Monthly Archives: November 2013

Breaking The Magic Moment

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MAGIC MOMENT: DOES SOMETHING STRANGE HAPPEN TO TIME AT THE END OF A GREAT SHOW? for Scotsman Magazine, 30.11.13.
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A COUPLE OF weeks ago, it happened again.  The scene was the downstairs space at Oran Mor, home of the hugely successful Play, Pie and Pint lunchtime theatre; the show was Peter Arnott’s Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, a powerful play about the last days of the great Janis, featuring a thrilling central performance from Angela Darcy.  At the end of the show, the singer and her band had left the stage; Angie Darcy’s voice had faded, to be replaced with the original recording of Janis, finishing the song.  Then it went dark; and the audience were left for a moment to relish what was possibly the finest single show of the 14 in this year’s autumn season at Oran Mor.

Or they would have been left to relish it; if some bright spark in the audience hadn’t decided to signal his or her superior knowledge of the Joplin oeuvre by starting to clap before the last note had faded.  To me, the effect was shattering.  I knew I had seen a great show, and I could remember all the aspects of it that made it great.  Yet the idiot premature clapper had robbed me of the rich, full, golden moment of silence and recognition, before the roar of applause, that would have sealed the emotional experience of it; and I fell to wondering, as I drained my pint of juice, what it is that makes that split-second pause at the end of a great show so important, and why those who fail to respect it seem, at some level, to be wrecking the whole experience.

This is not, I should make clear, the same argument about premature applause that rages in the world of classical music, where the term is mainly used to berate people who applaud at a  time – the end of a movement in a symphony, for example – when audiences traditionally remains silent; although I have noted that audiences at classical concerts also often include a show-off element, who like to applaud as soon as the last note is sounded.  And it’s not quite the same as the argument about bad curtain calls, which abound in 21st century theatre; curtain calls that are too brief and perfunctory to let the audience fully respond to the show, or too heavily orchestrated to let the audience have its moment, and take control of  its own reaction to the work.

The question of what happens when that vital final moment of silence is broken, though, seems to me more mysterious, and less well understood.  It’s related to the way in which a mediocre show can sometimes completely save itself, in the final scenes, by gathering itself to a conclusion that suddenly makes complete emotional sense.  And it suggests that in live performance, time is not exactly linear, but somehow cumulative; so that all the preceding moments of a successful show are somehow contained in its final moment, which bulges like a giant raindrop with all the meaning built up during the performance.

I’ve heard actors say that when a show is going well, time seems to both fly and stretch, so that every moment seems huge and full of potential, even though the whole show seems to be over in a flash; I’ve seen great plays – Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is one – flash brilliantly into focus in their final seconds.  And I have often sat with tears in my eyes, feeling cheated of a whole precious experience, because of  the fool who clapped in that precious moment just after the last breath of performance; time, perhaps, for some clever scientist to begin to investigate what is going on here, and whether some of the strange truths about  the nature of time suggested by advanced quantum physics aren’t being revealed and explored in theatres across the land, every night of the week.

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The Future Is Unwritten: The Scottish Referendum, The White Paper, And The Strange Demand For Future “Facts” – Column 29.11.13.

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 29.11.13
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IT WAS THE NATIONAL BARD, Robert Burns, who once wrote that “facts are chiels that winna ding”, things that cannot, in the end, be ignored or overturned. He wasn’t dealing in “facts”, though, when he imagined a world governed by people of “sense and worth”, in which all men would be brothers; like any well-educated man of the enlightenment, he knew the difference between facts and dreams, or between facts, and hopes for a better world.

That kind of intellectual clarity is in short supply, though, in Scotland’s current independence debate, which entered a new and more intense phase, this week, with the launch of the Scottish Government’s huge 600 page document describing in detail – across the whole range of policy – how it hopes an independent Scotland would work. Now it’s clear, to anyone who stands back for a moment from the hurly-burly of debate, that this independence White Paper is not, and is not intended to be, a factual document; the First Minister himself called it a “mission statement”, a statement of aims and aspirations.

Yet in the response to the White Paper – and throughout the independence debate so far – the demand for hard “facts” about Scotland’s future remains unrelenting. Spokesmen and women for Better Together immediately denounced the White Paper as a “wish list” full of “assertion” rather than “answers”; and voters up and down the land, if opinion polls are to be believed, coninue to declare that they do not have enough “facts” about a future independent Scotland to be able to decide how to vote.

