Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Phantom Of The Opera (2012)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.12
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4 stars ****

TAKE A DEEP BREATH, Edinburgh theatregoers, and prepare to be dazzled; for the current Cameron Mackintosh touring production of The Phantom Of The Opera must be the most spectacular festival of kitsch ever seen on a Scottish stage, designed to knock audiences’ eyes out, and offer them the full value of the ticket price, which ranges up to more than £50.

By kitsch, I mean a huge, rich weight of decoration, full of rippling cultural references, wrapped around a kernel of content which contains almost nothing at all. There’s a story in there, of course, of a sweet young couple in love, and of a hideously ugly older man – the girl’s inspired teacher, the master of the music she loves – full of raging jealous rage over her yearning for happiness with another; but apart from the Phantom himself – for we all have an inner unloveable monster – there’s not a single character with whom anyone could seriously identify.

Instead, what we get is a stunningly effective and well-crafted production, brilliantly designed by Paul Brown, Maria Bjornson, and Paule Constable, among others, to offer an ever-changing visual feast of rich rococo theatre architecture, Degas-like dressing-room scenes, folding red-plush curtains, flaming torches, and towering backstage caverns; and it achieves all this – over 20 spectacular scenes – without ever diminishing the performers, or separating them from their audience.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous music achieves the same effect in aural form; huge crashing chords and thunderous melodies heaped around a story so slender it threatens to collapse under their weight. Katie Hall sings like an angel as the heroine Christine, John Owen-Jones is a decent Phantom, the fourteen-strong band plays brilliantly in the pit, the whole show looks and sounds magnificent. And if it all, in the end, means less than nothing – well, perhaps, in tough times, that kind of gorgeous escapism is exactly what audiences need.

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The Adventures Of Butterfly Boy

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE ADVENTURES OF BUTTERFLY BOY at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.12
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4 stars ****

ON STAGE, there are three female dancers, perched around the slats and shelves of an open-ended garden shed; there’s also a boy, reading a book, and playing with a magnifying glass. From the outset, it’s not clear whether the girls are insects he examines through his glass, or other children who don’t quite share his geeky enthusiasm for them; in fact, they seem a little bit of both.

And although this slight sense of confusion could weaken the Pucko Company’s new 50-minute dance show for children aged five and over, the odd thing about Butterfly Boy – directed and choreographed by Christine Devaney, to a gorgeous cello score composed and played live by Greg Sinclair – is that it seems to thrive on the tension between the two worlds it suggests, insect and human. Some sequences seem a little overlong; there’s plenty of repetitive playing, running, and teasing between the girls and the boy, and a long slow movement in which Devaney explores ideas about hiding, and then about not seeing, even when things are not hidden.

At every turn, though, the show is beautifully lit, softly coloured, and possessed with a kind of playful intensity, in the music and dancing, that holds our attention even when we can’t be quite sure of what’s happening. And in that sense, this show probably nudges young theatre-goers closer to a real feeling for dance; not only as a means of storytelling, but as an art-form with a mysterious life of its own.

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Fatal Misjudgment, As Scottish Labour Adopts The Failed Mantra Of Austerity – Column 28.9.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.9.12
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THURSDAY LUNCHTIME: and on The World At One, three jovial men – two experts in business and finance, and one standard-issue BBC presenter – are discussing the Eurozone crisis. The experts are, to judge by their utterances, exactly the kind of men who completely failed to predict the financial collapse of 2008, and who in some cases helped to hasten it, by taking part in dubious and unsustainable business practices.

Yet here they are, unopposed by any dissenting voice, and unchallenged by the interviewer, being invited to sneer unchecked, for several minutes, at what they see as the rank incompetence of the Eurozone in managing its currency, and the foolishness of assorted European nations – Spain is the latest whipping-boy – which have faled to cut public spending with the speed and savagery they deem appropriate. Oddly, these experts seem unaware of the feedback mechanisms – now evident in the UK’s flatlining economy – by which excessively sharp cuts in public spending actually make deficits worse.

