Daily Archives: March 22, 2014

Theatre With A Purpose Can Soar To Creative Heights

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE WITH A SOCIAL PURPOSE for Scotsman Magazine 22.3.14.
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ON THE SOCIAL NETWORKS, the novelist and playwright Alan Bissett is raising funds for his latest theatre project, to be presented at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. He says that The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant is a play designed to “rally support” for Scottish independence, in advance of the September referendum; but not all of of his online friends are happy with this phrase, and a debate begins about whether it is the job of theatre – or any other art – to be “rallying support” for political causes. Everyone agress that art should not be reduced to mere pamphleteering. Yet there are also counter-examples which suggest that art with a clear political or social message can sometimes scale breathtaking creative heights; Joan Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War comes to mind, as does John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

And this is a particularly important debate at the moment, not so much because of referendum – funding bodies are wary of taking sides in such a controversial political debate – but because of the growing tendency of funding bodies and government at all levels, over recent decades, to favour artistic work which has a clear social purpose over work which is striving only to be brilliant and beautiful.

It’s easy enough to see how this has happened; in an age when ideas about what is “good” have become more contested under the pressure of social change, it is much easier for public bodies to support artistic work which clearly reflects some of their other policy goals – often to do with social inclusion, disability, or work with young people – than it is simply to take a gamble on artistic inspiration in general. Yet I can still remember the shock I experienced, a decade or so ago, when I arrived for a production involving a group of actors with disabilities to find that this pretty average show – unlike any of the brilliant work I had seen that year at the Citizens’, or the Traverse, or Dundee Rep – came garlanded with high-profile messages of support from government ministers, and a level of official approval for which most theatre projects could not begin to hope.

The problem with the arts, though, is that although it’s possible to make hopeful generalisations about the conditions that promote good work, in the end there really are no rules. In the past ten days in Scottish theatre, I’ve seen one stunning piece of international work clearly aimed at exposing the background to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, one excellent play from West Yorkshire Playhouse designed to promote empathy and understanding for young unaccompanied asylum-seekers, one brilliant sex-comedy co-produced by a company dedicated to full social inclusion for people with disabilities, and one gorgeous site-specific show at the National Museum Of Scotland, produced by a company which only exists to provide creative opportunities for adults with learning difficulties. All of these shows, to a greater or lesser extent, exist because they have a social purpose which is easy to articulate, and to which funding bodies can turn, in making their decisions.

Yet none of them is “bad art”, or mere propaganda. On the contrary, like the shows that form the short list every year for the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award at the Edinburgh Fringe, they all pull off the difficult trick of combining a clear social or political purpose with subtlety, beauty, wit, imagination, and a refusal to over-simplify. Artists should always be wary, of course, of being harnessed to other people’s social or political causes. Yet where the cause chimes with something true to the artist’s own experience – whether it’s the “body-fascism” of our society when it comes to physical imperfections, or a deep impulse to challenge an old and dying regime – then art with an obvious purpose can sometimes rank with the very best; and has a chance to prove itself pure, dead, or brilliant, alongside every other creative effort in our bustling cultural landscape.

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Jezebel

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on JEZEBEL at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.3.14. ________________________________________________________

3 stars ***

LAST WEEK, at the Tron’s upstairs Changing House, we saw a sex comedy blazing with coherence and purpose, in the shape of Johnny McKnight’s Wendy Hoose, about attitudes to disability and sex. This week, by contrast, we see a 85-minute sex farce from Dublin so utterly entranced by its own cleverness that it’s hard to attach any meaning to it at all; although that’s no reason not to celebrate the energy and wit with which the three-strong cast – one man, two astonishing women – deliver their weirdly implausible tale.

Written by Mark Canten, and staged by Dublin’s famous Rough Magic company, Jezebel tells the strange and – jokes apart – slightly depressing tale of Alan and Robin, a professional couple who strike up a relationship, but, eight months on, are struggling to keep the flame of sexual excitement alive. When they attempt an adventurous threesome with the depressed and ditsy Jezebel, though, the statistically almost-impossible happens; and both Robin and Jezebel become pregnant on the same night.

Cue an increasingly elaborate and unlikely chapter of misunderstandings, as first Alan and then Robin find out about Jezebel’s pregnancy, but fail to tell the other what they know. The conclusion is ear-bustingly loud and enjoyably ecstatic, as the women give birth simultaneously in a Dublin hospital. As drama, though, the play has long since left the realms of social satire and soared off into the utterly unbelievable; leaving the audience more mildly amused than helpless with laughter, and – at least in my case – just a little bit bored.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, final performance tonight.

