Daily Archives: August 6, 2012

All That Is Wrong, Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?, Mess, The Static


All That Is Wrong
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre  (Venue 15)
Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?
4 stars **** 
C Venues – C   (Venue 34)
Mess   3 stars  ***
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
The Static  4 stars ****
Underbelly (Venue 61)
BLISS WAS IT in that dawn to be alive, wrote Wordsworth, about being young during the French Revolution.  Being young  today, though, in this age of overwhelming global problem and helpless protest – well, for many it seems like a kind of hell.  It’s five years since the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed first burst onto the Edinburgh scene, with their brave, relentless, boundary-busting shows, often – although not always – created with and about the current generation of teenagers; and in a quiet but unflinching way, they take another compelling step forward with their latest show, playing at the Traverse this week.

On the surface, All That Is Wrong is a bleakly simple, almost tentative two-hander, in which writer-performer Koba Ryckewaert – a skinny, intense 18-year-old –  first looks at a series of dim slides of recent political protests, and then begins to write in chalk, on the black floor, a kind of mind-map of her own life and anxieties.  She starts with family, and the usual teenage stuff about school and college, boys, body-image.  

As she thinks and writes, though, something begins to happen. She gradually begins to write on a larger scale, using and connecting bigger words like “greed”, “war”, “violence”, “environmental waste”.  The technician handling the lights and projector – fellow-performer Zach Hatch – is drawn into her work, bringing extra boards to write on, shouting suggestions.  A rhythmic, quiet soundtrack starts up, driving them forward; and then, towards the end, this strangely intense hour of performance begins to collide with some of the most powerful recent trends in visual art, as the whole floor full of words and ideas is heaved, shuddering and clattering, into a different dimension.

It’s hard to say whether Ryckewaert’s show – created with dramaturg Joeri Smet and director Alexander Devriendt –  offers a message of hope, or of complete despair.  Yet in itself, it’s a near-perfect example of the art that conceals art, beautifully written and thought through, despite its apparent casualness.  And it’s also a living demonstration of how the act of writing, creating and describing can offer some sense of meaning; even in the most terrifying times.

It’s one of the paradoxes of our age that we find it so much easier to honour the radicalism of the past, than to create effective radical movements for our own time; and it’s one of the strengths of Peter Arnott’s new play Why Do You Stand There In The Rain?, written for Pepperdine University students at their annual Glasgow summer school, that it fully understands that paradox. 

Arnott’s play tells the little-known story of the Bonus Army, a movement of US First World War veterans who, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, marched on Washington to demand work, and the payment in full of the cash bonuses they had been promised on their return from their war.  The story is not a happy one; the protesters were finally evicted from their Washington camp with a brutality so shocking that it helped drive President Hoover from office.

Yet the young cast, directed by Cathy Thomas-Grant, deliver a  performance of terrific focussed intensity, seamlessly mixing direct narrative and live action, and punctuated at every step by the powerful protest songs of Woody Guthrie, and other radical musicians of the time.  And what emerges is a vivid, beautiful show, packed with timely insights into the human consequences of financial meltdown, and – above all – into the complex political and psychological journey young men and women must make, in hard times, to find the strength to stand their ground, and make a real political difference.

Caroline Horton’s Mess at the Traverse, by contrast, marks out its story not on the big map of history, but on a tiny personal canvas, shifting through three quiet English towns, and focussing tightly on the subject of anorexia nervosa, and the recovery from it of the main character, Josephine.  A play about anorexia potentially offers huge insight into many of the angsts and insecurities that scar young people today; the idea of it features in All That Is Wrong, and haunts many other shows on this Fringe.

Yet the chosen style of the show – commissioned by Battersea Arts Centre and Parabola, and co-devised by the company – is so would-be-playful, so self-consciously child-like and charming, so full of tedious meta-theatrical jokes, and so fundamentally apologetic about the seriousness of its subject, that it comes close to undermining its whole purpose, which must be to advance understanding of this life-threatening disorder.  Some of the writing is exquisite in its sensitivity, though; and time and again, Horton’s own beautifully-pitched central performance, as Josephine, hauls the show back from the brink of a self-aborbed theatrical silliness for which there is no need, and really not much excuse.

Davey Anderson’s new play The Static, presented at the Underbelly by ThickSkin, faces something like the opposite problem; in that it’s a play with little new to say about the agonies of youth, presented with such a direct, in-your-face energy and invention that it becomes irresistible.  The hero is a teenage schoolboy called Sparky, who fancies a girl called Siouxsie, who thinks she can make bad things happen by the sheer power of thought; and the point – hardly surprising – seems to be that teenagers are grumpy with grownups, and that their pent-up sexual frustration can cause explosive problems.  

