Daily Archives: July 5, 2014

Dementia Plays: Or How One Theme Dominates Current Domestic Drama

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DEMENTIA PLAYS for the Scotsman Magazine, 5.7.14. _________________________________________________________

TO ORAN MOR, last week, to see the latest in the Play, Pie And Pint summer season of Classic Cuts; in this case, a 50-minute version of Don Quixote adapted by young London-based writer Ben Lewis. The play begins, the setting is a suburban house near Glasgow; and it soon becomes clear that James Smillie’s delightful Don is not the eccentric old knight of Cervantes’s imagination, but a modern British pensioner beginning to lose his grip on reality, mounting fierce battles against the new wind-turbines near his house, treating his grandson Sandy like a hapless squire, and falling madly in love with his exasperated carer, a robust young South African woman with a fondness for beer.

What Ben Lewis has done, in other words, is to transform Don Quixote into a story about dementia, and about an old man’s quest for meaning and dignity at a time when his mind is falling apart; it’s an idea that chimes beautifully with the dream-like atmosphere of Cervantes’s great novel, and it’s beautifully executed by Lu Kemp’s cast. It’s not, though, the first play about dementia I’ve seen that week; Justin Young’s In My Father’s Words, now at Dundee Rep, chronicles the decline of a 90-year-old Canadian who, as his mind fails, suddenly starts to speak again in the Gaelic language of his childhood.

And in recent times, it seems the same theme has been almost inescapable in English-speaking theatre. There have been at least three other plays on the subject in recent Play, Pie And Pint seasons. Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point company touched upon it in the recent Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler, and opened a new show at last month’s Brighton Festival which revolves specifically around it. When leading Irish playwright Frank McGuinness created his new family drama The Hanging Gardens for the Abbey Theatre, last autumn, it too focussed on the decaying mind of the powerful father of the family. And the acclaimed Scottish theatre-maker Cora Bissett is also working on a project inspired by new approaches to the treatment of dementia.

So what are audiences to make of a theatre scene gripped by such a dominant theme? A few years ago, there seemed to be endless plays that revolved around revelations of child abuse; almost as if playwrights had all attended the same writers’ workshop, and decided that this was the topic of the moment.

Yet it takes only a brief glance at the creative origins of all these projects, and at the time-scale of their development, to see that this is not the case. What we’re looking at is not imitation or group-think, but something much more interesting: the role of theatre in supporting the gradual emergence into collective recognition of social phenomena previously hidden, or in some way under-acknowledged. Dementia is becoming a more widespread problem, as increasing numbers of people live into their late 80’s and 90’s; around 23 million people in Britain – a third of the population – now have a close family member or friend affected by it.

What writers and artists make of a phenomenon like dementia, though, is something that goes far beyond the recording of a social problem. In a post-humanist age when the intrinsic value of human beings is increasingly questioned – and when gravely ill and dependent people are increasingly framed as enduring “undignified”, worthless lives – the act of dramatising dementia opens up a series of profound questions about what we mean by personality, about how we use language to construct our world, and about what remains of us when our mental powers begin to fail. And although the disintegration of the human mind is not a cheerful subject for drama, our theatre-makers are increasingly demonstrating that it is a rich, productive and surprising one; with meanings that soar far beyond the detail of dementia as a disease, into huge, perennial questions about what makes us human, and how we deal, through both tragedy and comedy, with the inevitability of our decline and fall.

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44 Stories & Blood Lines, One Man Two Guvnors

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 44 STORIES and BLOOD LINES at the Arches, Glasgow, and ONE MAN TWO GUVNORS at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.7.14.
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44 Stories/Blood Lines 4 stars ****
One Man Two Guvnors 4 stars ****

IF YOU IMAGINED that the cultural programme surrounding the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow would be all happy celebration and spectacular dance displays, think again. At the Arches at least, 2014 is an occasion for fierce and self-searching reflection, embodied in this brave, vivid and sometimes mind-blowing double-bill by Arches artists Drew Taylor and Lou Prendergast.

