Daily Archives: August 8, 2014

Vote Yes Or No: But Don’t Make Your Decision On The Basis Of Stereotypes, Diffidence, And An Old-Fashioned Idea Of Top-Down Leadership – Column 8.8.14.


JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 8.8.14 ______________________________________

IF THERE’S one universal rule about modern national identity, it’s that it can’t be defined – not, that is, unless you want a definition that is dangerously exclusive.  Instead, it can only be described, using ever-expanding cumulative lists of possible faces of the nation; there’s a fine example of this kind of list-making in John McCann’s new play Spoiling, at the Traverse, in which a newly independent Scotland – in the person of a nine-months-pregnant Foreign Secretary designate – ponders what kind of stance to take in its first round of negotiations with the remaining UK.  “These words will speak to the reivers, the school-leavers, the Disney store greeters,” she says, “the hot-to-trots, the have-nots, the first-nighters and nail-biters, the sashed, the mashed, the hoops, the fruit-loops…”; and so she and her young civil servant go on, for a robust page or two, conjuring up a Scotland so varied that no one definition will do.

A stroll around the Fringe, though, is enough to show that there are plenty of people who prefer to keep churning the familiar range of  cliches, about this or any other nation.  Gregg’s pies, deep-fried Mars bars, the idea that it always rains, or that Scots are all red-haired and aggressive, or that we are all self-pitying old-school socialists robbed of our political birthright – all of these cliches bear, at best, a partial relationship to the truth.  Yet Scots still obligingly laugh or weep at them when they appear on stage; and since the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony, there’s a new addition to the pantheon of Scottish icons, in the shape of  the humble Tunnocks tea-cake, a “national” delicacy which a majority of Scots had probably never tasted, until two weeks ago.

And it’s because there is still so much of this nonsense around, both on stage and in the national psyche, that I found myself sighing heavily over one of the early questions to the speakers at Tuesday night’s long-anticipated independence debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling.  Essentially, the question was about how Scotland could possibly afford to support itself, with a population of “only 5 million”; and behind it lies a history of national diffidence that still persists, no matter how much politicians claim that it does not.  There is no factual basis for the question, of course.  A mere glance at global GDP statistics shows that there is no correlation between the size of a nation and the prosperity of its citizens; if anything, small nations fare better.  Yet still, from somewhere in the culture, the idea comes; the image of Scotland as too small, and needing the rest of the UK to make it viable.

And as I watched the debate unfold – with each slightly tired-looking middle-aged politician trying to avoid the verbal traps set by the other, while the audience yelled at them to “answer the question” – I began to realise that what I fear most from this referendum is neither a “yes” or “no” result, but a result based on voters’ fear, rather than on their confidence.  In a sense, both of the key debating moments of the night touched on this question of confidence, and of belief in Scotland’s capacity to chart its own future. Alex Salmond struggled to persuade voters to share his sunny certainty that after a “yes” vote, continuing free trade with Scotland will matter enough to a London government to make a shared currency inevitable; Alistair Darling oddly refused to endorse David Cameron’s statement that Scotland could be a successful independent country, if it chose.

Yet the truth – made overwhelmingly clear by Tuesday night’s brittle and disappointing debate – is that 21st century citizens cannot and should not place their confidence in any top-down political structure, or in any one political leader; nor, indeed, should they expect politicians to provide answers to questions about a future which is essentially unwritten.  For any group that is less free than it would like to be, there are essentially three steps in the process of liberation.  The first involves rejecting stereotyped and reductive definitions of who you are, and what you are like; Scotland has done a lot of that, over the past three decades, but the work is not yet done.

The second involves looking around you, now that you no longer define yourself in other people’s terms, and gathering information about your potential, and what kind of future you might be able to build; many Scots have been undergoing this kind of process as part of the independence debate.

And then the final step lies in the recognition that if the future is unwritten, then in a democracy, the task of writing that future belongs as much to you and your fellow-citizens, as to the people who call themselves leaders; and it’s because, in the course of the referendum campaign, so many in Scotland have glimpsed the power of grassroots involvement and organisation, that events like Tuesday night’s debate now seem so out of time and inadequate, with their traditional set-up of a duel between spotlit politicians, observed by an audience who may only ask questions.

It’s no secret, of course, that the “Yes” campaign has been the more successful, over the last two years, in encouraging people to embark on that road towards freedom from old assumptions, new information, and grassroots empowerment; something about the idea of building a new Scotland has unleashed a positive political energy  that the “No” camp has struggled to match.

In truth, though, it’s more than possible for someone who has been through that process still to conclude that the right answer is “no”, and that the future lies in a continuing UK.   What is important is is that we make the inner journey, that we know ourselves, that we stop buying into definitions imposed  from elsewhere, and that instead of emphasising the celebrity cult of political leadership, we start focussing on the people without whose grassroots support and involvement politicians are nothing but sounding brass and empty suits.  And when we have done all that, then let’s vote; not with fear of others or of ourselves, but with love, solidarity and hope, whether our choice is for a new Scotland, or for an old UK, perhaps entering an unprecedented age of change.


Fringe Firsts 2014 Week 1!

OK, so here’s our sparkling first week Scotsman Fringe First list!

CUCKOOED by Mark Thomas, at the Traverse Theatre
CONFIRMATION by Chris Thorpe, at Northern Stage @ King’s Hall
MEN IN THE CITIES BY Chris Goode at the Traverse
CHEF BY Sabrina Mahfouz at the Underbelly, Cowgate
THE COLLECTOR by Henry Naylor at the Gided Balloon
SPOILING by John McCann at the Traverse

Congratulations to all these terrific winners – and on to next week!