Now it goes without saying that this demand for “facts” about the future is a category mistake; there are no “facts” about Scotland’s future two decades down the line, any more than there are “facts” about how a continuing UK will look, towards the middle of the 21st century. The persistence of this demand, though, is striking; and unless we begin to understand the reasons for it, the debate itself is likely to become more ill-tempered and uproductive by the minute.

The first reason, I think, lies in the fact that current referendum debate ignores one of the basic clarifying rules of constitional change, which is that it should involve a two-phase process: an initial decision in principle, followed after negotiations by final approval of the detail. Scotland has not yet even decided in principle that it wants to open negotiations on becoming independent. Yet now, at the same time as we face that basic choice, we are also being invited by both sides of the argument to consider hundreds of possible detailed consequences of a future independence deal on which negotiations have not even begun; perhaps if voters had been faced first with that simple, elegant question of principle – “Do you want the Scottish Government to open negotiations with the UK government on Scotland becoming an independent country?” – they would be feeling more empowered, and less confused, today.

At a deeper level, though, we are now facing the profound consequences of the fact that this is not the referendum most Scottish voters would have wanted, if anyone had cared to consult them. We have been landed with next year’s straight Yes-No vote on independence through the mere mechanics of party politics – that is, by the unexpected scale of the SNP’s victory in the 2011 Scottish election, combined with the subsequent refusal of the Unionist parties to table a third referendum option, in the form of a new “devolution max” scheme. The contrast with the 1997 referendum, which sought approval of a home rule scheme drawn up over a decade by a wide range of grassroots civic organisations in Scotland, could hardly be greater; and it’s therefore not surprising if large sections of the Scottish public talk as if this referendum has been dropped on them from a great height, by forces far beyond their control.

And this is a serious matter, for a country which still aspires, in some moods, to become a model 21st democracy; the demand for “facts” about our unknowable future bespeaks a disempowered electorate, convinced that control of their fate lies in the hands of an elite who are keeping them in ignorance. In truth, there are mountains of information and opinion already available to voters who want to inform themselves about the independence debate; information about how Scotland’s economy and government work now, about how the UK is functioning, and about the proposals of the SNP, the Green Party, the Jimmy Reid Foundation and others for a different kind of future Scotland. Perhaps, too, by next September, someone on the “no” side will have moved beyond the current strategy of nay-saying and fear-mongering, and started to set out a progressive plan for a continuing UK.

What people seem to find difficult, though, is the idea that the alternative futures are not aready out there waiting to be chosen, like two products on a shelf; but are yet to be built, by citizens who, in or out of the Union, may want to take the shaping of their future into their own hands. 18 years ago in Tuzla, at the end of the war in Bosnia, I heard the late, great Polish Prime Minister and peace activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who died last month, talk about the future for the republics of former Yugoslavia. “If the outcome is division,” he said,” you will need a strong civil society, to ensure that the new nations work to empower their people, and stay in dialogue with their neighbours. And if the outcome is unity, then you will need a strong civil society, to ensure that unity respects diversity, and honours the rights of every citizen.”

And in a mercifully more peaceful corner of the world, that will also be true of Scotland, after September 2014. Independence or not, we will need a revival of our civil society, as a forum for public and community debate about the kind of change that will really improve people’s lives. And we will also need a generation of active citizens who know that the future is not held in some giant book of “facts” controlled by the powerful; but is – in Joe Strummer’s timeless words – still absolutely, and thrillingly, unwritten.

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Engels! The Karl Marx Story

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ENGELS! THE KARL MARX STORY at Discover 21, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 27.11.13.
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2 stars **

IN THE great brutalist 1970’s-style office-block that is St. Margaret’s House, London Road, something new is taking shape. Over the last few years, a group of young shoestring arts companies have taken up residence there, in a part of the building called Arts Complex; and now, they have launched a new studio theatre space, Discover 21, with about 40 simple tip-up seats facing a classic black-box stage.

It’s the kind of initiative Edinburgh theatre needs, short as it always is of cheap, cheerful city-centre spaces for experimental work. Sadly, though, there’s nothing remotely experimental or radial about Ben Blow’s short four-handed student spoof Engels! The Karl Marx Story, the first play to appear in the newly renamed space. In 55 minutes or so of heavily jocular anachronistic dialogue – set in Manchester, Cambridge and Paris – Engels! explores the idea that Karl Marx was a drunken, violent, charismatic layabout, interested only in advancing his own reputation on the back of intellectual work carried out by his friend and cash-cow Friedrich Engels, a serious-minded rich kid, and by Marx’s favourite prostitute Molly Pinchbeck, a sharp political thinker.

