Daily Archives: May 24, 2014

Liz Lochhead – Pitlochry Programme Note

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LIZ LOCHHEAD for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, April 2014 ______________________________________________________

‘AFTER THE WAR, WAS THE DULL COUNTRY I was born in”, writes Liz Lochhead, in her great 1983 poem After The War. If Scotland’s national Makar was born into an age of postwar austerity, though there has been nothing dull about her dazzling and internationally acclaimed career as a poet and playwright, which has made her one of the leading Scottish literary figures of the last 40 years. Born in 1947 in Newarthill, Lanarkshire – where her father was a local council clerk – she was part of that postwar generation of children from ordinary backgrounds who seized the chance of a university-level education with both hands, and who grew up to believe that a whole new world of freedom and equality was in reach.

Lochhead was a star pupil at Dalziel High School in Motherwell, and in 1965 she moved on to Glasgow School of Art, where she began her creative life as both an artist and a writer. Her first book of poetry, Memo For Spring, was published in 1972, when she was still working as an art teacher in schools around Glasgow; but by that time, she was already a key member of a powerful group of Glasgow-based writers including Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, and the late, great Michael Marra, and was increasingly involved – with Marra and others – in performing her poetry live. For Lochhead, the art of writing truthfully about late-20th century life involved a strong strand of feminism, and a growing interest in developing a voice, or voices, for the new Scotland that was emerging in the late 20th century; so that by the end of the 1970’s, she was already recognised by a generation of young women in Scotland – and by quite a few men – as speaking for and about them, in a voice of unparalleled honesty, accuracy, invention and wit.

In the early 1980’s, Lochhead began to develop her growing gift for dramatic molongues in the direction of full-scale theatre. In 1982, the Traverse premiered her first full-length play Blood And Ice, an intense poetic drama about the writer Mary Shelley, and the creation of her great work Frankenstein. Over the next two decades, Lochhead produced a series of superb stage texts, including her acknowledged masterpiece Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in Edinburgh in 1987, and several fine Scots versions of plays by Moliere, including an explosively brilliant Tartuffe, and – in 2000 – an award-winning version of Medea.

By the end of the 1990’s, though, Liz Lochhead was developing an ever-stronger interest in romantic comedy, that light-touch but formidably difficult form of screen and stage drama that has produced masterpieces from Some Like It Hot to When Harry Met Sally; and Perfect Days, first seen at the Traverse Theatre in 1998, it perhaps the finest of Lochhead’s rom-coms, the story – first written for Lochhead’s great actress friend Siobhan Redmond – of a 39-year-old Glasgow celebrity hairdresser with a ticking biological clock, and a hopelessly complicated private life.

In a single beautifully-made two-act play, Perfect Days brings together many of Lochhead’s deepest concerns – with the changing lives of women and the complicated choices they now face, with the pin-point accurate observation of contemporary life and manners, and, in the background, with a 1990’s Glasgow very different, in language and style, from the stereotyped old industrial city of the past. Perfect Days is an easy play to watch, as a good rom-com should be; it rolls past on a fine wave of laughter and tears. It’s a prime example, though, of the art that conceals art; an outwardly graceful and lighthearted comedy that contains within it all the wisdom, the wit, the complexity, and the clear-eyed humanity, of one of Scotland’s greatest writers, working at the height of her powers.

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Pests, Nine Lives, Rock Of Ages

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PESTS at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, NINE LIVES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and ROCK OF AGES at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 24.5.14.
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Pests 4 stars ****
Nine Lives 4 stars ****
Rock Of Ages 3 stars ***

ON THE STAGE of Traverse 2, old burst mattresses are piled in a sprawling, towering heap, in a room sketched only in rough outline. Somewhere in the middle of the heap sits Pink, all bleached-blond streaks and pink tracky-top, queen of a domestic bolt-hole apparently financed by as-and-when prostitution and drug-dealing; at the door stands her sister Rolly, just released from prison, eight months pregnant, and – to all outward appearances – a much more vulnerable character.

This is the powerful opening image of Vivienne Franzmann’s searing new Royal Court play Pests, co-produced by the Royal Exchange, and the Clean Break company which works with women ex-prisoners; and if the visual imagery is striking, it’s more than matched by a text written in a strange and brilliant imagined tongue, a kind of lurid post-modern estuary that is part private sibling language, part poetic response to a fractured and failing society, complete with lost fragments of English literature and Wizard-of-Oz fantasy. It’s a linguistic technique not quite as original now as it was back in 1996, when Enda Walsh first unleashed his astonishing Disco Pigs. Yet Franzmann’s 95-minute play is brilliantly sustained, intense, troubling, sometimes beautiful; and it features two magnificent performances – from Sinead Matthews and Ellie Kendrick – that absolutely demand to be seen, before the show heads south again tomorrow.