Even more striking than this large financial blind spot, though, is their extraordinarily patronising tone of voice, directed towards the whole of continental Europe. It’s a tone of voice that we in the UK now hear all the time from our own ruling elite, as they lecture us about the vIrtues of public spending cuts, about the desirability of market-style “reforms”, and about the need for a “robust” response whenever foolish people pour onto the streets in protest. It’s a tone that is condescending, exasperated, elitist, overwhelmingly negative, and – if you analyse the assumptions behind it – quite possibly based on one of the big lies of the age; it’s also a tone that is out of time, associated with the age of market triumphalism that ended in 2008, rather than with any politically sustainable future.

And it’s therefore profoundly sad to note, this week, the Scottish Labour leader’s monumentally ill-judged decision to join in this oppressive chorus of boss-class miserabilism, orchestrated by people who care nothing for the lives of ordinary citizens, in Scotland or elsewhere. It’s not that Johann Lamont is wrong to raise questions about some of the anomalies thrown up by the Scottish Government’s commitment to free provision; the council tax freeze, in particular, is a nonsense for any government that says it is committed to localism.

The point for any Labour leader, though, should be to set that discussion in a clearly progressive context, and in the framework of a plan – a kind of New Deal, if you like – designed to restore confidence and hope to the lives of ordinary families in this country. It’s not that everyone needs to maintain the levels of affliuence many enjoyed during the economic boom of the 1990’s and early 2000’s; almost all of us could easily tolerate some decline in private material consumption, provided the essential social quid pro quo was there.

The tragedy is, though, that it’s exactly that necessary, societal support – the promise of greater income security in return for a pay freeze, or employment for our children leaving education, or affordable housing in our area, or a reliable continuation of the public services and benefits on which we depend – that the grim ideology of the austerity-mongers forbids, dismissing those key social goods – in Johann Lamont’s truly shocking phrase this week – as an unaffordable “something for nothing”.

For of course, none of the services mentioned in her speech are “something for nothing”. They are the public goods we pay for with our taxes, the lifeblood of a functioning and compassionate society; and in joining the ranks of those who simply assume that our taxes can no longer pay for the services we want, Johann Lamont effectively sidesteps a crucial debate about exactly how our resources are being distributed, in this 21st century economy, and risks putting herself irretrievably on the wrong side of history.

Last week at this time, after all, the UK’s entertainment of choice on the social media was the musical version of Nick Clegg’s “sorry” speech, a satire on his supine acceptance that “there just wasn’t the money” to pay for free university tuition in England. It was soon replaced, though, with something even sharper; a film of some posh young student protestors invading the gala dinner of a corporate “tax planning” conference in Oxford, and awarding the outgoing head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs a mock trophy, for his notorious services to massive corporate tax avoidance, alleged to cost the British exchequer more than £20 billion a year.

And so long as those sorts of questions remain – about the real scale of the UK’s deficit, and about the real necessity for the cuts currently being endured – no social democratic leader worth the name can afford uncritically to accept the world-view perpetuated by the austerity lobby, never mind to adopt their divisive language in the way Johann Lamont did this week.

Alex Salmond, in other words, may be a bit of a chancer; he may be spending resources he does not have, or cruising for a financial bruising at some future date. What he seems instinctively to understand, though, is that a nation cannot deal with any kind of crisis – economic, climatic, political – if it has deliberately slashed away at every tie that binds the national community together, and has failed to offer its people that promise of a better future that inspires confidence, unleashes creativity, and makes life worth living.

In that sense, his stout defence of the free public goods in which Scotland takes pride makes strong practical sense for the future of Scotland’s society and economy; not because it’s easy to see how they can be paid for, but because their continued existence helps motivate and inspire solutions, where the reactionary mantras of austerity only divide and depress. And although we may never know what dark whisperings within the Labour Party made Johann Lamont take her fatal step, this week, we can know this: that her misjudgment has left Alex Salmond in a stronger political position than ever, as one of the few western leaders of our time with the courage and gaiety to buck the trend, and to dare to offer a politics of hope, rather than of fear, mean-mindedness, and decline.

