Monthly Archives: September 2015

To Begin.. The National Theatre Of Scotland In Forres And Wigtown

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TO BEGIN – THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND IN FORRES AND WIGTOWN for Scotsman Magazine, 26.9.15.
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IT WON’T BE the most high-profile National Theatre of Scotland premier of the season, when the cast and audience of To Begin assemble this afternoon at the Royal British Legion in Forres; for that, you’d have to look to a show like the current NTS smash hit Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, scheduled for three final triumphant Scottish performances in Musselburgh this weekend.

Yet like many other community-based projects masterminded by NTS Learn director Simon Sharkey – from last year’s huge Tin Forest project across Glasgow, back to the Elgin Macbeth in 2007 – To Begin seems set to delve deep into the underlying texture of Scottish life, and to reveal some rich and unexpected patterns there. Set in two communities at opposite corners of Scotland – Forres on Findhorn Bay in Moray, and Wigtown in Dumfries & Galloway – the project represents a first-ever collaboration between the NTS and the Scottish Book Trust, and is inspired by the Book Trust’s Journeys initaitive, which invites people across Scotland to write a short story about a journey – literal or metaphorical – that they have made in their lives.

“The job of the organisations involved in the book trust is to collect stories and publish them , whereas ours is to collect stories and turn them into theatre,” says Simon Sharkey. “So this project seemed like a perfect fit. We’re producing a book based on the stories in the shows, and we’re really pleased that our performances in Wigtown will form part of this year’s Wigtown Book Festival.”

The business of finding stories for a project like To Begin is always a complex one, though, not least because the best stories often take a while to emerge. The NTS team have been working in both communities since April, and although local schools in Forres and Wigtown will be involved – the Wigtown Primary School choir is part of next weekend’s Wigtown performances – Sharkey observes that many of the best stories have emerged from older people’s groups like The Smiddy in Wigtown and the Blue Room in Forres, a meeting-place for older men often with a forces background, as Forres lies very close to the former air base at RAF Kinloss, as well as to the new age Findhorn Foundation on Findhorn Bay.

“Both communities contain these huge contrasts,” says Sharkey. “And we’ve been struck by how many of the people we talk to begin by saying that they’re not native Forresians or Wigtonians, even if they only come from a few miles away. To be honest, I’ve been absolutely humbled, and often very moved, by the epic quality of some of the stories we’ve heard, and by the peace and acceptance people often seem to have found in these relatively small communities.

“We’re only sorry that we can feature so few of the stories in the show; but we have a wonderful set by Claire Halleran inspired by the lovely green town square in the middle of Wigtown, terrific sound and music by Daniel Krass, and four great professional actors as our main storytellers – so we hope it will be a really well-made show, based on the classic six stages of a “hero jourmey”.

“And then at the end – and at some other moments too – the people whose stories we’re telling will also be on stage, with the actors, emphasising the fact that the people who lived these stories are right with us in the room. I was struck, too, by something that was said about Forres by one of the Blue Room members. ‘This is a good place,’ he said, “for a traveller to end his journey.’ And I hope that’s not because there are no more journeys to come, but because in these two places, we can make a space to sit down, hear people’s stories, and learn from them, before we move on.”

To Begin… has two performances at the Royal British Legion, Forres, today, and four at the Parish Church Hall, Wigtown, 2-3 October.

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Tribes

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TRIBES at Cumbernauld Theatre, for The Scotsman, 26.9.15.
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4 stars ****

IN AN AGE OF restricted budgets, it’s a thrill to walk into the auditorium for this touring production of Nina Raine’s Tribes, and find the stage set for a full-scale, two-act family drama featuring a cast of six. First seen at the Royal Court in 2010, and now given its Scottish premiere by Solar Bear, the Glasgow-based company specialising in work for deaf and hearing audiences, this beautifully crafted play describes a crisis in the life of Billy, the grown-up deaf son of a bohemian middle-class hearing family.

Billy’s parents, Christopher and Beth, have never been in any doubt that they are doing the right thing in encouraging Billy to lip-read, to speak, and to integrate with hearing society; but when he falls in love with Sylvia, who uses sign language, Billy begins to rebel against his family’s attitudes, setting up ripples of reaction that almost destroy his fragile brother Daniel, who has mental health problems.

