Monthly Archives: September 2013

Dark Road

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DARK ROAD at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 30.9.13.
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2 stars **

IT’S EDINBURGH, it’s 1988, and there’s been a murder; indeed there have been four horrible, ritualistic murders, of young girls in their teens. And ambitious young Detective Constable Isobel McArthur is on the case, determined – with her boss “Black” Fergus McLintock, and her colleague and lover Frank Bowman – to find the killer, and put him away for life.

That’s the story that forms the backdrop to Dark Road, the first-ever stage play by Edinburgh’s renowned crime writer Ian Rankin, co-written with – and directed by – the Royal Lyceum’s artistic director, Mark Thomson; and the omens were good, as an excited audience gathered at the Lyceum for Saturday’s premiere performance. The play itself is set in the present, when McArthur – 25 years on, once Scotland’s first woman Chief Constable, and now facing retirement – finds herself beset by doubts about the conviction of the alleged murderer, Alfred Chalmers; and the scene seems set for a fine, dark two-and-a-half-hours of classy genre fiction in the style pioneered by television cop shows from Prime Suspect to The Killing, featuring an impressive cast led by the wonderful Maureen Beattie as McArthur, with Robert Gwilyn as Frank, and a fine Sara Vickers as McArthur’s teenage daughter, Alexandra.

So how to account, then, for the slow-motion car-crash of theatrical bad taste, chaotic plotting, and sheer, pointless nastiness that eventually overtakes one of Scottish theatre’s most promising recent projects? The first sign of trouble comes with the set, a great concrete-look revolve – often enlivened by huge projected images of the dead girls – that jolts us from home to office to prison cell in the most literal manner, as if the play had given up early on the idea of creating a cop show for theatre, and was bent on mimicking the narrative structure of a television series, gussied up with the odd explosion of superficial “theatricality”.

And from that moment on, problems of genre seem to dog the show, as it lurches from the noirish heightened naturalism of good 21st century television into a series of risible and grotesque dream-sequences in which McArthur confronts the killer in her own living room, and then – towards the end – dives into an orgy of half-baked onstage violence that seems more like black farce than anything else. The play also boasts two staggeringly silly late plot-twists, one of which undermines the whole preceding narrative; and in the last 20 minutes, it completely blows its own credentials as a potentially interesting drama, to become a sickening display of sadism for its own sake.

I suppose the final scenes of Dark Road might become a cult hit among those who enjoy horror in all its forms, including terrible dialogue and plenty of blood; and it can’t be said too clearly that Thomson’s fine cast, including Philip Whitchurch as Chalmers, do all they can with the characters around whom the story is built. In terms of narrative and style, though, this show gradually fades into a silly, sensational mess, with nothing to say, and a peculiarly graceless way of saying it; time to lower the curtain, and move on.

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Sunshine On Dundee

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SUNSHINE ON DUNDEE for Scotsman Magazine 28.9.13.
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SUNDAY MORNING; and along with my toast, I’m chewing my way through a huge list of news reports and reviews of the film version of the Proclaimers’ tribute musical Sunshine On Leith, which had its British premiere in Edinburgh last week. The reviews are generally warm, unable to resist the show’s gorgeous, positive vision of Edinburgh and Leith, and the rich humanity of the songs; the Proclaimers themselves, Craig and Charlie Reid, are said to be delighted.

Yet in all these thousands of words of coverage, there are two words that do not appear at all, apart from a solitary mention in a news story by The Scotsman’s Brian Ferguson; those words are “Dundee Rep”, the name of the theatre that commissioned, nurtured, and first staged this show, back in 2007, in a memorably inventive and joyous production by the theatre’s then artistic director James Brining, now in charge of West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It was the Rep – with its multi-talented permanent ensemble of actors – that worked with writer Stephen Greenhorn to develop the show, and forged the script and the music into a fast-moving, beautifully-staged production, with choreography by Lizzie Gee and set by Neil Warmington. And it was the Rep that then took the risk – and the eventual financial loss – involved in scaling up the show for UK mainstage tour, which played to packed houses at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh at Christmas 2008, but did less well south of the Border.

Now it’s not – let’s make it clear – that Dundee Rep is complaining about this lack of recognition. It remains a hugely successful theatre with a powerful acting ensemble. It is well supported by Creative Scotland, Dundee City Council and other funding bodies; and the development of new Scottish work that will go on to find a wider audience is one of its key roles, which it is publicly funded to fulfil.