Somewhere among the blizzard of half-baked jokes about Groucho, etc., there might have been an interesting comedy about how Marxism differs from more moralistic forms of socialism; some of the acting is admirable, not least from Matthew Jebb as the long-suffering Engels, and Rowan Winter as several minor characters. In the end, though, this play is dedicated to the orthodox post-1980’s notion that revolution is impossible, because people – above all revolutionary leaders – are basically monsters of selfishness and greed. It’s a reactionary idea, and a commonplace one, not nearly as funny as the company seem to think; they call themselves Unknown Quantity/ Dubious Quality, and on this occasion, that tells you almost everything you need to know.

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Home

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on HOME at Oran Mor, Glasgow, 27.11.13.
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4 stars ****

THERE ARE PLENTY of plays around at the moment about old age and dementia, most of them struggling to say more than the obvious about the inevitable sadness and decay of life’s final years.  In her first Play, Pie and Pint show Home, though, brand-new playwright Jenny Knotts demonstrates exactly why she is the first-ever winner of the David MacLennan Award, created by Play, Pie and Pint’s legendary producer for a young writer seeking a first professional production of his or her work

At first, the story seems simple; In the living-room of the house where they grew up, sisters Agnes and Maggie seem to be  waiting for a moment of inevitable change and letting-go.  Agnes is in a wheelchair, but still vigorous, with all her wits about her, and connected to the world through her son and baby granddaughter; Maggie is childless, widowed, and increasingly confused, and for her the race is almost run.

The play revolves around a late plot-twist that makes sense in itself, but casts a slightly confusing light on some of the earlier dialogue.  What it has in abundance, though, is a fine sense of theatre, as Maggie tries to recruit us – in the role of her imaginary audience of long-gone family and friends – as witnesses to her loneliness, and Agnes finds herself trapped in strange double role as both loving  sister and cruel nemesis.  It’s a mark of the quality of the  writing that Susan Worsfold’s production draws two stunning performances from Ann Scott Jones as Agnes and Kay Gallie as the loveable, helpless, fag-smoking Maggie.  And if the play’s vision of Maggie’s final days is unremittingly sad and poignant, it still creates two completely memorable characters, fully human to the end.

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September In The Rain

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SEPTEMBER IN THE RAIN  at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 26.11.13.
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3 stars ***

IT’S EASY to accuse John Godber of sentimentality, in his portrayals of English working-class life in the 20th century; perhaps even of being a shade patronising.  His Yorkshire couples are always pithy, sharp-tongued, unromantic, full of old-fashioned, no-nonsense ways that have the audience heaving a nostalgic sigh. And in September In The Rain – first seen in 1983, and now revived in this gentle touring production starring Claire Sweeney and John Thomson –  he even has his archetypal mid-20th century couple, Jack and Liz,  taking part in the long-vanished ritual of a week’s holiday in Blackpool, complete with boarding-house teas, deckchairs, ice creams, and a trip up the Tower, in a howling rainstorm.

If the play is partly a stereotyped evocation of a lost working-class way of life, though, there’s also something tougher and bleaker going on, in Godber’s portrayal of a far-from-perfect marriage glimpsed both  in its early days – when Jack and Liz spend a mainly wet 1950’s week in Blackpool, arguing, falling out, yet somehow enjoying themselves – and towards its end, when they make a final Blackpool visit in old age.

And  none of these darker undertones are lost on the excellent double-act of Sweeney and Thomson, as they navigate their way through Godber’s series of short, sketch-like scenes, and conjure up the huge emotional compromises once  made by millions of working-class people, in the effort to get on with life.  Do Liz and Jack love one another? They do; but if the style of the show is reassuring, September In The Rain leaves us in no doubt that love and romance are not the same thing, and that the magic and glamour of the love-songs Liz and Jack sometimes poignantly sing is, most of the time, not for them, but for some other world.

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Testimonium

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TESTIMONIUM at the Tramway, Glasgow for The Scotsman 23.11.12.
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4 stars ****

IT’S NOT EASY,  it’s not accessible, and a few audience members at the Tramway left during the performance, never to return.   Yet all the same, this show created by two founder-members of the legendary Chicago experimental group Goat Island, and featuring their new company Every House Has A Door as well as a fierce three-piece garage band called Joan Of Arc, strikes me as a remarkable piece of performance art, full of a strange inner poise and poetry.

