Daily Archives: October 26, 2013

Write Here! 2013 (2)

____________________________________________________

JOYCE MCMILLAN on WRITE HERE! (Version 2) at the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 26.10.13.
____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

GIVEN THE TRAVERSE’S commmitment to work with no fewer than 50 new writers, to mark its golden anniversary year, it’s perhaps not surprising that this year’s Write Here! autumn festival of readings and works-in-progress seems super-charged with energy and invention.

It’s still something of a culture-shock, though, to walk into a theatre building so stuffed with playwrights that their words are literally spilling onto the walls, and out of the air. There are little, fragmentary “hidden plays” lurking in the lift, on toilet walls, on the foyer mirrors. And if you acquire a set of headphones from a table in the bar, you can listen to another 19 small audio plays – including a superb foyer piece called Noise, by Alison Carr – while you walk round the powerful bar exhibition of photographic portraits of the playwrights.

And then there are the live theatre performances; evening readings of new plays by established writers like Stef Smith and Morna Pearson, and lunchtime double-bills of 25-minute plays by the Traverse 50, all performed script-in-hand by a terrific team of actors, including John Bett, Lesley Hart, David Ireland, Kathryn Howden, and Gabriel Quigley. Among the lunchtime highlights, so far, is Robert Dawson Scott’s powerful, understated Assessment, about the next terrible, logical step for a society that values money above life itself, and regards people on benefits and pensions as nothing but a burden.

And there’s a strong sense of a dystopian future, too, in the triple bill of plays presented in Traverse One as the culmination of the week, with a final show tonight. In Strictly, by Ellie Stewart, an elderly couple, beautifully played by John Bett and Kath Howden, try to obey government instructions after a nuclear holocaust. In Lachlan Philpott’s chill and gripping monologue, In 3D, Lesley Hart is a young schoolteacher haunted by the strange eyes and stories of a little boy who seems to have more than mortal knowledge. And In Spoiling, by John McCann, Gabriel Quigley gives a bravura performance as a heavily pregnant Scottish Foreign Secretary preparing to give a speech at her first formal meeting with her UK counterpart since Scotland voted to become independent; with David Ireland as a harassed civil servant sent to mind her, in a 25-minute play that reels from fierce political satire to wild, surreal poetry, and then – with a cackle of wicked, energising laughter – reels straight back again.

ENDS ENDS

Advertisements

Write Here! 2013 (1)

____________________________________________________

JOYCE MCMILLAN on WRITE HERE! at the Traverse theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 26.10.13.
____________________________________________________

4 stars ****

GIVEN THE TRAVERSE’S commmitment to work with no fewer than 50 new writers, to mark its golden anniversary year, it’s perhaps not surprising that this year’s Write Here! autumn festival of readings and works-in-progress seems super-charged with energy and invention.

It’s still something of a culture-shock, though, to walk into a theatre building so stuffed with playwrights that their words are literally spilling onto the walls, and out of the air. There are little, fragmentary “hidden plays” lurking in the lift, on the foyer mirrors, on toilet walls, and even in the paper towel dispenser. And if you acquire a pair of headphones from a table in the bar, you can listen to another 19 small audio plays – including a superb foyer piece called Noise, by Alison Carr, brilliantly performed by Gabriel Quigley – while you walk round the powerful bar exhibition of photographic portraits of the playwrights.

And then there are the live performances, downstairs in Traverse Two; evening readings of new plays by established writers like Stef Smith and Morna Pearson, a weekend triple-bill of brand new work, and lunchtime double-bills of 25-minute plays by the Traverse 50, all performed script-in-hand by a terrific team of actors, including John Bett, Lesley Hart, David Ireland, Kathryn Howden, and Gabriel Quigley.