All of this is perfectly captured by Gerry Ramage’s powerful cast, led by Richard Addison and Jeanette Foggo as the parents and an excellent Alex Nowak as Billy, with Ben Clifford, Stephanie McGregor and Kirsty McDuff. Jessica Brettle’s domestic set is luminous, shifting and flexible, making plenty of space for projected surtitles. And if the play swerves abruptly away from what seems like a potentially tragic ending, it still strikes straight to the heart of the politics of 21st century deafness and disability, and fleshes out those issues with a humanity that makes Billy’s struggle for autonomy both unforgettable, and completely absorbing.

At Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline tonight, and on tour until 22 October, including Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 3 October.

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Kontomble

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KONTOMBLE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 26.9.15.
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4 stars ****

SUBTITLED  “the shaman and the boy”, this powerful new three-handed drama for the Play, Pie And Pint autumn season is not Nalini Chetty’s first play; there have been short pieces before, at the Citizens’ studio, Summerhall and the Arches.  Kontomble does, though, mark Chetty’s Oran Mor debut; and it’s a strikingly confident and well-crafted one, as she explores the consequences of a chance meeting between a Ray, a troubled 15-year-old Glasgow boy being brought up by his young aunt after his mother’s early death, and Ezra (or is it Eric?), a tall, commanding west African whom he meets at a Glasgow bus stop.

To Ray, Ezra seems to offer the spiritual mentoring, the male guidance, the rites of passage into manhood, that our society notoriously fails to provide for boys like him.  His aunt Ruth, though, is less impressed, suspicious of Ezra’s motives, and convinced that he is not quite what he seems; and in Guy Hollands’s deftly-directed production, the play rapidly develops into a tense struggle between Ruth and Ezra over Ray’s future, and the treatment of his severe mental problems. 

In the end, Chetty’s young hero finds a new peace within himself, in a way that seems slightly improbable, given the stresses he endures; but not before Keiran Gallagher, Beth Marshall and Miles Yekinni have acted up a memorable storm of tension over the sheer alienation of modern urban life, in one of the most impressive first plays seen at Oran Mor for a while.                

Final performance today.

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Waiting For Godot

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WAITING FOR GODOT at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 23.9.15.-26.9.16.
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4 stars ****

VLADIMIR AND ESTRAGON, Didi and Gogo. The two old tramps who take the stage in Samuel Beckett’s ground-breaking minimalist masterpiece – first seen in Paris in 1953 – are perhaps the most significant characters in the whole of 20th century drama, the ones who, in the words of the play’s first British director Peter Hall, “challenged and defeated a century of literal naturalism, and returned theatre to its metaphorical roots”.

Yet in all the productions I have seen and loved, over the years, I have never experienced one that lavishes so much care and genius on the development of the characters of Didi and Gogo – their different energies, and their contrasting responses to the situation in wihch they find themselves – as this 50th anniversary staging by Mark Thomson of the Lyceum, featuring the magnificent pairing of Brian Cox and Bill Paterson as Vladimir and Estragon.

That these two actors are no longer young is no secret; Cox actually appeared, aged 19, in the very first production of the Lyceum Theatre Company, 50 years ago this month. Yet what’s extraordinary about their combined performance – as they wait and survive beside their shrivelled tree, in that empty landscape that soon comes to seem like a metaphor for human life itself – is how clearly we can see the little lads they once were, beneath the battered hats and thinning hair. Cox’s Didi is mercurial, restless, funny, always performing, the very image of the lively, energetic one who can never quite believe that there is now nothing more to be done; Paterson’s Gogo is much quieter and more poetic, more confused and defeated by their situation, yet also closer to a recognition of its reality.

In this infinitely rich evocation of character – absolutely Scottish, yet completely universal – the detailed quality of the acting is sometimes breathtaking, Cox’s body-language and facial expressiveness a tragi-comic revelation, Paterson’s presence more subdued, but perfectly-pitched. I’ve seen productions that gave the two central characters more support, towards the play’s long-drawn-out end; that were more sharply paced, or that made more of this double-act’s music-hall or fairground roots.