What is intriguing, though, and perpetually frustrating, is the extent to which Scotland’s cultural community fails to reap the full benefit of the rich and often world-beating theatrical life that has developed in this country since the 1960’s, simply because theatre’s visibility in the general public conversation remains so low. The reasons for theatre’s relatively low salience are complex, of course, ranging from the emphemeral quality of the experience itself, to the contested history of professional theatre in Scotland, where the art-form was frowned upon in many parts of the country for centuries after the Reformation, and often became closely associated, in the public mind, with touring productions imported from London. And the situation is a fast-changing one; there’s no doubt that the coming of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006, and the emergence through the Traverse of a generation of contemporary playwrights with a strong popular following in Scotland, has begun to transform the place of theatre in our cultural life.

For every Sunshine On Leith that makes its way through onto the big screen, though, I’m still aware that there are dozens of shows being created in Scottish theatre, every year, that could have a similar impact on our shared life in Scotland now, if only they were more widely seen, discussed and reflected upon. And the low profile of all this creative activity is not a loss to theatre, which is now an art-form much appreciated by audiences and funders, not least for its key role as a hot-house and laboratory for talent. It’s rather a loss to our wider culture, which has in its midst a gem of a place like Dundee Rep, with the capacity to help generate one of the most inventive and uplifting tribute musicals ever made; but somehow prefers to turn a blind eye to all that creative richness, as if a phenomenon like Sunshine On Leith, in its present form, had simply come to us from elsewhere, courtesy of the commercial stage, and the global film industry.

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The Baroness

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BARONESS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 28.9.13.
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3 stars ***

ROLLING into the Traverse this weekend after a long Scottish tour, Dogstar Theatre’s latest show offers a strange combination of fascinating themes, a high-voltage leading performance, and an oddly static and repetitive drama, which – in Matthew Zajac’s production – takes a leisurely two hours to visit and revisit an emotional landscape that is fairly thoroughly mapped out in the first twenty minutes.

Acclaimed as Denmark’s “play of the year” in 2011, Thor Bjorn Krebs’s two-act drama – translated by Kim Dambaek – explores the later life of the famous female explorer and adventurer Karen Blixen, born in Denmark in 1885, and immortalised in her own book Out Of Africa. In her early Sixties, back home in Denmark, Blixen encounters the young poet Thorkild Bjornvig, and strikes up a strange “pact” with him, in which she urges him to pursue his art by doing “the most dangerous and the most unheard of”, blowing his life apart in the process.

There are at least three fascinating themes here, one involving the clash between creativity and domesticity, another examining the charged relationship between a young artist and a much older mentor, and a third exploring the way in which Blixen’s continuing power, charisma and influence, as an older woman, seems – even to her – linked with witchcraft, or a pact with the devil. Roberta Taylor gives a powerful, vivid performance as Blixen, with Ewan Donald if fine form as the poet, and Aidan O’Rourke providing some terrific, jarring recorded violin music.

In the end, though, the story’s direction of travel is not clear, as it loops repeatedly around the same questions about Thorkild’s genius or ordinariness, Blixen’s creative inspiration or malign possessiveness. And though uncertainty in art can be a fine thing, there is a difference between a powerful dichotomy, held in productive tension, and the mood of confusion, and of constantly shifting direction, that finally settles on this strange and intriguing play.

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Women In Politics, And The Rare Achievement Of Angela Merkel – Column 27.9.13.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 27.9.13
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A FEW YEARS ago, I found myself working with the former Scottish Labour politician Wendy Alexander on a Hansard Society study of the representation of women in parliamentary politics in the UK; and I have never forgotten the strange, ambiguous quality of the picture that emerged. On one hand, it seems we live in an age when parties have never been more publicly committed to improving female representation; even the Conservatives, these days, make some of the right noises about trying to improve the gender balance of their parliamentary party, and their front bench.

Yet in practice, it seems that there have been changes in our political and social culture, over the last 20 years, that have been working against this theoretical commitment to greater gender equality. Among these pressures are the relentless emphasis on physical appearance, which bears even more heavily on women than men as they enter the middle-aged years when most political careers reach their peak; and the development of a 24-hour media cycle which demands that ministers and senior parliamentarians are “always on”, and rarely if ever take time off. These conditions of 21st century political life make the job amost impossible for any person with caring commitments; and have driven many women out of front-line politics in recent years, including Wendy Alexander herself.