Among the highlights, so far, is Robert Dawson Scott’s powerful, understated Assessment, about the next logical step in a society that values money above life itself, and regards people on benefits – even pensioners who have contributed all their lives – as nothing but a burden; what’s supremely chilling is Dawson Scott’s sharp understanding of how easily the current language of privatised, outsourced official assessment would lend itself to such a move. There’s a powerful sense of a dystopian future, too, in Denise Keane’s Kingdom Of Me – in which a pregnant woman in London in 2016 experiences chilling premonitions of a British society breaking down into savage tribal conflict – and Alison Carr’s extreme comedy Fat Alice, in which the obesity crisis suddenly and literally intrudes into the new love-nest of an adulterous couple. The new generation of Traverse playwrights are not offering us a rosy vision of the coming century, in other words; but they are demonstrating that if anything can brighten our prospects, it’s this kind of explosion of creativity, naming and describing the tragi-comic crises we face, and beginning to imagine new responses to them.

ENDS ENDS

Theatre In The Round

______________________________________________________

JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE IN THE ROUND for Scotsman Magazine, 26.10.13.
______________________________________________________

SATURDAY NIGHT, and a small but intent-looking audience is gathering for the official opening of Dundee Rep’s new production of Hecuba, Euripides’s brief and mighty 2,500-year-old tragedy about the defeated queen of Troy after her fall. The audience is smaller than the usual Dundee Rep crowd because the show is being staged in a specially-created studio space on the Rep’s spacious stage. There are three rows of seating arranged on three sides – perhaps 100 seats in all, compared with the usual 400 – and a playing-area in the middle, strewn with shattered rocks; and as the action unfolds, it becomes clear that the production is a compelling artistic success, cutting straight to the heart of the horror and vengeance that always follows such a catastrophic defeat.

It’s more than half a century, now, since theatre-in-the-round – or almost in the round – began to play a major role in British theatre; and as I watched Irene Macdougall’s terrific Hecuba prowl the Dundee stage, often just inches from the audience, I began to wonder about the strange dynamics that make this form of theatre so powerful on some occasions, and yet so unhelpful on others. There remains a kind of presumption in British theatre that working in the round has something to do with modernity and dynamism, and is almost always a good thing. The task of presenting drama on a wide canvas, facing an audience wihch sits in rows in the dark, is now so brilliantly accomplished by film and wide-screen television – goes the argument – that theatre can hardly compete. Instead, it should play to its unique strengths, bringing living, breathing actors so close to the audience that we can smell their sweat.

And all of this certainly works in Amanda Gaughan’s production of Hecuba. Here, the heart of the drama lies in the character of the fallen queen – proud, vengeful, and utterly ravaged by grief – and in the words she speaks to the other characters around her; we can therefore only gain by seeing Irene Macdougall’s great performance up close, and from every angle.

Yet the last time Dundee Rep created a studio space on stage, in 2010, I remember being less impressed. The play was Peter Shaffer’s Equus, about a young boy’s religious and erotic obsession with horses; and somehow the in-the-round setting seemed to confuse rather than illuminate this study of the conflicting forces around the boy and his troubled psychiatrist – particularly the role of the stylised horses, who on a conventional stage can form a permanent half-circle around the action, ever-present, always watching.

It seems, in other words, that there are types of drama – perhaps more driven by ideas and the battle between them, more symbolic, more dependent on the visual sweep and balance of the stage – that thrive in a traditional end-on presentation, and begin to seem cluttered and confused when we cannot see the stage picture steadily and whole, choosing where to direct our gaze; Ibsen comes to mind, along with Arthur Miller.

And it also seems – as Hecuba demonstrates – that this distinction has nothing to with age or modernity, and everything to do with some intrinsic quality in the drama itself. This month, for example, the Royal Lyceum plays host to Dominic Hill’s brilliant staging of Chris Hannan’s new version of Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment, co-produced with the Citizens’ Theatre; it’s a dazzling piece of 21st century theatre, making fabulous use of a fluid, open-stage theatrical style that shifts in an instant from words to music. Could it work in the round, though? I think not. To grasp its brilliance, we need to see the whole stage and society before us, like an ever-shifting series of pictures; not better or worse than Hecuba at Dundee, but driven by a different dramatic energy, and part of a theatre culture in Scotland that, at best, is gaining a wider expressive vocabulary with every passing year.

Hecuba at Dundee Rep, final performances today; Crime And Punishment at the Royal Lyceum until 9 November.

ENDS WNDS