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Auntie Agatha Comes To Tea

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AUNTIE AGATHA COMES TO TEA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 22.3.14. ________________________________________________________

2 stars **

IT’S JUST ABOUT possible to imagine an entertaining 15-minute sketch based on the idea of a Sopranos-style family of gangsters based in Aberdeen, who are trying to bump off their old Auntie in order to grab her inheritance, and save the failing family business. George Milne’s new lunchtime show for the current Play, Pie and Pint season makes it pretty clear, though, that it takes more than that single thought to flesh out a play, even a short one; and the result is an Oran Mor lunchtime of rare tedium, full of laboured comedy that depends for its effect on our acceptance of a whole range of stereotypes about crime, old ladies, and Aberdeen itself.

John Bett’s production features an impressive cast, with Jimmy Chisholm and Andy Byatt as the middle-aged brothers locked in conflict over whether topping Auntie Agatha is a reasonable move, and Kay Gallie as Agatha, who of course turns out to be sharper than both of her nephews put together; Chisholm, in particular, conveys a memorable combination of dainty domestic fussiness, and ruthless criminal intent. Once the audience has got that single joke, though, there’s little else to amuse us, over a long 45 minutes; apart from the odd inspired moment of comic business, from a cast who could offer so much more, given better raw material.

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Bloody Trams – A Rapid Response

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLOODY TRAMS – A RAPID RESPONSE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.3.14.
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4 stars ****

IN MOMENTS of crisis, theatre often rediscovers its rare ability to speak truth to power. And although the story of Edinburgh’s trams often seems not so much a crisis as a slow-burning tragi-comedy of errors, director Joe Douglas and his team unleash a powerful tidal-wave of pent-up energy and emotion, with this fine instant-response show about Edinburgh’s experience of the tram construction project, devised at short notice to fill a sudden gap in the Traverse 2 schedule.

Created by Douglas with actors Nicola Roy and Jonathan Holt, musician David Paul Jones, and dozens of of vox-pop interviewees and public figures whose verbatim comments and speeches – relayed to the actors via mobile phone earpieces – form the text, Bloody Trams begins on a comic note, with Edinburgh voices cracking their usual jokes about the shambles surrounding the project.

As the story develops, though, it shades into serious questioning of the management problems that turned the project into an international laughing-stock, and – towards the end – into tragedy, as it considers the losses suffered by some of those whose businesses were destroyed by interminable years of tram works. The darkness of the show’s final mood is striking, as Nicola Roy re-reads a 1952 letter to the Scotsman, predicting that the city will one day pay dearly for the destruction of its old tram network. Yet with David Paul Jones’s witty, eclectic score rippling along in support, this clever and well-made show-plus-discussion is always thought-provoking, and sometimes surprisingly beautiful; and it needs to be seen more widely by Edinburgh audiences, after its short Traverse run this week.

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Eternal Love

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ETERNAL LOVE at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 22.3.14.
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4 stars ****

THE STORY OF HELOISE and Abelard – the 12th century lovers who defied convention, and began a blazing forbidden affair when she was his pupil and he her tutor – is so renowned, and still so charged with erotic excitement, that most people arriving at the King’s Theatre for this 2006 reworking of the tale by the radical English playwright Howard Brenton must feel that they already know the story.

Co-produced by Shakespeare’s Globe and Engish Touring Theatre, and directed by acclaimed Royal Lyceum associate John Dove, the production has an intensely conventional look and feel, all swirling period costumes, bearded actors and good-looking actresses talking cleverly in fine BBC accents, and comic characters with more downmarket voices. The show even features a final dance, straight out of the now well-worm handbook of 1980’s celebratory theatre; and in that sense, even more than his recent Anne Boleyn, Eternal Love seems an oddly soothing kind of entertainment from the pen of a man once regarded as a dangerous radical among English playwrights.

What Brenton is doing, though, in these history plays, is to try to salvage the story of religious radicalism in England and Europe from a historical tradition that often disguises the electrifying power of the ideas that drove social and political change, or the famliarity of many of the debates around them. So here, he gives us Heloise and Abelard as two driven intellectuals and passionate revolutionaries, fearless in their defiance of sexual convention, both equally and comically incapable of making a home for their out-of-wedlock son, and forever bound together in quest for truth and intellectual freedom, even after their secret marriage, Abelard’s cruel castration, and their respective retreats into the religious houses where they became abbot and abbess.

It’s a vision that inspires a series of delightful performances, not only from Jo Herbert and David Sturzaker as Heloise and Abelard, but from the entire 17-strong company; as well as many spare and attractive stage pictures, on Michael Taylor’s open set, with its twin trees of knowledge. And if it takes a playwright of a certain age to see this mighty tale in context, as part of a continuing divine comedy about the struggle between life and death, desire and hatred, freedom and repression – then that is one reason why we should be glad that Howard Brenton still writes, even if in this case, the picturesque medium sometimes fails to match the radicalism of the message.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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