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Arches Live! 2012 (3) The Robinson Family Undercover Secret Agents, The Miss Kitty Show, L’Eveil

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE ! 2012 (3) at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.9.12
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Robinson Family Undercover Secret Agents 3 stars ***
The Miss Kitty Show 3 stars ***
L’Eveil 3 stars ***

IF THE SHOWS in this year’s Arches Live! festival are any guide, both the personal and the political loom large in the work of the current generation of emerging artists; it’s just that sometimes, there are boundary issues about the relationship between the two. Ian Nulty’s Robinson Family Undercover Secret Agents starts in chilling political style, with a screen display of some of the sickening anti-Obama propaganda produced by the American far right; both racist and Islamophobic, it sets the scene for some powerful sequences in which Nulty – as his right-wing alter ego Robert Robinson – indulges in real-time, real-life Facebook chat with America’s huge army of right-wing Christians, ranting on about the Rapture, and their hopes for an imminent war on Iran.

Nulty’s problem, though, is that he can’t resist combining this hair-raising political expose with some showy and awkward provocations about his life as a gay man in Britain. And the sense of confusion created by this shifting focus makes Catriona Ruth Paterson’s much shorter Miss Kitty Show – a spectacularly-styled work-in-progress collision between the ideal-housewife aesthetic of the 1950’s, and the brutal demands for perfection still inflicted on young women today – look like a more coherent account of the interface between the personal and the political, despite an embryonic script, and slightly hesitant performance.

As for Mona Kastell’s L’Eveil, it’s billed as a “costume-led” show, and its solo performer Mazz Marsden does indeed wear a remarkable, chrysalis-like hemp costume, as she dances her way through something like the emergence of a dragon-fly, and its first stretching of its wings. The content, though, doesn’t amount to much more than a familiar series of movement-theatre cliches about birth, hatching, the life-cycle; attractive to look at, particularly when the light shimmers through the rough fabric, but not original enough to linger long in the mind.

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The Guid Sisters, The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE GUID SISTERS at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, and THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF SEE THRU SAM at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 27.9.12
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The Guid Sisters 4 stars ****
The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam 4 stars ****

THE MORE ONE IS local, the more one is universal. It sounds better in French; but it remains the single most important thing ever said about theatre by the great Quebecois playwright Michel Tremblay, whose 1965 masterpiece Les Belles-Soeurs – translated into Scots as The Guid Sisters – is now revived by the Royal Lyceum Company and the National Theatre of Scotland.

When Tremblay wrote the play, he was barely 23 years old, a Montreal student enraged by the polite, gutless “proper” French in which most Quebecois cultural expression was conducted. He wanted to give a voice to the women among whom he had grown up, the raging housewives, cleaning-women and shopgirls of Montreal’s Catholic working-class tenements; and he wanted to write in the French “joual” dialect of those streets, vivid, harsh, often blazingly obscene. Over a couple of weeks, 15 unforgettable female characters emerged to possess him, including his housewife heroine Germaine Lauzon, who has just won a million trading-stamps in a competition, and invites all her neighbours round to help stick them into books; thereby setting the scene for a ferocious evening of gossip, banter, and savage stairhead rows, interspersed with brutally honest soliloquies, and moments of wild choral poetry.

And the miracle of Les Belles-Soeurs is this: that out of this detailed memory of the lives of women in Montreal, one year in the 60’s, comes a play that speaks to audiences all over the world, wherever there has been an industrial revolution, or a working class with aspirations to material affluence. So it’s a joyful experience, two decades on, to see Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay’s legendary 1989 Scots version of the play – still set in Montreal, but expressed in fierce Scots tenement rhythms – given a full-on, ultra-vivid revival by Quebecois director Serge Denoncourt and a dazzling cast of 15 Scottish actresses, led by a magnificent Kathryn Howden as Germaine – all floating nylon housecoats and huge pink hair-rollers under a floral cap – and by an equally compelling Karen Dunbar as her sister Rose.

