Monthly Archives: August 2015

Murmel Murmel

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MURMEL MURMEL, Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 31.8.15.
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4 stars ****

THEY SAY that it’s the lexical richness of our language that makes us human, and sets us apart from other species; the sheer quantity and range of the thousands of words we can put together, using the basic sounds of the alphabet. 
 
Anyone who has seen Herbert Fritsch’s astonishing Berlin Volksbuhne production of Murmel Murmel, though, might well be tempted to disagree.  This 176-page text by the Swiss-born avant-garde artist and experimentalist Dieter Roth consists only of the single word “murmel” – the German eqivalent of the “rhubarb “ used by English-speaking actors to create a general hubbub of voices – repeated thousands of times, and has generally been regarded as unstageable, or as “the most boring play in the German language.”

Yet over an inspired 80 minutes, Fritsch takes this impossible piece of work, and transforms it into an extraordinary essay in human communication and self-recognition.  The secret of the show’s success lies in at least four areas.  There are the twelve magnificent, intensely physical actors who make up Fritsch’s company: performers of all sizes and shapes, every age and various sexes, who sing, talk, leap, yodel, fall into the orchestra pit, or murmel their way through operatic arias.

There’s the pinpoint precision of their vocal performance, both spoken and sung, solo and choral, as conducted from the orchestra pit by a harassed-looking figure in uniform.  There’s Fritsch’s own dazzling stage design of huge multi-coloured sliding screens that, as the show continues, almost become an extra character in the play.  And there’s the sheer style of the production which, at its height, achieves a hilarious and liberating collision between avant-garde Dadaism and absurdism at its most extreme, and the kind of retro-suburban Harry-Worth-like comedy that effortlessly links the absurd to pure popular entertainment and slapstick.

Some sequences – particularly the brilliant opening half hour – are perhaps more successful than others; I found less interest in the section where the cast appear as romping primary-coloured teletubbies, in whole-body leotards.  At a point in the Festival where many people in Edinburgh are scarcely able to do more than mutter “murmel murmel” themselves, though, Fritsch’s brilliantly-staged show – which has been acclaimed across Europe – was cheered to the echo at the King’s: for its imaginative wildness, its artistry, its joie-de-vivre, and its astonishing virtuoso curtain-call, which almost  amounts to an entire new production in itself.

Run completed.

ENDS ENDS     

     
       

A Reason To Talk

THEATRE
A Reason To Talk 
4 stars ****  
Summerhall (Venue 26) 

WITH RELATIONS between Iran and the west undergoing a gradual thaw, there’s never been a more vital moment to try to learn and understand more about this beautiful, troubled and hugely creative powerhouse nation at the centre of most of the great conflicts that divide the world today.  And if the revolution of 1979 forms the starting-point for many stories of modern Iran, It also marked a crisis in the life of Sachli Ghjolamalizad, a Belgian theatre-maker whose Iranian parents were forced to flee the country with their two young children, and to begin a new life in Belgium.

Ghjolamalizad’s approach to this story is a harsh, almost barbed one, as she sits at her laptop with her back to the audience, offering us only some live projected typescript, the image of her beautiful, rebellious face as picked up by her laptop’s internal camera, and a showing of a long, relentless and frequently hostile filmed interview she conducted with her own mother, followed by a short coda with her grandmother.  

Ghjolamalizad herself raises the question of whether her show is really about the strain of being brought up across cultures, or simply represents the story of all mothers and daughters.  But the filmed face and presence of her mother, which in a sense dominates the show, clearly carries within it all the scars of a shocking transition from rootedness to life as a stranger in a strange land, from wealth to poverty, from happy marriage to a prolonged initial period as a single parent.  Her strategy for survival is to suppress the grief, to insist on being happy, to get on with things; her daughter interprets this as a life of lies, coldness, and a complete failure of emotional openness.

A Reason To Talk is a painful and searching show, in other words, as courageous as it is austerely inventive.  And in the end, it forces us to begin to understand that even when refugees find a place to settle, their story of suffering is not over; and that the dislocation and damage often roll on down the generations, breaking hearts and twisting lives as they go.          