Forest Fringe 2014


JOYCE MCMILLAN on FOREST FRINGE 2014 for Scotsman Festival Magazine, 8.8.14.

IT’S NOT IN the Fringe programme, it survives on a patchwork of shoestring resources, and it mainly represents a particular creative generation, now aged betwee 25 and 35.  Yet if you want to have your ideas about theatre radically and sometimes painfully rearranged, then the Forest Fringe at Out Of the Blue is the place to be; and this year – at least for this first week – it’s almost all about the end of the world, in various guises.

The exception, maybe, is Louise Orwin gentle one-hour show Pretty Ugly (3 stars ***), in which she looks with compassion and apprehension at the vulnerability of teenage girls in the internet age, and at their unnerving habit of asking for online reassurance about their appearance.  As a piece of theatre, Pretty Ugly is a shade too closely wedded to the ditsy, oh-I-can’t-really-organise-my-own-show style of presentation that is a prevailing cliche with this generation of performance artists.  At the heart of the show, though, there’s a profound human concern, backed by some interesting research; and Orwin uses mobile-phone technology in intriguing ways, both to tell her story, and to provoke reflection on lives increasingly lived through tiny screens, held in the palm of the hand.

Elsewhere, though, it’s all versions of the apocalypse, led by Christopher Brett Bailey’s blisteringly brilliant monologue This Is How We Die (4 stars ****), a surreal and mind-blowing odyssey acros the planet, in which the speaker uses a kind of beat-poet William Burroughs idiom to describe how he and his partner encounter Nazism in England, drive across America, kill a man, and finally dissolve into something quite other, represented by a ten minute terminal blast of thrash rock with amplified violins. At this stage, Bailey reads most of his text, crouched over a small desk.  Given the intensity of his presence and the striking beauty and range of his voice, though, that’s a minor glitsch in a staggeringly eloquent piece of work.

Molly Naylor’s latest piece, co-created by Iain Ross, works on a much narrower canvas; but If Destroyed Stiil True (2 stars ***) contains its own version of the apocalypse, in the shape of the coastal erosion that is about to sweep away the home of the show’s fictional heroine Jane, whose story interweaves, here, with Naylor’s account of her own teenage years.   Naylor’s show has some charm, but many problems, from its tuneless, over-amplified rock score, through its adoption of that same well-worn apologetic style, to an obsession with the cultural detail of teenage life 15 years ago that suggests a serious case of generational arrested development, and a Radio-4-comedy cynicism that Naylor acknowledges is both tedious and reactionary; time for Naylor to re-boot her aesthetic, and try something more rigorous, and more radical.

There’s much more artistry, and even more reactionary nihilism, in the Sleepwalk Collective’s new show Karaoke (3 stars ***), in which performers iara Solano Arana and Sammy Metcalfe stand by a plastic palm-tree, dressed in slightly distressed disco gear, and read or fail to read the 60-minute text projected on the screen, which roughly takes the form of a karaoke song.  The text begins with screamingly tedious levels of self-obsession about the nature of theatre, then gradually spirals out into something that seems more about the history of humanity, apparently set to end on a beach, with the last couple kissing their way to oblivion.  It’s a strange form of theatre that mainly involves sitting in the dark reading text from a screen.  Yet there’s an intensity and shapeliness about Sleepwalk Collective’s work that commands attention; and if the show is not exactly theatre, it is fluent visual and verbal poetry, witty, irritating, and pulsing with a weird insistent life.

As for the latest show from the duo known as Get In The Back Of The Van – well, if irritation is what you seek, this strange journey through the world of two female performers living together in a London flat delivers it by the truckload.  Number 1 The Plaza (2 stars **) begins with the shockingly dull and unfunny ramblings of two women sitting on high stools, while singing bad versions of sentimental show songs.  Later, the couple introduce us to the geography of their flat, and smear themselves with what they say is their own poo, although in fact it’s just mashed-up biscuit; then towards the end, there’s a touch of roaring right-wing authoritarianism, a bit of near-nudity, and a sense that something dramatic might be happening.  There’s a relationship here, certainly; and that same tension between a deep inner childishness, and attempts at adulthood that soon become either boring or frightening.  Mainly, though, it’s just agonising to watch; and recommended only for hard-core theatre addicts, who get their kicks from watching the art-form itself pushed to the brink of extinction.

Forest Fringe continues until 17 August, at the Out Of the Blue Drill Hall.


Forget Fire

Forget Fire
3 stars ***
C  (Venue 34)

THE STUDENTS of Pepperdine University in California have made a great contribution to the Edinburgh Fringe over the years.  And although this latest devised show is a short and surreal piece that still looks a little like a work-in-progress, it’s fascinating to see a company of 12 gifted young theatre artists focus so tightly on the question of how our growing obsession with the internet is reshaping our minds, and our social connections.

So the play revolves around the figure of a student-age girl who goes into meltdown after she discovers that thanks to a Facebook scam, she and her friends have just spent days looking for a missing child who never actually existed.  She throws away her phone, and wanders off into an alternative universe in which figures from Greek myth (Andromeda, Perseus) interact with humans trying to re-learn how to conduct real-world relationships -”face to face not face to phone” they chant, like recruits to a 12-step anti-addiction programme.

With the help of devising dramaturg J.C. Marshall, the cast weave their way through songs, stories, glimmering light and strange encounters to something that could be the beginning of a resolution, a new and more rational relationship with the web and the myriad ways it connects us to the unverse; but at that point, sadly, the show comes to an end, just as the argument is becoming ever more interesting.

Joyce McMillan
Until 9
p. 306