaim in Edinburgh this August, ranging from the double-bill of plays about the consequences of torture in Chile seen in the official festival earlier this week, to the mind-blowing South African Mies Julie at Assembly, in which a wealthy farmer’s daughter recklessly seduces one of her father’s black servants, unleashing a torrent of violence on both sides.

And it has been a strange and sobering experience to watch these shows, this week, at a time when the subject of rape has barely been out of the news. Confronted with any fictional account of a distressing subject, we tend to look for reasons to keep the story at a distance; The Rape Of Lucrece is set in ancient Rome, we tell ourselves, and the military dictatorship in Chile ended two decades ago.

Yet however much we want to believe that we live in a place and time where these horrors have been laid to rest, the daily news conspires to remind us that this argument rages on. This week, in a terrifying and hallucinatory moment, a serious Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives publicly denied that rape could result in pregnancy, so eager is he to refuse women the right to determine whether they continue with such a pregnancy or not. And here in Britain, some public figures who should know better – including the increasingly notorious George Galloway – set out to explain away the charges of rape faced by Wikileaks boss Julian Assange as mere breaches of what Galloway called “sexual etiquette”.

So what is going on, in a world where rape is so loudly dismissed as unacceptable, yet still so widespread, and so diffiicult to bring to justice? In the first place, we live in an age of growing global instability; and wherever there is war, and the collapse of states, women and vulnerable men risk becoming victims of rape. The protection of the weak requires stable and reasonably strong governmment, with some kind of working justice system; and western governments may be about to learn a tough lesson or two, about the consequences of their enthusiasm for tearing down authoritarian regimes across the planet, and simply assuming that whatever replaces them will be better.

Secondly, there are levels of confusion about the extent to which respect for different culture involves tolerating the assumption, in many traditional moral codes, that a raped woman has suffered an irreversible disaster, and is doomed to suffer a worse punishment than her attacker, including complete social ostracism and possible death. There is nothing in the creed of any major faith, or in any culture worth the name, that makes it right to punish the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. The code of honour under which poor Lucrece feels her only remaining option is suicide, following her rape, amounts to oppressive patriarchal superstition; and it is one of the main tasks of civlisation and enlightenment – and of women campaigning together everywhere – to challenge those superstitions, and strike them down.

Thirdly, we have the phenomenon of rape-talk as part of the western backlash against feminisim; the feeling, among some men, that women have got above themselves in recent decades, and need to be slapped back into their place. This is a culture that informs some of the jokes about rape – often found hilarious by audiences – that women stand-up comics in Edinburgh this week asked their male colleagues to stop making. It informs the tidal wave of violent internet porn which, in a culture short of real erotic tenderness, increasingly encourages young men – and girls too – to make a pathological and dangerous link between sexual excitement and violence; and it helps shape the archaic sexual politics of the extreme social and “religious” right, as represented this week by the hapless Congressman Akin.

And somewhere behind it all, perhaps, we have the culture of destructive pessimism about human nature that has been marching across western thought since the early 1980’s, driven by a grim biological determinism about gender differences. Yet the whole story of our species – in so far as it contains anty drama or interest at all – is about our struggle to be something better than that. Of course we are the species who rape and lie about rape, who kill and compete, and who sometimes grab colossal wealth for ourselves, when we can.

We are also the species, though, that has constructed civil societies in which wrongs can be righted, equality advanced, and justice done; and in which millions of fortunate women – of whom I count myself one – can live out their lives in freedom, without fear of assault or abuse. In the subtitle of her wonderful Mies Julie, the South African writer Yael Farber talks of “resititution of body and soul”, following the multiple abuses of apartheid, often written on the bodies of suffering men and women.

To achieve that, though, we have to believe in our continuing capacity to build societies worth living in; and we have to reject the cynicism and lies of those who say that our efforts are futile. In The Rape Of Lucrece, Shakespeare dedicates more than half of the poem to Lucrece’s long argument with herself about how she should respond to the violence she has suffered; and he does this not because he is a theorist about women’s rights. He does it because he knows, in his truth-telling poet’s soul, that Lucrece is a complete person, subtle, inteligent, and as full of thought, integrity and questioning as any man; and that she deserves to be heard speaking her truth down the ages, in the kind of voice that can change lives, and perhaps begin to change worlds.

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Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)

EIF THEATRE
Les Naufrages Du Fol Espoir (Aurores)
4 stars ****
Lowand Hall, Ingliston

THE MONTH IS JULY 1914; and in a huge attic in northern France, a man called Jean, in love with film, is making a movie – a popular adventure story about nationalism, capitalism and imperialism, and the struggle for something better. Outside, the clouds of war are gathering. But Jean and his two-dozen-strong company of would-be artists believe that the people of Europe will not allow themselves to be sacrificed, over empty nationalistic squabbles.

This is the situation conjured up in Ariane Mnouchkine’s astonishing four-hour show, with which – on her first-ever visit to Edinburgh – she and her legendary Theatre Du Soleil of Paris transform the Lowland Hall into a true factory of dreams. There is a lush score of European classical music; and it accompanies scenes from the fictional movie that are presented with a terrific sense of comic choreography and slapstick, as the performers not being filmed throw themselves around the stage, following the camera, and creating weather for actors whose story leads them to a shipwreck in the Antarctic ocean.

Eventually, the relentless playfulness of these scenes is a little long-drawn-out. But by plunging us into the heart of a genuine creative process, at one of the mighty turning-points of European history, Mnouchkine and her company leave us with a powerful sense of history as something not fixed, but made from moment to moment, by people much like us; and of how it could have been different, if nationalism had not triumphed over socialism, in that summer of 1914, and plunged our world into half a century of war.

Joyce McMillan
Until 28 August
EIF p.9

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