And as if to confirm the huge current strength of writing and acting in England, this week’s Play, Pie And Pint show, co-produced with West Yorkshire Playhouse, also features a blazing new drama about people on the margins of a failing society. Zodwa Nyoni’s Nine Lives tells the story of Ishmael, a Zimbabwean asylum-seeker who has fled to Britain because he is gay, one of millions of victims of the new wave of extreme homophobia sweeping some African countries. In a fine 50-minute monologue, delivered with huge skill and feeling by Lladel Bryant, we watch Ishmael struggle with Britain’s intrusive and hostile immigration system, catch a brief glimpse of sexual freedom, and form a fragile but hopeful friendship with a young single mum he meets in the park; Nyoni’s interweaving of naturalism and poetry is superb, and lifts this show far beyond documentary, into unforgettable solo drama about one of the key experiences of our time.

If you are in the mood for a bit of cheery, uplifting showbiz nonsense, though, then you could do worse than head along to the Playhouse, where the Los-Angeles-set Eighties rock tribute musical Rock Of Ages has two final performances today. The characters are a bunch of cutesy stereotypes, the story grows sillier and more self-conscious by the minute, and even the music is undistinguished; a rousing version of Europe’s The Final Countdown is about as good as it gets. Yet the onstage band is terrific, the mood is irresistibly can-do and upbeat; and the central image of a bunch of chaotic Sunset Strip rockers defending their venue from demolition still has powerful resonances today, both in Edinburgh, and beyond.

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Streets, Schemes And Stages – Capturing The Value Of Community Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on COMMUNITY THEATRE – HOW TO CAPTURE ITS VALUE? for the Scotsman Magazine, 24.5.14. __________________________________________________

THE BOOK HAS long disappeared, probably lent out and never reclaimed; but I can still picture its cover, and remember the sheer pleasure of reading it. It was called Streets, Schemes And Stages; and it was published in 1991 by the Social Work Department of the soon-to-be-abolished Strathclyde Regional Council, as a record of all the community arts work they had taken part in, during Glasgow’s year as European City Of Culture in 1990. Co-written by Ewan McVicar and Mary McCabe, it was a fine mix of well-documented official report – there were plenty of statistics – and superb evocation of the impact of the work, through descriptions, quotes and photographs; and for a while, it became a kind of bible for those who wanted to demonstrate that Glasgow 1990 had not been only about big-ticket Pavarotti concerts, and high-powered international events at the Tramway and the Theatre Royal.

And I thought about Streets, Schemes And Stages again this week, as I talked to the National Theatre Of Scotland’s associate director Simon Sharkey about the NTS’s latest huge community project, The Tin Forest, a Glasgow 2014 event based on Helen Ward’s chldren’s story about an old man living in a devastated place, who makes it live again by creating something beautiful out of the debris around him. The Tin Forest is a powerful parable of regeneration through creativity; and the NTS’s response to it is currently being developed with more than 6,000 people across Glasgow, as well as an international network of youth theatre groups in six Commonwealth countries, from Bangladesh and Jamaica to England.

In a sense, though, the effort involved in a project like Tin Forest is not new to Sharkey and his NTS team. Since its opening season in 2006, the NTS has staged many remarkable community events, involving contributions from thousands of people across Scotland. In the effort to catch up with them, I’ve travelled from an abandoned rope factory in Kirkwall to a nightclub in Falkirk, via Aberdeen, Shetland, Leven and Ardrossan, and have often been moved, impressed and thrilled by what I’ve seen.

Yet it often seems to me that conventional methods of assessing the importance of a theatre event simply collapse, in the face of the multiple meanings these projects can carry for those who take part, and for whom the process matters at least as much as the final performance. Simon Sharkey explains that the NTS’s process for assessing the success of community and “outreach” projects involves a mix of robust number-crunching – numbers of people and organisations involved, schools or clubs contacted, geographical reach – and in-depth documentation of the process itself, including a careful accumulation of narratives about how best to use professional theatre expertise in community work.

There’s a richness of experience here, though – and an intensity of effort, in communities across Scotland – that should surely be captured in a form more accessible than a series of internal reports between the NTS and its impressive range of partner organisations. The Tin Forest is a project about encouraging people to tell their stories, both as a powerful and valuable activity in itself, and as a step towards a new perspective on and power over the realities they describe. And although the NTS, in its first 8 years, has been a fortunate institutions in many way – well funded, well led, often garlanded with praise – perhaps it, too, needs to tell the story of this low-profile but vital part of its work, in a form that people across Scotland and beyond can pick up and read. As Simon Sharkey says, it’s not only about the numbers and the measurable outcomes, but about the journeys taken; and as the authors of Streets, Schemes And Stages knew, serious journeys demand fine storytelling, if we are ever to glimpse their full significance.

Tin Forest community performances begin in Govan, 6 June; with a final festival of events at the South Rotunda on the Clyde, 22 July-3 August.

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