Yet given world-class support from John Bett as rich class-enemy Pozzo and Benny Young as his desperately ill-treated servant Lucky, and an exquisitely empty, luminous set by designer Michael Taylor and lighting man Mark Doubleday, Mark Thomson’s anniversary production offers a unique, austere, yet immensely rich insight into what may be the greatest play of the last century; and gives absolute primacy to two great creative actors, not young, but – enthrallingly and obviously – still in their prime.

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 10 October.

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What Goes Around

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on WHAT GOES AROUND at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 21.9.15.
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3 stars ***

IT STARTS IN fine style, this new take on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1897 Viennese masterpiece La Ronde by Scotland’s Makar, Liz Lochhead; for in this version, the first pairing – in Schnitzler’s famous “daisy-chain” of licit and illicit sexual encounters – is between two Scottish actors rehearsing a two-handed version of Schnitzler’s original play, under the direction of a truly annoying Russian woman director. Along with all the other characters in the play, the two are brilliantly played by Keith Fleming and Nicola Roy; and in no time, their initial thespian fling has spun off into a merry-go-round of clever social observation, from unfaithful husband to vengeful wife to kitchen-building carpenter to harassed single mum to prissy online dater Steven, and back again to the original actress.

The problem, though – in Tony Cownie’s otherwise sharp production – is that this circle takes just under an hour to complete; after which the play wanders off for another 25 minutes into a strangely static series of incidents surrounding the final rehearsal of the Schnitzler production, featuring a Michael Marra-like music man, the Russian lady director, and a now-possibly-pregnant young ingenue. The show ends abruptly as she falls to the floor in a dead faint, and rehearsals are suspended for the day. And if Lochhead’s point, in extending the play, is that even the neatest of sexual daisy-chains can have messy human consequences, it’s made in an oddly diffuse way, with far too many theatrical in-jokes; slightly reducing the impact of this otherwise clever and timely take on Schnitzler’s enduring classic.

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 25-26 September, and on tour around Scotland until 8 October.

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Farewell To A Modernist “Cathedral Of Coal”: Thoughts On The Demolition Of Cockenzie Power Station – Column 25.9.15.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 25.9.15. 
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TOMORROW AT NOON, in a controlled explosion, the great, slender twin towers of Cockenzie power station will be demolished, to be followed a few moments later by the massive turbine hall that stands behind them, on the south shore of the Forth, just 8 miles east of Edinburgh.  In a matter of seconds, the explosions will wipe from the map one of the most familiar landmarks on the east coast of Scotland, leaving behind a site of several hundred acres that includes the field where the Battle of Prestonpans was fought, during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

The coal-fired power station, now owned by Scottish Power,  was opened in 1967, and there is no doubt that it had come to the end of its useful life; a decade ago, it was identified at the least carbon-efficient power-station in the UK.  There is confusion over what will become of the site, though, with a multi-purpose community buy-out still under discussion.  And alongside that confusion, there is also something more; a genuine sense of loss, at the wiping from the landscape of what one commentator yesterday called “a cathedral of coal”, and a symbol of the last great post-war moment of investment in the fuel that drove Scotland’s industrial revolution, and shaped our economy for more than three centuries.

There are still not many people, I guess, who would actually describe Cockenzie as beautiful.  Yet it has a profound and puposeful industrial grace about it, that makes the rolling East Lothian farmland around it seem powerful, caught up in history, something more than pretty. And now that it’s about to go, it’s hard not to feel a huge affection for a building that has become such an unmistakable local landmark; so much so that its inimitable shape used to feature in the prettily painted backdrops to the Musselburgh pantomime, alongside the fairy dells and magic castles of a more traditional panto landscape.

And Cockenzie is not alone, these days, in attracting a belated public affection and esteem that the modernist buildings of the postwar era notoriously failed to earn, when they first appeared on our skyline.  Dubbed “brutalist” by friends and enemies alike, the great building schemes of the 1960’s and 70’s were often dismissed as cold, bleak, oversized, inhuman, and just plain ugly.  Some of the buildings – like Glasgow’s notoriously damp tower-blocks – were not fit for purpose; and when the architectural tide turned, in the 1980’s, people assembled in huge crowds to cheer, as the first tower blocks were demolished.