Fortunately, though, the show also features four thrilling performances, along with an ear-splitting but hugely effective musical score, terrific visual effects, and a strikingly fluent way with movement. And at the end, the audience cheer the cast to the echo; although probably not so much for what they’ve learned about the lives of today’s troubled teens, as for a dazzling display of current small-scale theatre technique, delivered with outstanding wit and flair.             

Joyce McMillan
Until 12 August, 11 August, 26 August, 26 August
pp. 255, 335, 298, 323



Mother To Mother Preview


JOYCE MCMILLAN on MOTHER TO MOTHER: PREVIEW for Scotsman Festival Magazine, 4.8.12

ON 25 AUGUST 1993, a 26-year-old American student called Amy Biehl – young, gifted, idealistic, a Fulbright Scholar intensely committed to the democratic changes that were sweeping South Africa – was brutally beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of black youths in the township of Gugulethu, near Cape Town.  Amy had been driving some of her black university friends home, when her little yellow car was surrounded; her killers were chanting the extremist slogan “one settler, one bullet”, and seemed to be under the influence of political groups which believed that any violence against white people was justified, in the struggle to drive white colonialists out of Africa, once and for all.   

In faraway New York, meanwhile, the South African social worker, writer and diplomat Sindiwe Magona heard of the murder, in her office at the United Nations, and felt a special pang of guilt and horror; she too had grown up in Gugulethu, and knew that if her life had gone differently, then her son, too, might have been among that raging crowd.  It wasn’t until the next year, though, when she returned to South Africa for the first non-racial elections, that she realised just how close to home this story lay; when a friend told her that one of the boys convicted of the murder was the son of one of her closest school friends.  

“I think I knew at that moment that I would have to write something,” says Sindiwe, now a tiny, humorous 69-year old living back in Cape Town after her retirement from the UN.  “I didn’t do anything about it at first; but then I went to a workshop for serious novelists” – she pauses to laugh at herself – “and when they asked me what I was writing, I just blurted out this idea, about writing something in the voice of the mother of one of those boys, talking to the mother of the murdered girl.  And then after I had said it, I had to do it.”

Sindiwe’s book Mother To Mother was published in 1998, with the consent and support of Amy Biehl’s remarkable parents, Linda and Peter, who by that time had founded the Amy Biehl Foundation, to honour their daughter’s memory by supporting  human and educational development in South Africa’s townships.  Their only request was that the book be published on the fifth anniversary of Amy’s death; and Sindiwe immediately gave a copy to her old friend, the singer, actress and writer Thembi Mtshale-Jones, whose compelling solo stage version of the story – first seen in Cape Town in 2009, and featuring superb songs and music, as well as stunning archive images of apartheid South Africa – now makes the long journey north to the Edinburgh Fringe.

“Thembi and I go way back,” says Sindiwe, “and I always hoped she would make the book into a play.  She is a wonderful singer as well as a great actress, and when she is on stage I feel that she simply becomes that woman; she is that mother, and all the mothers everywhere, who have ever had to face the fact that their child has committed a terrible crime.  When Linda Biehl first read the book, she said it helped her better understand what had happened to her daughter; and that is what I hope for, from the book and the play.  We were very close friends as children, myself and that boy’s mother.  We were neighbours in Gugulethu, we literally ate from each other’s hands; and I knew, from the background we shared, that she would feel obliged, after her son had done such a thing, to go to the family of the girl who had been killed and ask for pardon.  Irrespective of what happens in court, in our culture you have this obligation.

“So I was trying to speak for her in this; and all the time, I was conscious that although the grief of the bereaved parents is terrible, the grief of the killer’s parent in almost worse, because of the terrible questions they must ask themselves – what did I do, or not do, that my child should have become this thing?  So I went to Gugulethu, and told my friend what I had written; and she was glad.”

Today, Sindiwe Magona has moved on, in some ways, from the story of South Africa’s years of transition; her current theatre project is a stage musical based on her recent novel Beauty’s Gift, about professional black women in 21st century Cape Town, and their troubled relationships with men, in the age of AIDS.  Yet like many South Africans, Sindiwe Magona and Thembi Mtshale-Jones feel that the intense drama of the apartheid years is not yet fully played out; and that new generations of South Africans need to understand the depth of the wounds their society suffered, in order to have any chance of healing them.  

“We love to bring this story to other countries,”says Thembi, “and we were really struck by the intensity of the response when we took it to Bermuda, where they have a huge problem with knife crime.

“Really, though, we would love above all to bring it to more audiences in South Africa; to the townships where killings and stabbings are still happening every day, and where irresponsible  politicians are still using slogans that incite hatred and violence – old slogans from the anti-apartheid struggle, but now used with a very negative energy.  And I think all of us involved with Mother To Mother believe that women have a powerful role to play in making this better, not so much in formal politics, but in their communities; working for the sake of their children, to increase understanding, and to help young people finally escape from this culture of violence, and build better lives.”

Mother To Mother at Assembly George Square, until 27 August.