Daily Archives: August 11, 2012

Theatre Uncut

THEATRE

Theatre Uncut
5 stars *****
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)

IF YOU WANT to see 21st century live theatre at the raw peak of its powers, doing exactly what it does best, then head to the Traverse Bar, every Monday morning between now and 20 August, grab a seat on a sofa or bar stool, and just revel – for an hour or so – in the sheer improvisatory brilliance and eloquence of the latest Theatre Uncut season. Inspired by last year’s protests against public spending cuts in Britain, and pulled together by directors Hannah Price and Emma Callendar, Theatre Uncut is as much an idea as a show; a series of short ten-minute dramas by writers known and unknown, performed script-in-hand by scratch groups of actors, and all designed to reflect with wit or fury on the current state of the global economy.

So in this week’s first Uncut programme we were treated to short dramas by American superstar Neil LaBute, Lena Kitsopoulou of Greece, London-based Anders Lustgarten, and – in the weekly “rapid response” slot – fast-emerging Scottish star Kieran Hurley. Despite a stray member of the audience taking a seat on the sofa beside one of the characters, Jimmy Chisholm and Scott Fletcher acted the hell out of LaBute’s terrific dialogue between a middle-class Dad and a son involved in the Occupy movement, while Iain Robertson and Julia Taudevin grasped the Dario-Fo-like heart of Kitsopoulou’s The Price, about an ordinary Greek couple increasingly expected to pay for everything, including a child, and – in the end – their own bodies.

As for Hurley’s brief instant drama London 2012: Glasgow, about last week’s famous Korean flag mix-up at Hampden, and the ambiguities and tensions of 21st century Scottish, British and London identity – well, to see that performed with such explosive early-morning energy, by comedians Phill Jupitus and Thomas Tuck, was something like a privilege. The idea, each week, is to repeat that mix of recent international material with an instant response from a Scottish-based writer; and if the results are anything like what was achieved on Monday, then every theatre-lover in Edinburgh will want to be there.

Joyce McMillan
Until 20 August
p. 327

The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs, Educating Ronnie, I Tommy

THEATRE
The Agony And Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs
4 stars ****
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
Educating Ronnie
4 stars ****
Assembly George Square (Venue 3)
I, Tommy
4 stars ****
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)

LOOK AT THE TITLES of these three shows. Each one is an intensely political piece of theatre; yet each show revolves around one named individual, not a fictional character, but a real person. It’s as if the global crisis shaking our political systems is so profound that it requires something like this; that without losing political awareness, we bring the whole process down to the nitty-gritty of individual experience and responsibility, and start again from scratch.

Mike Daisey’s monologue The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs is a remarkable and almost frighteningly timely piece of work, a monologue written by a fan and admirer of the legendary late leader of the Apple corporation, about his own growing misgivings over the conditions under which Apple’s beautifully-designed pieces of electronic kit are produced, mainly in the new Chinese mega-city of Shenzhen. The narrative – already seen in cities across the world, and now delivered in a new, brief one-hour version made in Scotland by adaptor Andy Arnold, director Marcus Roche, and actor Grant O’Rourke – interweaves a history of the remarkable development of Apple under Jobs’s leadership with the story of a trip Daisey made to Shenzhen, where he discovered the agony of the hundreds of thousands of workers at the vast Foxconn plant where most of our i-phones, for example, are made.

From vast factories buildings hung with nets to catch workers trying to commit suicide by jumping from the windows, to the fact that many of those working for up to 100 hours a week, in conditions that often wreck their health, are as young as, Daisey – magnificently played here by a passionately convincing O’Rourke – finds the whole story, with its fierce 21st century mix of brilliance, creativity, cruelty and suffering, just a little “too much”. Yet he remains a believer in the power of information; and when he tells us, at the end, that we will never be able to look at the Apple products around us with the same eyes again, we know that he is probably right.

In director Joe Douglas’s autobiographical monologue Educating Ronnie – presented by Scottish companies MacRobert and Utter – the character named in the title is not an icon of contemporary power and wealth, but the very opposite: a Ugandan boy so poor and vulnerable that he has to ask his British friend Joe – a lad from Stockport who met Ronnie when he spent six post-school weeks in Uganda – to send him money to get him through school and university.

Despite his own financial struggles, Joe agrees; and in just 60 minutes, his monologue, co-created with director Gareth Nicholls, explores the infinite complexity of his long-distance relationship with Ronnie, from sheer delight at Ronnie’s graduation, to the undertow of guilt, resentment, irritation, and eventual disillusion and heartbreak, when he finally learns that Ronnie has been less than honest with him. Despite its gentle manner, in other words, Douglas’s show – presented with a beautiful, quiet eloquence and ingenuity on a simple set by Lisa Sangster, with video and sound design by Tim Reid and Michael John McCarthy – is a tough piece of work, absolutely clear-eyed in its recognition that poverty does not turn poor people into saints, and in the disturbing possibility that being individually ripped off by those worse off than ourselves is perhaps the most effective action we can take, if we really care about the world’s grotesque imbalances of wealth and opportunity.

