Daily Archives: July 26, 2014

Now’s The Hour: The First Minister’s Visit To The Scottish Youth Theatre, And The Relationship Between Politics And Art


JOYCE MCMILLAN on NOW’S THE HOUR… for the Scotsman Magazine, 26.7.14. _________________________________________________________

CULTURE AND POLITICS often make uneasy bedfellows; so it was in slightly apprehensive mood that I set out, last week, to watch the First Minister pay an official visit to the Scottish Youth Theatre, at its headquarters in Glasgow’s Merchant City. The occasion was two-fold; the First Minister would see both a brief performance by the Tin Forest International Performing Company – a group of young people from across the Commonwealth taking part in this huge Glasgow 2014 community project – and an extract from the SYT’s forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe show, Now’s The Hour, in which young people voting for the first time face up to Scotland’s big day of decision.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried on this occasion, either about the politics or about the art. The short Tin Forest dance piece was impressive, the First Minister was in genial form; and the extract from Now’s The Hour reduced him and almost everyone else to tears, not because the show takes any particular view on the referendum debate – it is strictly neutral – but because of the bright, achingly hopeful faces of the twelve young people in the cast, as they posted humblingly wise letters to their future selves into a giant ballot box.

So far, so good, in other words; but there’s no point in pretending that the coming referendum doesn’t raise serious questions about how arts and politics should interact, in a 21st century democracy. On the “yes” side, there’s plenty of creative excitement around the idea of possible future Scotlands; but also a sense that this is more of a time for cabaret, debate, and brilliant fragments, rather than sustained long-form work “about” the referendum. And on the “no”side, there is much concern about the future of the dense network of UK connections in areas like classical music and literary publishing; along with a genuine if as yet unjustified apprehension that in or out of the UK, Scotland’s SNP-dominated government is bound, in the end, to start favouring artists who share its political perspective.

Scotland’s current situation, in other words, throws a sharp light on the fact that in any political situation, the price of artistic freedom is eternal vigilance. If there are relatively few “big plays” about the independence debate on this year’s Fringe, that only serves to remind us that art necessarily moves to a very different rhythm from politics, often decades in advance when it comes to imagining new cultural identities and possibilities, many years behind in responding fully and deeply to sudden change.

And when it comes to protecting artists from politicians and their demands, that remains a vital task for arts funding bodies, for the media, and for artists’ themselves; all of whom need to be aware not only of explicit pressures to take political sides, but also of the more subtle pressures that pervade our PR-driven world – to join in the business of hype and image-making rather than asking tough questions, to celebrate rather than interrogate, and to be co-opted to an ethos of global marketing that presents itself as apolitical, but which can nonetheless, like any ideology, become an enemy of truth, and of real creative freedom.


The Tin Forest, Endurance, News Just In


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE TIN FOREST at the South Rotunda, Glasgow, ENDURANCE at the Arches, Glasgow, and NEWS JUST IN at the Arches, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.7.14.

The Tin Forest 4 stars ****
Endurance 3 stars ***
News Just In 2 stars **

IT BEGINS with a scene of devastation and bleakness. “There was a once a wide, windswept place, near nowhere and close to forgotten,” says the opening sentence of Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson’s much-loved children’s book The Tin Forest, “that was filled with all the things that no-one wanted.” The story goes on to tell how the old man who lives in the middle of wasteland starts to build a forest out of the junk around him, and about the magic that brings the forest to life; and it must be more than half a decade, now, since the former National Theatre of Scotland director Vicky Featherstone first began to wonder whether this story might work as a metaphor for some aspects of Glasgow’s story, over the last 30 years.

So it’s strangely – almost uncannily – fitting that the NTS’s huge Tin Forest project has reached its climax in this strange and glorious week for Glasgow, with the Commonwealth Games in full swing, and the new riverside city around the main project venue at the South Rotunda glittering in tropical sunshine. The climactic “puppet theatre experience” itself – directed and designed by the NTS’s Graham McLaren – is both slightly flawed, and immensely beautiful. In groups of six or seven, the audience is led into the labyrinthine lower level of the Rotunda, where we walk through a series of scenes – all with a faint atmosphere of the late-Victorian period when the Clyde tunnel Rotundas were built – that draw us into the story of the old man, represented by a superb puppet-figure. We enter his little house with its bleak view of the wasteland, we see the workshop where he struggles to build a bird that will fly, we pass through a little series of fairground-style story-tableaux, and we reach the moment when the little house is suddenly surrounded by seething new green life.

And at that point, the show seems to run out of inspiration; instead of coming up into the main space of the rotunda to find some lush and thrilling Dear Green Place, we see a pallid projected view of the Hebrides, and the Tin Forest team of musicians – ledy by Annie Grace and Gav Prentice – singing and chatting their way through a familiar programme of Glasgow songs put together by musical director Michael John McCarthy. The music needs sharper direction, the visual imagery doesn’t match the story. Yet even with this less-than-intense conclusion, The Tin Forest remains a memorable experience, in a remarkable buiding; the last piece in the jigsaw, perhaps, for Glasgow’s long story of post-industrial regeneration.

In a city full of Games-related cultural events, meanwhile, the Arches’ show Endurance stands out for the sheer strength of its raw and heartfelt commitment to its subject. Created by The Women’s Creative Company and A Moment’s Peace, the show brings together a comunity company of 17 women performer-researchers, who bring us the history of women’s participation in the Commonwealth Games. In a sense, this 80-minute show feels both too long for the single powerful message it conveys about negative and sexist attitudes to women in sport, and too short to tell us the full story of the many fascinating and impressive women it mentions. Yet the energy, poise, passion and occasional anger of the women is unforgettable; and deeply impressive.

Later in the evening at the Arches, a huge and glittering team of writers and performers are involved in the creation of News Just In, a show which aims to provide a freshly-written satirical perspective on the whole business of Glasgow 2014 every night from now until 2 August. The show is played out on the sparking green-and purple set of an angst-ridden Scottish current affairs television show called Tartan Tonight, and features some impressively lurid design by Lisa Sangster, as well as a potentiaily riveting pair of lead performances from Jordan Young and Julie Brown as the show’s two daggers-drawn presenters.

What we mainly learned from the opening News Just In show, though, is that none of this matters if you don’t have a real satirical writer on the strength. As principal writer for the first episode, all the exceptionally gifted Johnny McKnight seemed able to serve up was a few tired jokes about the television industry, larded with a strain of unfunny obscenity that made me gasp at its sheer ugly pointlessness. News Just In will be a better show on other nights, of course. Yet satire is a special skill; and with vital political jokery like Lady Alba’s Bad Romance circulating on the internet, Scottish theatre needs to raise its satirical game well above this level, and fast.

Shows seen on 24 August, 24 August and 22 August.