There’s no doubt that The Guid Sisters describes a world now slipping away from us, in the west. The war it fights against the religious bullying and disempowerment of working-class women, against the oppressive cult of “respectability”, and against the empty promises of ideal-homes materialism, has moved towards other continents and cultures. And there’s also no doubt that Serge Denoncourt’s production could do better, for all its strengths; Francis O’Connor’s big set, with its elaborate tilting ceiling, adds little to the drama, and resources might have been better spent on more rehearsal, to help focus the verbal music of a text full of raucous screaming-matches, all delivered here at almost identical pitch.

In the end, though, there’s no resisting the searing vividness of the world Tremblay creates, or the blazing energy generated by this terrific company of actors. Their story is not exactly our story, any more. Yet it speaks to family histories that still lie painfully close to the surface; and like Sharman Macdonald’s She Town at Dundee, it powerfully forbids any sentimentalising of our tenement past. So that when the women gather at the end, over the quivering wreckage of Germaine’s dreams, to sing Burns’s hymn to proud poverty A Man’s A Man For A’ That, it comes as a sharp reminder that we are still playing out the drama of mass material consumption that began in the postwar boom of the 1950’s and 60’s; and that, despite Burns’s most visionary efforts, the quest for a new and better set of values on which to build our future has still barely begun.

The emergence of the teenager as a key economic and cultural force was one of main social changes of the postwar period, faithfully reflected by Tremblay; and almost half a century on, teenagers seem, if anything, more baffled and vulnerable than ever. Johnny McKnight’s latest touring play The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam explores the plight of a teenage generation raised on stories of superhero adventure which encourage classic teen fantasies of exceptionalism and power; yet often leave young people desperately ill-equipped to cope with the hard smack of reality.

McKnight’s hero is young Sam, who imagines that he is invisible; until his parents die in a car-crash, and his plight becomes all too obvious to everyone, from teachers and thuggish school bullies to his well-meaning Uncle Herbie. The play clearly belongs to the same stable as Davey Anderson’s Fringe hit The Static, which tackles a similar theme of teenage alienation, with a similar strongly visual approach.

Here, though, the visual element of the production takes an exceptionally attractive and fluid form, as James Young’s touching and beautifully-pitched Sam makes his way through a landscape conjured up through the ever-shifting lines of animated sketches and images, created by designer Lisa Sangster and animator Jamie Macdonald. The technical skill involved in conjuring up Jamie’s sketched-in world, and co-ordinating it with the movement of the three actors, is often breathtaking. And as the show moves towards its strange and tragic end, there’s a deep sense that the medium is part of the message; a message about the fragility of the world we create for our children, and the tentative, easily-erased quality of the worlds they create for themselves, once they begin to move away from us, and strike out on their own.

The Guid Sisters at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 13 October, and the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 23-27 October. The Incredible Adventures Of See-Thru Sam at the Tron Theatre until Saturday; then at MacRobert Theatre, Stirling, 5 October; Dundee Rep, 9 October; and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 18-20 October.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

The Royal Lyceum/NTS production of The Guid Sisters features a stunning all-female ensemble; and it’s a special thrill to see among them the wonderful Karen Dunbar, writer, actress and stand-up comic, whose multiple career reaches a whole new level with her powerful performance as the heroine’s sister Rose Ouimet. Worn down by the sheer drudgery of tenement life – and sometimes bitterly cruel in her judgments on other women – Tremblay’s Rose remains an intelligent woman, the joker and entertainer of the group; and when she finally step into the spotlight to tell how it really is, in her life, the audience is briefly stunned into absolute, shocked silence.