All of which only makes more remarkable the achievement of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who this week won a resounding third victory in a German general election, coming within a whisker of an overall majority in a Bundestag elected by the same system later chosen for the Scottish Parliament, and similarly designed to make overall majorities unlikely. Mrs. Merkel is now set to become the longest-serving elected female head of government in European history, overtaking Margaret Thatcher, the leader with whom she is most often compared. In truth, though, she could hardly be less like Margaret Thatcher in style and personality; and it is interesting to consider just how she has succeeded in becoming perhaps the most widely trusted and respected leader in German postwar history.

The first thing to note about her, therefore, is that she resolutely refuses to compete in the glamour stakes, or to treat politics – in the Anglo-American manner – as if it was a slightly more serious version of some glitzy reality television show. She is neat, smart, and well turned out; but she does not aim for the blonde charisma achieved by Margaret Thatcher in her prime, nor does she seem to have had any “work” done on her face. This may be a matter of the inner confidence and psychological strength of a woman brough up with other and less flashy values, as the daughter of Lutheran pastor in a small East German town; or it may be that German culture is still slightly protected from the torrent of trivial and bullying comment on the appearance of celebrities generated by the English-language popular media. Either way, Merkel seems unmoved by the pursuit of eternal youth and beauty; she behaves like a grown-up leader with other things on her mind, and when that pioneer of shallow media-led politics, Silvio Berlusconi, allegedly described her as an “unf****able lard-arse”, she doubtless reasoned that anyone so insulted by this appalling man must be doing something right.

Secondly, it should be noted that like many successful female politicians – including our own Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who resembles Merkel in style – she has remained childless, a price for a political career which barely any male politician has to pay; the fact that Merkel – born in 1954, aged 35 when the Berlin Wall fell – was free of caring responsibilities in her 30’s and 40’s undoubtedly helped her to build a political career in the newly united Germany.

And then finally, there is steadiness about Merkel – a lack of frenzy, of volatility, of the kind of self-obsession that leads to explosions of temperament and severe lapses of judgment – that the German people seem deeply to appreciate. I hesitate to ascribe Merkel’s apparent lack of ego to her gender; but like a good commiitee-woman, she seems to have a gift for avoiding the personalised games around status and dominance that distract so many men of power, and for keeping her mind focussed on real problems and possible solutions. Ideologically, I am not a fan of Merkel, or of her Christian Democrat Party; it’s clear, for example, that the austerity measures she has been instrumental in imposing on Eurozone countries like Greeece, Spain and Portugal are too severe and doctrinaire to be sustainable in the long term.

In temperament and thought, though, this woman raised among the Lutheran Christians of the old East Germany seems a million miles removed from the ideologically-driven neoliberal right of the English-speaking world. The transatlantic elite has been arguing for a generation that the German social-market model of capitalism is doomed; whereas in fact, across that period, Germany has routinely outperformed all other large western economies, absorbing and gradually modernising an entire east European state, and achieving levels of export-led prosperity, combined with reasonable social equality, which countries like the UK cannot begin to match.

And although Merkel has taken some steps towards deregulation during her Chancellorship, in her gut she seems to understand that Germans, even in these times, enjoy so much of what is worth having in the way of peace, affluence, security and opportuniy, that only a fool would rock the boat by indulging in bouts of ideological radicalism. For although Angela Merkel is now routinely rated the most powerful woman in the world, she still shows no sign – in the eyes, voice, or vocabulary – of that blustering egotistical madness that often seizes even the most democratic of leaders, after some years in power; she still seems to value stability more than runaway growth, and to retain the power of counting and defending the nation’s blessings before they have been lost, rather than once they are gone. And given recent experience across the West, the Germans may well be right to conclude that that combination of experience and sanity is something to be prized, in 21st century politics; or at least not to be discarded lightly, in such uncertain times.

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Macbheatha

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MACBHEATHA at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.9.13.
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4 stars ****

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is everywhere in Scottish theatre at the moment, with Rachel O’Riordan’s new production on its way from Perth Theatre to the Tron, and David Greig’s great sequel Dunsinane about to return to Edinburgh.  It would be difficult, though, to find a more vivid and tightly-focussed version of Skakespeare’s story that this powerful new one-hour adaptation for two actors, translated into a sinewy and richly atmospheric Gaelic by Ian McDonald.  

