Daily Archives: August 13, 2014

Theatre Uncut 2014 – Weeks 1 & 2


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE UNCUT for Scotsman Festival magazine, 13.8.14.

IT BEGAN in the autumn of 2010, at a time of widespread anger over proposed government spending cuts; the Occupy movement was at its height, when young directors Emma Callander and Hannah Price unleashed their first series of short 15-minute  plays, written by a thrilling mix of new and well-known playwrights from across the world, and made available to everyone for free performance anywhere, for a week every November.  And almost four years on, Theatre Uncut is still there, although the political movement that inspired it has largely faded from the scene; and every Monday morning at the Traverse, throughout this Fringe, Callander and Price are staging performances of at least five short plays, read script-in-hand by impressive teams of actors who happen to be in Edinburgh for the Fringe.

The content of the plays, though, often shows the intense pressure involved in trying to write plays with a political edge, in an age when politics itself seems to have move beyond parody.  This first Theatre Uncut session of this year, staged last week, reflected the company’s new Flagship Plays project, on the theme Knowledge Is Power, Knowledge Is Change.  The second, this week, dealt with Scotland’s independence referendum; and the third, next week, is the result of a joint project with four leading playwright from Turkey, following the massive Gezi Park protests of 2013.  The Knowledge Is Power plays circle tentatively but with huge imagination around a range of key issues in current UK politics, from the recent series of historic sex abuse trials, to the threat of “domestic” terrorism, the growing grotesquery of “reality” television, and the belief-systems of the present British government.

So Vivienne Franzmann’s The Most Horrific is an unsettling counterpoint between pub chat about a celebrity sex abuse chase, and some of the other”most horrific” things happening in a world riven by conflict.  Hayley Squires’s Ira Provitt And The Man evokes the inner life of a Gove-style Conservative minister, as he confronts his own long-lost conscience over breakfast. Inua Ellams’s This Is Us brings a cast of contemporary South London characters – the unemployed son, the Dad, the social worker, the eccentric bedroom-tax lodger – together in a room where a home-made bomb ticks, about to explode.  Clara Brennan’s Pachamama and Anders Lustgaten’s Finger Of God become increasingly unsettling and surreal, as an ordinary mother acquires shape-changing powers in London restaurant, and a television producer pitches the ultimate reality-cum-lottery show, complete with ever-escalating live on-screen punishment of those unlucky enough not to win.

The Scottish referendum plays, by contrast, are partly recycled from last year, suggesting that the Theatre Uncut form is not immune to the sheer difficulty of writing coherent plays about an event to imminent, so huge, and so unresolved.  There’s  no harm in a second glimpse of plays like A J Taudevin’s The 12.57 – about an imagined completely meaningless border post on the railway-line at Berwick – and Rob Drummond’s gorgeous Party Pieces, in which a traditional Scottish family falls apart and hangs together during the ritual performance of party pieces at a New Year get-together.

It’s striking, though, how much more energy there is in three very short contemporary monologues produced this year by Davey Anderson and Kieran Hurley.  Anderson’s twin pieces – Don’t Know Don’t Care and Fear And Self-Loathing In West Lothian, brilliantly performed by Ross Allan and Keith Fleming – represents a “yes” supporter’s angry and incredulous repetition of some of the “no” arguments to be heard in parts of working-class Scotland, reflecting  the levels of self-hatred, self-doubt, and sheer contempt for democracy that Anderson sees underpinning those attitudes.

And Kieran Hurley’s monolofgue Close, performed with terrific passion by Iain Robertson, reaches deep into the heart of what is happening in Scotland now; as we face the inevitability of a nation deeply divided by the referendum result, whichever way it goes, and wonder whether Scotland can rise to the challenge of healing those wounds.  The speaker wakes up on the morning of 19 September, delays for as long as he – or she – can before switching on the television, recognises the reality of defeat, and confronts the next big question – what now?  The texture of the writing is deep and rich throughout, as Hurley’s character moves through the landscape of Edinburgh on its night of decision.  And whatever emerges from next week’s potentially thrilling series of plays from Turkey, it’s hard to imagine that any of the writers will be more completely engaged with the fate of their country than Kieran Hurley is with Scotland, in this pivotal piece of writing for  referendum day.

Theatre Uncut: Turkey is at the Traverse Theatre at 11 am on 18 August.  Texts of all Theatre Uncut plays are available on http://www.theatreuncut.com.



The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant, The Pitiless Storm

The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant
3 stars ***
The Pitiless Storm
2 stars **
Assembly Rooms  (Venue 20)

IF YOU WANT a sharp and interesting insight into just how difficult it is for serious artists to write plays about an event as imminent and all-consuming as Scotland’s independence referendum, then you could do a lot worse than take a look at these two pieces playing in the Assembly Rooms Ballroom, both of which end with emotional speeches in favour of a “Yes” vote.  Cabaret, satire and flashes of inspiration seem to work, as a way of tackling the subject – note the success of David Greig’s daily All Back To Bowie’s talk-ins at St. Andrew’s Square; more substantial narrative drama often sounds as if it’s been written too early, or very much too late.

So Alan Bissett’s The Pure, The Dead And The Brilliant emerges as a jolly and enjoyable extended sketch about the probable fate of Scotland’s ancient supernatural forces – the Bogle, the Banshee, the Selkie and the Devil – in the event of the country becoming independent.  The Devil, a smooth-talking homme fatale played with immense presence and charisma by Martin McCormick, convinces the other three that if Scotland shakes off  its old fears and moves forward into an independent future, they will disappear from the national psyche; afraid of extinction, they all start campaigning for a “No” vote.

Half way through, though, they spot a flaw in the Devil’s argument; and as the show reaches its merry climax, they force the audience to a vote, with unrepdictable results.  There’s nothing profound about the arguments Bissett advances.  Yet with an excellent comic cast firing on all cylinders – Elaine C. Smith plays the banshee, and the lovely Michelle Gallagher the glamorous Selkie – every sharp one-liner and cheeky insight is given its full value; and the play has a witty, perfectly-poised ending which is unfortunately marred by a “yes” campaign epilogue, delivered in the kind of stereotyped aggressive Scots that cannot begin to capture the amusing, shape-changing modern Scotland evoked elsewhere in Bissett’s work.

Chris Dolan’s The Pitiless Storm – about an elderly Glasgow trade union leader making a journey towads a “yes” vote – is a one-man play that starts with some formidable assets, including a timely subject, and the presence on stage of David Hayman, who plays the central character, Bob Cunningham, with a kind of hail-fellow tribal energy all too recognisable to those who have spent any time in Scottish politics.

What the play fails to do, though, is to chart a persuasive intellectual and  emotional journey from traditional Labour unionism to a “yes” vote; it mentions most of the key reasons for Bob’s decision, but it also fiddles around with an awkward dramatic device in which Bob speaks to invisible characters beside him on stage – his son, his younger self, his estranged wife – instead of to the audience.  The final effect is scrappy and confused; and as the play’s title hints, it’s also full of a sentimental post-industrial self-pity that was already out of time 20 years ago, and that takes us absolutely nowhere, in deciding how to vote in September 2014.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24
pp. 342, 339.