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And The Children Never Looked Back

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AND THE CHILDREN NEVER LOOKED BACK at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.9.12
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4 stars ****

IN AN EMPTY schoolroom on a remote northern island, a young man called Danny stands and talks into a recording machine. A strange sound shakes the air, and a slightly older woman enters, the school’s lone teacher, tense, angry, good-looking. She thinks he is a journalist, and tries to throw him out; he reassures her that he is just the grandson of a woman who was born on the island, come to rediscover his roots.

This is the start of Icelandic playwright Salka Gudmundsdottir’s 35-minute dialogue, translated and directed by Graeme Maley for the Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime season; and it soon becomes clear that the island has been the scene of a tragedy that gives the woman, Sunna, every reason to fear sensational news coverage. In a strange echo of a traditional island story, a whole group of island teenagers have taken their own lives, plunging from the island’s highest cliff. And Danny – whose motives are less pure than he claims – insists on looking for reasons, flaws in the life of the island that might account for such horror; while Sunna insists that to impose such a narrative is only to add to the suffering of the islanders.

The play is oddly structured, often more like a raging monologue from Julie Austin’s grief-stricken Sunna, with occasional interruptions from Mark Wood’s Danny, than a genuine conversation. It’s difficult, though, to resist the power of a drama that, for all its brevity, slices straight to the heart of our increasingly impatient demand for simple, blame-shifting explanations that keep tragic events at a distance. The need to dismiss Sunna’s island as a strange, dark, “different” place that somehow invited its own tragedy haunts Danny’s journey; while Sunna’s absolute refusal to be complicit in that process marks her out as a memorable character for our time, glimpsed only briefly, but difficult to forget.

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Arches Live! 2012 (2) Macbeth, Make Do And Mend, Ndgame, Funk’n’Love

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2012 (2) at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.9.12
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Macbeth 4 stars ****
Make Do And Mend 3 stars ***
Ndgame 3 stars ***
Funk’n’Love 3 stars ***

IN A DEEP dark arch, somewhere under central station, tattered flags hang from the ceilling, filthy and bloodied. The light is dim; a group of six face-painted drummers dressed in black stand gathered around a fallen steel cupboard. As a ferocious soundscape fills the space, they begin to beat on the steel with drumsticks; the sound – including fragments of Shakespeare’s verse – is terrifying, like a solid wall of horror sweeping out through the audience.

This is the Black Sun Drum Korps’s 25-minute Macbeth, part of the second group of shows in this year’s Arches Live! festival. The show describes itself as offering highlander rhythms, dark magick and industrial witchcraft; but in truth it seems more frightening than that, a dark vision of some violent, blood-boltered Scottish past that could return to haunt us still.

Elsewhere, though, the exploration of identity seem more gentle. In Lucy Hutson’s thoughtful installation-with-video Make Do And Mend, it’s all about gender, family, old domestic skills, and what women’s changing roles have done to relations between the generations. In Andrew Houston’s hugely ingenious and promising 20-minute fragment Ndgame, the characters of Clov and Hamm from Beckett’s Endgame re-enact their final drama through a world of virtual reality, where the switching off of a laptop screen represents extinction.

And in Funk’n’Love, Solar Bear and Deaf Youth Theatre produce a gorgeous piece of youth theatre about the music we love, and the dreams that inspire us, full of a fine mix of music, video, animation, and live performance by a terrific young cast. The style is familiar, from shows by companies like Ontroerend Goed and Junction 25. But the music – by electronic/bhangra duo Tigerstyle – is fine, made visible in a projected sound-desk display; and the sheer joy of the performance is as infectious as it is life-affirming.

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Factually Wrong, Morally Indefensible: Let’s Keep “Generation War” Lies Out Of Scottish Politics – Column 21.9.12

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.9.12
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DIVIDE AND RULE. THROUGHOUT history, it has been the favourite maxim of oppressive rulers; and it has never been deployed with more success that in the United States and Britain, since the fateful tipping-point – just a generation ago – when our societies began to shift from an age of progress and growing equality, into the present age of reaction.