The subject of I, Tommy at the Gilded Balloon is another kind of 21st century figure altogether; perhaps Scotland’s last tragi-comic attempt, in the post-modern age, to produce an old-style political leader and hero. As the world knows, the famously fit, hansdome and perma-tanned Tommy Sheridan, the leader of the Scottish Socialist Party and, by 2003, of a group of six MSP’s in the Scottish Parliament, was brought crashing down to earth, three years later, by a series of press allegations about his private life which he insisted on denying, although they mostly turned out to be true.

Ian Pattison’s rollicking stage version of Tommy’s story, presented at the Gilded Balloon by Red Aye Productions, majors on the comedy rather than the tragedy of the Sheridan story, and reinforces the effect by casting as Tommy a stocky comedian, Des McLean, who does not attempt to capture either the genuine sexual charisma of the man himself, or his strong political intelligence.

That limitation aside, though, Pattison’s script makes a brilliant job of transforming this post-modern political tragedy into sharp popular comedy, written in a bracingly confident Glasgow vernacular, stuffed with terrific one-liners, and performed with hugely enjoyable flair by a five-strong cast. Colin McCredie of Taggart introdcues the odd serious note as Tommy’s pained ex-friend Alan McCombes; and Michelle Gallagher is in thrilling comic form as Gail Sheridan, one of Glasgow’s great shopping divas, and a force to be reckoned with, as the last hope of Scottish socialism crashes and burns in true 21st century style, finally joining the C-list celebrity circuit, in the hope of scratching a living.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August, 26 August, 27 August
pp. 254, 275, 288

ENDS ENDS

Meine Faire Dame Preview

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MEINE FAIRE DAME (PREVIEW) for Scotsman Festival Magazine, 11.8.12
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IT’S A CHILL, BLEAK morning in January 2012, and I’m sitting in a small corner cafe in Valence, France, with one of the strangest and most glamorous groups of performers it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. There’s Tora Augestad, a tall, gorgeous Norwegian singer – trained for opera, in love with jazz and cabaret – now based in Berlin. There’s Michael Von Der Heide, a pop star back home in Switzerland, with a tiny, infinitely sweet tenor voice; these two are firm friends, always giggling and joking. And at a small corner table, in a super-smart tweed cap and overcoat, sits Graham F. Valentine, the Dundee-born actor and singer who long ago left the text-based world of British theatre for a more adventurous creative life in continental Europe, and now lives in Paris; he radiates a Garbo-like preference for morning solitude.

Not present in the cafe, though, is the man who brought them all together; for along with five other performers, these three make up the cast of Swiss director Christophe Marthaler’s latest mind-blowing adventure in music theatre, created in Basel, and touring its way across Europe, en route to the Edinburgh Festival. Meine Faire Dame is a thrillingly eccentric show, a two-hour response to the themes of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady set in a college language laboratory, where a group of 21st century lost souls – like a kind of group therapy session – meet to tangle with issues around the failure of language and the rise of popular music as a prime means of self-expression, in the age of the mass-audience television talent show.

“The idea for this show arose back in 2010,” explains Valentine, who has worked regularly with Christophe Marthaler since the two met as students in Zurich 40 years ago, and plays the Professor Higgins figure in Meine Faire Dame . “The theatre in Basel is what they call a Dreispartenhaus, with a theatre company, an opera and a ballet company in the same building. The opera company was doing a straight production of My Fair Lady, and Marthaler said he wanted to create a response to it – a kind of echo-chamber to the Lerner and Loewe music that was flowing through the building.

“I think he had the basic idea that there would be a self-help group, and a Henry Higgins character, and a pianist. Higgins represents the old-fashioned, empire-buiding, controlling element of humanity, and the pianist maybe the things we rehearse, or prepare, which may not turn out to be of any use. And then – well, Christophe’s idea is always to bring together a group of artists he knows he can work with, and to encourage them to be creative, to see what emerges.”

In the case of Meine Faire Dame, what emerges is an explosive and soberiing mixture of song, slapstick, and pure ragic meditation on the state of our civilisation; and its most striking feature is its astonishingly eclectic playlist of music, all thrillingly well sung, and ranging from an unforgettable version of Everything I Do, I Do It For You, to the heights of the classical repertoire, and raw-edged 1920’s cabaret. “I think it’s about Sprachlosigkeit,” says Tora Augestad, “the loss of language, or language-less-ness. Spoken language, body language, and musical language.”

And Grahame Valentine agrees. “I would say that it’s about the impotence of language, and how we end up saying nothing at all.
The show holds together by being precise, but the precision is in the music. Christophe’s rehearsal process is very much about the performers bringing their ideas to the action, and he can be a very playful director; but in the end, he makes the final decisions about what stays and what goes. And he has a great instinct, a musician’s instinct, for knowing when something is done; how much to repeat, how much to exaggerate, and when to finish.

“I would say, too, that this is a show that thrives by putting opposites together. It’s something to do with pop culture taking over. You can see that as something totally hollow and irrelevant, or you can take it and transform it into something else; and that – the transformation – is what Christophe does.”

Lowland Hall, Ingliston, Edinburgh, 14-19 August.

ENDS ENDS