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 361
 
ENDS ENDS       

Smash It Up and E15

DANCE & PHYSICAL and THEATRE
Smash It Up  
4 stars ****  
Summerhall (Venue 26)
E15
3 stars ***
Gilded Balloon (Venue 14)

LET’S SAY IT, loud and clear. Britain’s apparently never-ending property boom, supported by endless tax breaks and help schemes, is driving waves of aggressive gentrification through our cities, and putting residential property in city centres far beyond the reach of people on benefits, or on ordinary working-class incomes.

The situation is most acute in London, but is also transforming “desirable” city-centre areas from Edinburgh to Liverpool and Cardiff; and in their powerful new show Smash It Up, at Summerhall, the South Wales based company Mr. And Mrs. Clark focus, as their starting-point, on a notorious incident in Newport, where developers eager – with the support of the local council – to convert an old shopping centre into a tightly-patrolled indoor mall, simply smashed up and destroyed a mural portraying Newport’s Chartist Movement of the 19th century, and that powerful popular campaign for citizenship and democracy.

Incensed by this non-consensual trashing of the town’s shared history, the three-strong company therefore begin to interrogate their own attitude to destruction as a creative force, and to the history of destruction in art; as they make clear in their publicity, Smash It Up is, after a fashion, an exhibition, a performance- lecture, and a dance theatre show with documentary and short film. It never becomes so distracted by the theory of radical destruction, though, as to confuse it with the deliberate trashing of public space by the forces of commercial exploitation. Last year in Wales, one observer described the show as “a beautifully convulsive mixture of contempt, anger, opinion, passion and hope”; and he certainly wasn’t wrong.

E 15, presented by young Sheffield company FYSA, represents a much more direct and straightforward attempt to get to grips with issues of gentrification and social cleansing, with a vivid, heartfelt and slightly messy dramatisation of the 2013 rebellion against evictions in the London borough of Newham, where a hostel full of young single mothers got together to prevent the council from selling off the prime site on which the building stood, and sending them all to live in different cities, hundreds of miles from home.

The play benefits from a couple of terrific performances in the leading roles of the two young mothers who started the campaign. And although other characters are sketchy and half-written to the point of stereotype – and the narrative finally dwindles into some uninspired on-stage campaigning – the play still has a huge charge of energy, and the guts to point out that though community campaigners may win the odd battle, there is absolutely no sign, yet, that they have any chance of winning the increasingly intense low-level war over the ownership of Britain’s urban space.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 29, 31
pp. 199, 319
 
ENDS ENDS       

Love, Anger And Rock And Roll: Why We Need Penny Arcade’s Furious Clarion Call Against Caution, Control And The Gentrification Of The Mind – Column 28.8.15.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 28.8.15. 
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ON STAGE AT the Underbelly, in Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Penny Arcade – sometime queen of the New York underground, now a blazing 65 years old – is on something of a roll.  Her show is hard to define: not theatre, not comedy, but a kind of political address with fierce background music, a passionate call to defend  what she sees as our dwindling freedom to do, and be, what we damn well choose.

Her concerns include gentrification, not only of city streets but of the mind.  She mourns the appropriation of once-radical cultural movements by mainstream commercial culture.  She says real pleasure is fast becoming a radical value, so deeply joyless is our materialistic lifestyle.  And one of her pet hates, too, is the over-protective culture of the “trigger warning”, under which many universities and colleges have taken to labelling great works of literature with little warnings, alerting a cosseted generation of students to the fact that they contain scenes of sex, war, violence, injustice and controversy, and may therefore upset them a bit.  

So it’s perhaps not surprising that Penny Arcade’s show leapt back to mind, this week, when I noticed – with some disbelief – the huge amounts of media coverage given to Jeremy Corbyn’s remark that following representations from some women’s groups, he might consider introducing women-only carriages on trains.  The debate came as a particular shock to me because for the last three decades, as a theatre critic covering the whole of Scotland, I have spent much of my life travelling on trains, either at the early-evening rush hour or late at night; and on the basis of my largely untroubled experience, the idea that women need to be protected from the other half of humanity by being consigned to their own railway carriages seems a truly preposterous over-reaction to what must, for most women travellers, be a problem very rarely encountered, and easily dealt with. 