So last week, we saw how the strategy of divide-and-rule worked to protect South Yorkshire police in the aftermath of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, when those who died were portrayed to the rest of Britain as drunken thugs, alien to respectable citizens like themselves. And this week, we saw Mitt Romney, Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States, dismissing half of the voters in his own country – the ones who vote Democrat – as lazy slobs, who pay no tax and live off benefits.

Of all the divide-and-rule strategies, though, it seems to me that there is none cruder, or more potentially cruel, than the systematic attempt now being made to blame the whole of my generation, the so-called “baby boomers”, for the hardships now being suffered by young people in their twenties. And this week, to my infinite sadness, this ugly line of thought arrived with a headline-seeking crash in Scottish politics, when a debate at Holyrood was apparently dominated by dire predictions that our society could be “torn apart” by inter-generational conflict, if greedy pensioners continue to receive universal benefits such as bus passes, and the famously costly free personal care.

Now without a doubt, there is a debate to be had about the fairness and continuing viability of universal benefits, as against the targeting of public spending where need is greatest. It’s difficult to imagine, though, what kind of reputable person would seek to set that debate in the framework of an attempt to ramp up hostility against an entire generation – a generation which is, in truth, extremely varied in its economic circumstances. For myself, I count myself lucky to have had the famous benefit of a free university education supported by grants. I count myself lucky to be in work, and earning a few thousand pounds a year more than the UK average wage. I count myself normal in having always paid my taxes, and having been happy to do so; and I don’t object to the fact that although I recently turned 60, I am no longer entitled to a state pension at this age.

I count myself unlucky, on the other hand, to have taken out three small private pension plans in the late 1980’s, without realising – as most people now do – that the industry is heavily skewed in favour of the provider, and could never offer me a significant retirement income. And as for my bus pass – well, I haven’t applied for it yet; but given the amount of money our governments have lately found to spend on such debatable items as the renewal of Trident, and the notorious trillion-pound bailout of the banks, you must forgive me if I find it hard to believe that my bus pass – likely to be used in moderation, and warmly appreciated as a small gesture of recognition – is the thing that is “tearing society apart”. It’s an assertion that makes about as much sense as Nick Clegg’s apology this week – now hilariously satirised on social media – for making a promise on student tuition fees that he couldn’t keep, because “there wasn’t the money to pay for it.”

In the current competition for what are being framed as “scarce” public resources, in other words, we urgently need to stand back from the day-to-day debate, and take a sober look at a much bigger picture. First, we need to ask ourselves why, in a country with generally low levels of pensions and benefits, we are so vulnerable to the false belief that we, the tax-payers, are being excessively generous; whereas anyone who takes the slightest interest in the facts can see the truth that millions of women in my generation, in particular, are facing retirement with no significant pension provision at all, and that Britain’s standard state pension, at £107 a week, is not enough to live on, never mind to live it up on.

Secondly, we need to ask ourselves why, when our societies are measurably wealthier than they were a generation ago, we are expected to believe that we can no longer afford public goods that we once took for granted. We need to ask – as Nick Clegg does not – whether the resources really are “not there”, or whether the use of them to provide generous public services and benefits is being interdicted by other forces in the system; not least by those wealthy individuals who are now able to annex, and take out of the country, amounts of personal wealth that would keep significant public services running for years.

And finally, we need to grasp that there is, behind all of this, a profound debate about what a society is, and why its common life matters. For we can all, in our worst moments, perform that cheap and nasty psychological trick of distancing ourselves from the thing we most fear, whether it is poverty, or failure, or old age and infirmity. We can frame those who suffer from these things as “other” than ourselves, withhold compassion from them, deny that we owe them anything, work up a lather of bar-room indignation over the taxes we pay to support them.

Every time we adopt these attitudes, though, we only damage ourselves; damage our completeness as human beings, our knowledge that we ourselves will one day be old and frail, and our ability to live with that truth, or indeed to recognise any truth at all. The braver and wiser thing is to try to build a society on the most enlightened and generous impulses of the human mind, on its generosity, imagination, empathy, curiosity, and infinite invention. And in my experience, those who spend a lifetime trying to do that are finally able to count their old-age pension in things that matter far more than money; in a true sense of fulfilment, and in the security that comes with friendship, comradeship, self-respect, and love.