Testimonium is inspired by the work  of the American objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff, whose unfinished work Testimony involves a response to the transcripts of dozens of criminal and industrial injury cases heard in America between 1855 and 1915.  If the strong, sad backbeat of the show lies in this historic record of personal and economic violence, though, its style shifts thought-provokingly between the meditative geometric abstraction of its choreography – involving endless meticulous rearrangement of simple props around the space, in a tribute to Spinoza’s idea of a link between ethical and geometric integrity – and the rough-edged, surreal  lyricism of the songs, belted out at such a volume that the audience has to be issued with ear-plugs.

The show is perhaps a shade overlong, at just under 2 hours including an introduction, by dramaturg Matthew Goulish, which seems strictly unnecessary; and it has its pretentious moments.  It revolves, though, around a performance of terrific dignity and integrity from the actor Brian Saner, who reads and recites the courtroom testimony; and in the end, this strange collision between text, music and meditative movement comes to seem like a sorrowful and insistent search for the pure vibration of truth, in a world full of incitements to lie, and to fill our minds with the ugly bluster of falsehood.

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Sam Shepard At The Citizens’

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SAM SHEPARD AND THE CULT OF THE PERSONAL APPEARANCE for Scotsman Magazine, 23.11.13.
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SATURDAY NIGHT at the Citizens’ Theatre, and the excitement is intense.  The final performance of the Citizens’ acclaimed production of Sam Shepard’s great 1980 play True West is due to finish at any moment; and the spacious old foyer in the Gorbals is filling up with a motley crowd of theatre fans, hoping to slip into the auditorium for the second part of the evening’s entertainment.

For tonight, for one night only, the playwright Sam Shepard – legend of American stage and screen, author of more than a dozen award-winning plays about the American dream and its attendant nightmares, sometime partner of Patti Smith and Jessica Lange, and the man who played test-pilot hero Chuck Yeager in the great 1983 film The Right Stuff – is to appear in person, in a post-show question-and-answer session on stage.  In a historic moment, the 135-year-old Cits’ has opened its ancient, rarely-used upper circle, to  accommodate the crowd.  And after a brief break, the great man slopes without ceremony onto the stage, accompanied by the show’s director, Phillip Breen; both of them look strangely large in the perspective of Max Jones’s set for True West, set in a modest suburban house on the edge of  Los Angeles where two contrasting brothers, Austin and Lee, confront one another in a dialogue brillliantly played, in this production, by Alex Ferns and Eugene O’Hare.

The thrill of seeing and hearing Sam Shepard in the flesh, though, still fails to answer a few nagging questions about the huge and growing popularity of the personal appearance as an art-form, and what it means for our culture, in an age when the mere fact of celebrity often seems to trump the real content of any work those celebrities may have done.  Across the UK, after all, there are now literally dozens of festivals – including Edinburgh’s own hugely successful International Book Festival – which consist almost entirely of personal appearances by artists who have long since completed the work under discussion, talking to audiences who have already experienced it.  And large theatres in Britain are now able to programme many nights a year of events which are essentially personal appearances – of varying quality – by people famous for something else, including ex politicians and soun-doctors like Tony Benn and Alasdair Campbell.

So how did it go with Sam Shepard, last Saturday night?  Well, Shepard, now 70, had been in Derry/Londonderry, one of this year’s European Cities Of Culture, working on a new version of the Oedipus myth.  He was clearly in relaxed mode, after his first-ever day in Glasgow; and an easy-going chat with the audience ensued, often focussing on Shepard’s writing process, what it was like to work with Patti Smith, or the extent to which True West is autobiographical.

It’s not that Shepard said nothing of note, in his 40 minutes on stage.  He spoke powerfully, for example, about the relationship between writing and acting, noting that “there’s a certain lyricism in film acting that is often akin to writing”.

What was completely absent from the conversation, though, was the life-changing political  intensity of a play in which Shepard clearly suggests that between them, these two ill-fitting aspects of the American male psyche – the one puritanical and conventional, the other violent and rebellious – will succeed in devastating the place, if not the entire planet.  To experience that transforming dramatic energy, we have to focus on the work, not on the life.  And while that makes it no less thrilling to see a true American icon and hero live on stage at the Cits, it also comes as a valuable reminder that great art is always something of a mystery; and that the  people through whom it comes are flawed human beings  like the rest of us, tentative, imperfect, and often as baffled as we are by the sheer power of their work, at its magnificent, unfathomable best.

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