I don’t, of course, under-rate the wider problem of sexual harassment, particularly when it arises in the workplace, with an implciit threat of loss of livelihood if victims fail to comply.  But harassment in public places, if it is a widespread problem, clearly needs to be dealt with by tackling the attitudes of the men who do the harassing, not by effectively excluding lone women from public space.  As the dissident Tory MP Sarah Wollaston put it, measures such as women-only carriages only normalise unacceptable atitudes; and in countries where women are segregated on public transport, their separation is a marker for disempowerment, not safety.  

What’s interesting, though – and this is where Penny Arcade comes in – is the insidious process by which we have become the kind of society that wastes time, energy and media coverage on this kind of reactionary nonsense, while largely ignoring – for example –  the many more significant propsals, on everything from the economy to Trident, that have emerged from the Corbyn campaign. And the  key to this process – not unrelated to Peny’s “gentrification of the mind” – must be the systematic promotion of fear, as one of the key driving emotions of ordinary middle-class life.  Both politicians and comercial interests – not to mention the media, who know that fear sells – have a huge vested interest in encouraging high levels of fear, since it can be used both as a mechanism of political control, and as an unbeatable marketing tool, encouraging us to buy all sorts of things we don’t need in order to protect ourselves from hazards that barely exist.

Statistics show, for example, that people in Britain routinely overestimate the prevalence of certain kinds of crime by a factor of ten, twenty or more; so that no sooner had Jeremy Corbyn’s comment hit ths streets, than the whine of 21st century received opinion could be heard rising from the vox pop interviews.  “Oh yes, it helps women to travel safely, then of course it’s a good idea.”

It never seems to occur to the obedient citizens who make this kind of remark that measures which increase “safety” are not always a good idea: not if they insult the entire male half of the popualtion, not if they return women to Victorian levels of restriction on their movment, not if they make public buildings into fortresses, not if they reduce the once-pleasant experience of air travel to an obivous cash-cow for big  security companies employing armies of authoritarian functionaries, and not if they put our democratically-elected politicians forever out of reach, behind ranks of gates and cordons and sullen security staff.  We say we care for freedom, in western societies; but we seem increasingly unable to grasp the basic truth that freedom entails risk; and that to allow our otherwise increasingly powerless governments to enact endless petty measures designed to eliminate risk, is to sacrifice freedoms we may never be able to regain. 

Penny Arcade’s life, by contrast, has been one long roller-coaster ride of the creative and unpredictable, characterised by a lively contempt for the mind-games played – with us and against us – by those in power.  And among the things she knows is that perhaps the only way of smashing the bonds placed on our minds by the society in which we live is to listen to the music, watch the films, hear the poetry, see the live performance, that has to reach towards the raw edge of truth in order to work at all; asked recently how she thought the new forces of social control could be resisted, she replied  “I believe in love, I believe in anger, and I believe in rock and roll.”

And if ever we needed a new blast of that rebellious energy, we need it now.  Penny Arcade may be a pensioner now; but like many members of the postwar generation, she remembers the taste of freedom, and longs for it still.  And if ever those benighted women-only carriages are introduced, I hope that she will be here in Britain, leading the charge; while an army of angry women of all ages occupy the trains, and tell the nation’s growing ranks of control-freaks and securocrats exactly what to do with their creeping Victorian values, and their infatuation not with the future, but with a return to an ever more reactionary past.

ENDS ENDS    

Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture

THEATRE
Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture
4 stars ****
Just Festival at St. John’s  (Venue 127)

IN A DEPARTMENT store in Dublin’s O’Connell Street, Christmas is coming; but not for the shopworkers, who – in 21st century post-crash Ireland – find themselves steadily losing the employment rights their parents and grandparents fought for, and won.  Bridie, enjoying her last day at work before retirement, can remember some of those struggles; her granddaughter Gemma, eight months pregnant and still at work in soft furnishings, belongs to a generation so desperate for work that they barely stop to read the details, before signing up to the ruthless new zero-hours contracts the management has prepared for them.

It comes with a strong political pedigree, this light-touch and beautifully-written solo show by Fringe newcomer Katie O’Kelly; her father, who also directs Counter Culture, is the campaigning Fringe First winner Donal O’Kelly, appearing this year in Little Thing Big Thing  at Assembly George Square.