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The Cone Gatherers, She Town, Chalk Farm

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CONE GATHERERS at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, SHE TOWN at Dundee Rep, and CHALK FARM at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 20.9.12
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The Cone Gatherers 3 stars ***
She Town 4 stars ****
Chalk Farm 4 stars ****

POLITICAL THEATRE: it’s often said to be dead, or out of fashion. Yet every show worth the name has dimensions that reach out beyond the individual story, towards the big currents of change that shape whole societies; and this week, Scotland’s autumn theatre season moves up a gear, with three major shows all set in the borderlands between the personal and the political, and all committed to very different ways of exploring that territory.

For the great Scottish novelist Robin Jenkins – whose 1955 masterpiece The Cone Gatherers has now been adapted for the stage in a new touring version by Peter Arnott, directed by Kenny Ireland for Aberdeen Performing Arts – the politics of the war-torn 1940’s come from deep within the characters, and from their broken hearts and minds. The time is 1941, and the place is a Highland estate where the lady of the house has taken charge, while her husband “does his bit” in the British army. The lady leaves many decisions to her head gamekeeper, the taciturn Mr. Duror; but when two gypsy brothers arrive on the estate as casual labourers for the annual cone-gathering, Duror’s mounting hostility to the younger brother, a boy with learning difficulties, triggers a devastating crisis.

What Jenkins has constructed is a magnificent story about the impulse of fascism in the human mind; the cruel, bitter need to objectify , distance and destroy the thing we most fear, whether it is weakness, poverty, cultural otherness, or some physical imperfection. Yet although the whole of this great story is present in the Aberdeen production – and back-projections of Hitler rallies and death-camps make the political context clear – there’s something about the show that seems theatrically lifeless, and oddly distant. Kenny Ireland’s production rejects simple naturalism, but never seems to find a consistent alternative, choral, poetic, or immersive; instead, it often seems awkwardly caught between conventional drawing-room drama, and 80’s-style ensemble narrative, with even a passing nod to the current interest in puppetry.

There’s a memorably atmospheric forest set though, designed by Hayden Griffin, with shimmering projections by Greig Dempster. And the cast – led by Jennifer Black and Tom McGovern, with John Kielty and Ben Winger as the brothers – give a series of thoughtful and intense performances, in a show that strives to do full justice to a great novel, even if it never quite transforms itself into great theatre.

There are also questions of style in Sharman Macdonald’s She Town, the second play in Dundee Rep’s double-bill about 20th century working-class life in the city. Here, though, the play itself absolutely forbids naturalism, as Macdonald lines up a cast of 40 women, and starts to intertwine such a fragmented series of jostling plot-lines that only recurring soliloquies from the characters – stark, stylised, and often downright poetic – can possibly keep us abreast of what’s happening.

The play is set in the “backies” or tenement back courts of Dundee in the mid-1930’s; the title reflects the experience of a town where women, as textile mill workers, were more likely to be employed than their menfolk. Yet the main storylines reflect a familiar story of wage cuts and unsuccessful strike action on one hand; and on the other, a glimpse of a richer cultural and political world, as the women audition for a choir to accompany the great singer Paul Robeson, in a concert at the Caird Hall.

In the end, Jemima Levick’s bold production – featuring nine ensemble actors, plus a community cast of three dozen, a looming, stylised back-court set, and some finely-choreographed movement in the manner of a 1920’s expressionist film – doesn’t quite succeed in making a fluent evening of this hugely complex play. Compared with its companion piece The Mill Lavvies, though, it’s a brave and original piece of theatre; and one that recalls Giles Havergal’s great 1982 production of Men Should Weep, in its determination to avoid a nostalgic or sentimental view of tenement life, and to offer something more challenging, and more truthful.