Taylor’s show, 44 Stories, goes straight to the heart of one of the contradictions of the Commonwealth, by highlighting the fact that in 44 of the countries competing in this year’s Games, homosexuality remains illegal, and punishable by imprisonment or even death. In a bold, loud and often furiously camp 75 minutes, Taylor’s inspired cast – Katie Armstrong, Olivia Knowles, Tom Jackson-Greaves and Bugg Vincent – tell the stories of dozens of individuals and organisations, across the Commonwealth, who have struggled for gay rights and paid a price for their courage; the show also makes a brave attempt at analysing how the conventional, patriarchal attitudes that came with Empire often snuffed out much more subtle traditional appraoches to sexual ambiguity.

In the meantime, though, the show also sings, jokes, and dances up an explosively-choreographed storm. And the effect is sometimes confused, but always fascinating; a thrilling mix of burlesque, cabaret and agitprop that deserves to be seen again, and soon.

The show comes in a double-bill with Lou Prendergast’s Blood Lines, a slightly hesitant but searingly important and timely show in which Predergast tells the story of her Dad, a tremendously smart charmer called Harry Prendergast, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the 1960’s, and soon came north to Glasgow, to run a drugs-and-prostitution racket there. Lou, her sister, and her mother came too; and now Lou and her sister Sophie tell the tale, along with a ska band featuring two black Scottish musicians with their own story to tell, and their uncle, brother to their mother, “the hippy”.

It’s a complex tale, full of deep resonances that bind Scotland’s great Atlantic city to the story of the Caribbean, and to the slave trade that scarred its history. On the floor, there’s a map of Jamaica, full of Scottish place names; one one side, there’s a glowing blue Mercedes, symbol of the Sixties lifestyle Harry yearned for, and often achieved. And if the presentation of the show is sometimes a little less than smooth, its subject could hardly be more important to the city of Glasgow, as it learns to live with the truth about the imperial trade on which its fortunes were founded.

Oddly enough, it’s easy to imagine Harry Prendergast fitting right into place as a character in Nicholas Hytner’s legendary National Theatre production of One Man Two Guvnors, which briefly revisits Glasgow this week. Based on the Carlo Goldoni classic A Servant Of Two Masters, this version is set by playwright Richard Bean – author of this week’s instant NT play about the phone-hacking scandal – in a 1960’s Brighton full of flash harries, small-time gangsters and slumming princesses. The show has now lost its inspired star James Corden, who created the role of cash-strapped minder and dogsbody Francis Henshall, but gained a more-than-decent replacement in Gavin Spokes. And if the comedy seems a shade more heavy-footed this time round, this remains a superb blend of classic comedy and pure English panto, driven from start to finish by brilliant on-stage skiffle band The Craze, who help to capture that special rock-and-roll moment just before the Beatles came along, and changed everything, for good.

44 Stories and Blood Lines seen on 3 July.
One Man Two Guvnors seen on 30 June.

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Ophelia

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on OPHELIA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.7.14.
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4 stars ****

THE SUMMER SEASON of cut-down classics at A Play A Pie And A Pint can be fun; but sometimes, the shows also carry a serious critical message. Last week, Ben Lewis reimagined Cervantes’s Don Quixote as an old man in a pleasant Glasgow suburb, living through the experience of dementia; and this week, writer Alan McKendrick and director Stewart Laing take Shakespeare’s Hamlet apart, seeking to expose the full horror of what happens to Hamlet’s love and possible partner, the lovely Ophelia.

McKendrick’s technique is therefore to mix familiar scenes from the play with a series of brand-new soliloquies for a modern Ophelia. Delivered straight to the audience via a microphone, these monologues chart her decline from a confident, lively, sexy self-awareness – this Ophelia is pursuing the tormented Prince for sex, rather than vice versa – to a woman broken and driven to suicide by a system that sees human life as expendable, and love as a liability.

Whether everything about this three-handed show works as well as it should is debatable; Scott Reid makes a distractingly childish Hamlet, Alison Peebles seems slightly uneasy as Polonius. What’s not in doubt, though, is Adura Onashile’s mind-blowingly powerful and moving performance as a true Ophelia for our times; one who – like so many young women of the 21st century – has grown up thinking that she is free, only to learn that that that freedom is largely illusory, and must be fought for all over again, or surrendered, in an unbearable moment of defeat.

Seen on 1 July.

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