With the help of a battery of television screens that deliver news of battles and atrocities as well as supernatural visitations, and of the mobile phones carried by Daibhid Walker as Macbheatha and Catriona Lexy Campbell as his Lady, MacDonald’s version makes an extraordinary job of delivering all the key moments of the play in a two-person format that throws a fierce emphasis onto the blighted and deteriorating relationship between Macbheatha and his wife.  Both Walker and Campbell turn in superb, passionate and driven performances, young, sexually charged and blazing with ambition.  And if Liz Carruthers’s otherwise excellent production comes to a slightly abrupt end, without the final bulletin we need to tell us of Prince Chaluim’s ascent to the throne, it still offers a fierce insight into the relationship at the centre of one of the world’s greatest plays; as well as a reminder that like any other  language charged with history and poetry, Gaelic brings its own energy to this great text, along with a profound and thrilling sense of connection to the mediaeval Scotland in which this most famous of stories is set.

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Arches Live! 2013 Part 3

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ARCHES LIVE! 2013 Part 3 at the Arches Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 26.9.13.
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4 stars ****

IT’S THE LAST few days of this year’s Arches Live! festival of new performance, and the event remains divided – as last week – between the fiercely political, and the sweetly, almost wistfully personal. So the first two shows of my final evening at the Arches offered a sweetly matched pair of meditations on the chosen art-forms of the artists involved, and on their inward relationship with them. Greg Sinclair’s I Do, Do I is a delightful 45-minute show about music, in which Sinclair produces a playful and sometimes intriguing series of fragments of performance, involving the production of sound; it might be a few verses of Frere Jacques played on his beloved cello, or just the tiny click when the cap of a pen settles into place.

He’s The Greatest Dancer, by contrast, offers a reflection on the idea of dance, inspired by the work and character of Ian Johnston, a Glasgow performance artist with various learning disorders, who has nonetheles become a much-admired dancer. Jointly created by Johnston with co-performer Gary Gardiner and Adrian Howells, He’s The Greatest Dancer is a tentative yet complex and sometimes beautiful show, in which Gardiner’s dominance of the show’s verbal exchanges is deconstructed and interrogated, while Johnston takes centre stage in the dance sequences.

As I crept away from the Arches, though, Buzzcut impresario and performer Rosana Cade and her sister Amy – who has spent the last decade working in the sex industry – were presenting a first draft of their new show Sister. The performance fairly bristles with politics, as the two begin to ask whether feminists can simply turn their backs on the porn industry, or should be trying to invade and transform it; and by the time it returns as part of next spring’s Arches Behaviour Festival, Sister should be a show to reckon with.

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Woman Of The Year

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WOMAN OF THE YEAR at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 25.9.13.
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3 stars ***

IF EVER you want to see an Oran Mor show bristling with slightly unfulfilled potential, Stef Smith’s new monologue for the Play, Pie And Pint season is that play. Created by the young writer of the magnificent site-specific show Roadkill, Woman Of the Year is a shapely and perceptive piece about an ordinary 42-year-old woman of our times, who – to her own embarrassment – has been picked by her local council in Falkirk as their woman of the year, and their representative at an annual Scottish women’s event.

To Paula, though, her life seems far from exemplary; and through the long night before the award ceremony, in her Travelodge bedroom, she recounts what she sees as the strange chapter of accidents and unintended consequences which has brought her to her present life as a wife, mother, and working woman, using her prized art-school education not to create great works, but to help teenage kids with problems.

So Paula leads us through the messy story of her childhood bedwetting, teenage sex, student overdose, and extramarital affair, until she reaches the deepest trauma of all, surrounding the death of her best friend. Smith’s script is overlong and slightly repetitive, and Pauline Goldsmith’s performance as Paula is often inexplicably restless and distracting, twitching and thumping around on the slithery Travelodge bed as if someone had covered it with itching powder.

Yet in the final ten minutes – as the text settles to its storytelling task, and Goldsmith’s performance stills and focusses – we catch a glimpse of the huge latent power of this story of a modern woman pausing to reflect; and not only acknowledging life’s terrible tragedies, its unexpected gifts, and its habit of turning out not to be about us – but also finding a kind of permission to continue living, in what is, for all of us, only ever a work in progress.

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