Neither of these big mainstage shows, though, packs as fierce and well-targeted a political punch as this week’s Play, Pie and Pint show Chalk Farm, a new piece by Kieran Hurley, the latest rising star of Scottish playwriting, and his partner and fellow-writer AJ Taudevin. Set during last year’s London riots and their aftermath, Chalk Farm is set mainly in the tower-block flat of Maggie, a single mum brilliantly played by Taudevin herself. With tears in her eyes, she is making a packed lunch for her 14-year-old son Jamie; through flashbacks, we learn why this is no ordinary day, and how a society searching for scapegoats has destroyed the life of a woman who has worked desperately hard to keep things together for herself and her boy.

The premise is simple; but the writing is brilliant, sharp, poetic, passionate, full of searing insight into the politics of blame, matched with a brilliant eye for the detail of life in divided Britain today. And if Taudevin, as Maggie, gives a performance impossible to forget, she is matched all the way by Sean Brown as her vulnerable son, and by Andrew Cowan’s superb sound design; in a magnificent little play driven by the best politics, the politics of love for ordinary hard-working people, and contempt for those who sweep their hopes and dreams aside, like so much rubbish on a post-riot street.

The Cone Gatherers at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, until Saturday, at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 23-27 October, and on tour to Glasgow, Inverness, Dundee and Perth. She Town at Dundee Rep until 29 September. Chalk Farm at Oran Mor until Saturday.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

As both writer and performer, Julia Taudevin is fast emerging as one of the most exciting forces in Scottish theatre; and she is magnificent in this week’s Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime show at Oran Mor, which she has also co-written. In a play barely 45 minutes long, she creates an unforgettable character in Maggie, the single mum who works long hours in a call centre to keep a life together for her teenage son, but who is left to feel, in the aftermath of last year’s London riots, that the fault is somehow hers. It’s heartbreaking stuff; but also brilliant, beautifully written, and true.

ENDS ENDS

Arches Live! 2012 (1) Fire Into Song, Misconstructions: The Eigg Lectures Version 4, Minotaur/Monitor

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2012 (1) at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 19.9.12
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Fire Into Song 3 stars ***
Misconstructions – The Eigg Lectures Version 4 2 stars **
Minotaur/Monitor 3 stars ***

THERE’S SOMETHING PRIMAL about the first batch of shows in this year’s Arches Live! festival; although whether the recurring interest in ancient myths and legends is a serious sign of the times remains to be proven. Cara Berger’s 40-minute piece Fire Into Song is a powerful case in point, a female revisiting of the Prometheus myth, in which Berger tries to imagine that the mythical figure who created humanity and stole fire from the gods could have been a woman.

Given the intense erotic content of Calum Rodger’s infinitely reshuffling live-generated poetry, it seems as though the performance – articulated through Vanessa Coffey’s powerful dance, to Joshua Payne’s soundscape and Victoria Beesley’s reading of the text – could make more of the idea of birth and destruction in women’s lives. This is a far more thrilling and dramatic show, though, than Alexander Stevenson’s Misconstructions: The Eigg Lectures, which alternates between three performance areas offering low-level dance, hesitant storytelling, and miniature academic lectures read by audience volunteers. The idea is an interesting one, about an outsider in an island community, a trickster, myth-maker, storyteller; but the execution is patchy at best.

All of which leaves Calum MacAskill’s ten-minute miniature Minotaur/Monitor as the most coherent theatrical experience of the evening, as a hooded figure leads the lone audience member through the labyrinth of the Arches basement, to meet the agonised, suffering creature – half man, half bull – buried in its depths. Born a monster, this minotaur is, in part, an old man whose physical deformity brings agonising pain. Yet as the mythical story of the minotaur growls from an old tape recorder, and MacAskill lurches through the dark space in an astonishing bull’s head mask, the ancient horror of the story comes fiercely to life, with a strange and chilling contemporary force.

ENDS ENDS