Yet despite its slightly sentimental upbeat conclusion, with the workers all marching out to demonstrate under the statue of the great Irish labour leader James Larkin, there’s plenty of charm, subtlety and poetry in O’Kelly’s story, as she gently locates her characters in the bigger landscape of the city, and links them to Ireland’s radical past.  Undeterred by the deafening roar of  eveing fireworks from the Castle, O’ Kelly uses just a few simple props to create a life-affirming and hugely promising hour of theatre; and to conjure up a cast of at least a dozen characters, from the monosyllabic owner of the shop, through his hard-faced manager Simon, to Gemma herself and her new baby – born on the furniture department’s top luxury display bed, as if to herald a whole new age of radical defiance, and of decent human priorities, reasserted at last.         

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 340
 
ENDS ENDS       

The Year Of The Hare

THEATRE
The Year Of The Hare
3 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)

THE PARTNERSHIP between the Helsinki-based Rhymateatteri and a group of Scottish artists led by playwright Catherine Grosvenor is now well-established feature of the Fringe; and this year’s offering, written by Grosvenor from an original text by Esa Leskinen, Sami Keski-Vahala and Kristian Smeds, has plenty of charm, as well an appealing 21st century theme.

Its hero, played with some flair by David McKay, is an ordinary, middle-aged middle-manager working under huge pressure, in his job with a big global timber company. One day, though, after a moment of rebellious madness at an awayday management workshop, he finds himself driving recklessly north, into a strange encounter with a lovely human hare who is injured when he drives his car off the road; and from there on, this play-with-songs veers into the surreal and the symbolic, as our hero and the hare plunge back towards the wilderness, in search of new life, and new joy.

In the end, the tone of Aleksis Meaney’s production is a touch too playful to capture all the serious resonances of this 21st century journey; for all their surreal adventures, the human characters in this play are adults, and their story amounts to more than an extended joke with lyrical interludes. The quality of the writing is fascinating, though, and there are some fine video images by Ville Salmisalo and Ville Vierikko, suggesting the changing relationship with nature implicit the story; and if this staging has a slightly provisional look, it’s not difficult to imagine the play returning to haunt and delight us, in future productions.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 31
p. 387
 
ENDS ENDS       

The Communist Threat

THEATRE
The Communist Threat
3 stars ****
Zoo Southside (Venue 82)

THE YEAR is 1950, and in a hotel room in Vienna, two men confront one another. Both work for Britain’s secret servive, M16; but Kip is a classic product of public school and Oxbridge, while Albert has a working-class accent, and is at first dismissed by his colleague as some kind of junior employee, the kind of chap who might have made sergeant during the war, with a bit of luck.

The tables are soon turned, though, in David Holmes and Kieran O’Rourke’s brisk and clever short drama for the Rusted Dust company, when it turns out that the Oxbridge chap is the one under suspicion as to his loyalties, while his colleague is acting on behalf of top M16 management. The conversation gradually becomes dominated by a third, absent figure, Kip’s homosexual lover, a clever chap with communist leanings who has been caught passing secrets to the Soviets.

It’s this third man’s recklessness – or need to act on his political beliefs – that leaves Kip in a dangerous impasse between love for his partner, and love for his country. And although the play only touches very lightly on the enduring questions about patriotism and nationhood it claims to explore, it makes a fine job of capturing the class and Cold War politics of a particular time, long gone; a time when love between two men still hardly dared to speak its name, and was enough to send thousands into exile, from their country, from their families and communities, or from themselves.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 31
p. 309
 
ENDS ENDS       

Iphigenia In Splott

THEATRE
Iphigenia In Splott
4 stars ****
Pleasance Dome (Venue 23)

SOMETIMES, it takes a really great piece of writing – an Oliver Twist, say, or a View From The Bridge – to challenge a climate of vicious indifference to the lives of poor people; and to reaffirm the truth of human equality by creating stories of tragic and epic scale, set in ordinary working-class communities. Gary Owen’s terrific new monologue for Cardiff’s Sherman Cymru Theatre may not quite be up there with Dickens and Arthur Miller; its scale is smaller, and its no-holds-barred depiction of a life marked out in drinking binges and hangovers is mirrored in many other monologues on this year’s Fringe.

Yet at its core, Iphigenia In Splott uses that same leap of imagination to blow apart our assumptions about Effie, a hard-drinking, unemployed “slag” living on a Cardiff councl estate whose life is changed by an intense one-night stand with a severely wounded ex-soldier, which leaves her pregnant, and set on a roller-coaster of new experience that leads her to strange new depths of love, grief, despair and self-sacrifice.

The texture of the writing is fast, sharp and completely gripping; this is one of those monologues with a descriptive narrative so vivid that it leaves the audience feeling as if it’s seen a 75-minute film, rolled out inside our minds.

The intensity of the experience, though, owes as much to Rachel O’Riordan’s flawless production, as to the text. From Hayley Grindle’s sharp, understated design, through Rachel Mortimer’s lighting and Sam Jones’s sound, to Sophie Melville’s stunning performance as Effie, every detail of this productiion shines with a rare quality of emotional intensity and precision. And it leaves us in no doubt that Effie’s journey is an epic one, shot through with as much beauty and pain as the tale of Agamemnon’s daughter herself; and with as great a sense that her story forms the prologue to a battle yet to come – a war not between Greeks and Trojans, but between rich and poor, over the wealth of the nation, and how communities like Effie’s now seem to be losing even the modest share of it they could once call their own.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 338
 
ENDS ENDS       

Willie And Sebastian

THEATRE
Willie And Sebastian
3 stars ***
Gilded Balloon (Venue 14)

TWO YEARS ago, they won a Fringe First for Kiss Me Honey Honey, Philip Meeks’s bizarre and hilarious comedy about two middle-aged men devastated by divorce, who find themselves living in the same dodgy Edinburgh rooming-house. And this year Grant Stott and Andy Gray are back, deploying the comedy chemistry of their famous annual partnership in the Edinburgh King’s Christmas panto in this new Ian Pattison play based on the strange, true Soho tale of Willie Donaldson and Sebastian Horsley – the one an ageing former theatre producer and epic drinker, the other a famous modern-day dandy – and how they fell out over a woman, the model Rachel Garley, played here by the gorgeous Michelle Gallagher.

There’s plenty here to entertain Gray and Stott’s fans for an hour, not least a study-cum-living-room set, in Donaldson’s flat, that pleasingly combines squalor and faded grandeur, and Gray’s vintage performance as Donaldson, which, despite a certain uneasiness of accent, scales tremendous heights of wrecked dignity, sheer desperation, and last-gasp reslience.

Stott’s version of Horsley, though, often seems more like a send-up than a performance, even while he captures some of Horsley’s loving goodwill towards both Willie and Rachel. And despite some beautiful precision acting from Gallagher as Rachel, the comedy flags as the story approaches its relatively tragic end. There may be a great play to be written about Willie and Sebastian, in other words; but despite many entertaining moments, this is not quite it.

Joyce McMillan 
Until 31
p. 385
 
ENDS ENDS

The Human Ear

THEATRE
The Human Ear
4 stars ****
Roundabout @ Summerhall (Venue 26) 

OF ALL the shows I’ve seen on this year’s Fringe, Alexandra Wood’s latest play, presented by Paines Plough and directed by George Perrin, is perhaps the most dazzling technical tour-de-force, in terms of its demands on actors.  Performed with astonishing split-second timing and precision by Sian Reese-Williams and Abdul Salis, The Human Ear interweaves at least five conversations between one woman and two – or is it three – different men, taking place over a time-span of more than 15 years.  

The shift between conversations is signalled by a change in lighting state, and occasionally by a longer blackout, marking a pause;  and so we gradually come to recognise the woman, her long-estranged brother who suddenly appears on her doorstep, her new partner Ed (a kindly policeman), and also the brother  and sister when they were much younger, crashing their way through the final, hurtful row that led to their estrangement.

What Wood’s text does, in other words, is to mirror what ha[pens in our minds when we are in one moment but remembering others, last week or long ago; the incidents happen chronologically, but the memories are all present in our minds at once, overlapping and sometims colliding.  The effect is strangely moving, reminding us of how vulnerable we are to sudden memories, and how difficult it is to concentrate, when they crowd in to distract us.  And if the play collapses into everyday explanations at the end, it remains a brilliant idea, perfectly executed; and a strange, resonant story about family relationships and the need for resolution, told in ways that make it not only poignant, but absolutely riveting.                 

Joyce McMillan 
Until 30
p. 335
  
ENDS ENDS