Yet little by little, as the heyday of modernism faded into history, the mood also began to change, and some modernist and brutalist buildings began to come back into fashion.  The famously brutal Trellick Tower residential block in London, completed in 1972, became an iconic setting for films and drama, and is now a Grade A listed building; in Scotland, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s astonishing St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross in Dunbartonshire, completed in 1966, has been handed over to artist Angus Farquhar and his NVA company for gradual restoration as a centre for art and architecture.  And although no such rescue package has come to save Cockenzie, it’s not difficult to imagine how such a scheme might, in less straitened times, have come together.  Europe is dotted with great abandoned power stations, from Tate Modern in London to Amsterdam and Gdansk, that are now memorable centres for art and creativity, history and memory; and not many of them have the advantage of a historic battlefield, right on their doorstep.

If it is too late for Cockenzie, though, it’s not too late to ponder what these shifts in attitude might mean; because for all their overweening scale and occasionally brutal style, there’s no question that many of the great modernist building developments of the postwar era were inspired by an optimism, an ambition, and a vision of a completely transformed future, that we can hardly imagine today.  The execution of the projects was often faulty, and their public-sector focus on providing homes, services or workplaces for working-class families inevitably damaged their status and prestige.  Yet at their best, they possessed a grandeur, a sense of unleashed imagination and of a collective will to build something new, that is sadly absent from the thousands of square miles of little, pokey, retro post-modern houses and flats that represent, along with the huge commercial towers of Canary Wharf and London Wall, the main architectural legacy of the age that followed – the age of Thatcherite individualism, of mortgage-paying democracy, and of widespread defeatism about the ability of society, acting collectively, to do anything but make things worse.

There were reasons, of course, for the “Thatcher revolution”, and for its reflection in the popular rebellion against the top-down modernism of the postwar era; reasons that the social-democratic left today should try to understand in full, as we set about trying to provide a 21st century alternative to rampant deregulated capitalism. 

Yet the vision of a future that is better than the past, that is brighter and more sustainable, and that we can collectively achieve, remains a vital part of human life and politics, one that, if denied, invites huge levels of alienation, depression and loss.  During Scotland’s referendum campaign last year, we caught a brief glimpse of the positive energy that can be unleashed, when people are able for a moment to lift their eyes from a short five-year electoral cycle, and to imagine a future that – even in these times of environmental crisis – might stretch forward over twenty, forty, or a hundred years. 

So if those of us who were born into that postwar age of futuristic visions feel a pang of loss, as we see the Cockenzie chimneys crumple this weekend, it’s not because we can’t see where those visions failed, and were flawed.  It’s because without any shared vision at all – and without buildings like Cockenzie that capture a confident vision of new times, in their shape, scale and fabric – the people do perish; not quickly or visibly, but in that vital part of themselves that gives hope, purpose and a sense of meaning, to each individual life.

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Pyrenees (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PYRENEES at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, for The Scotsman, 21.9.15.
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4 stars ****

FOLLOWING David Greig’s recent appointment as the next artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre, there’s more interest than ever in the various productions of his plays currently playing around the UK. The Events, his 2013 response to the Anders Breivik killings in Norway, is playing in London; and now here, at Pitlochry, comes the first full Scottish revival of Greig’s 2005 play Pyrenees, about a middle-aged man – apparently British, but suffering complete loss of memory – who has come to rest at an inn in the Pyrenees, after being found in the snow nearby, close to the pilgrim’s way to Santiago De Compostela.

The problem with trying to learn more about David Greig from any one show, though, is that his work is so extraordinarily varied, ranging from various kinds of devised work, to the script for the recent West End musical version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.

In Pyrenees, though, we find Greig in the well-made-play mode – Ibsen meets Rattigan, with a dream-like touch of the surreal – that sits so comfortably on Pitlochry’s handsome stage. And as soon as the lights go up on Frances Collier’s gorgeous set – the hotel terrace floating in a translucent blue void, with just a hint of the mighty mountain range nearby – it’s obvious that we’re in for a couple of hours of hugely elegant and satifying drama, as Dougal Lee, as the man, and a boldly gawky Isla Carter, as an unhappy young British consular official called Anna, play their way through the early scenes, falling in love over the tape machine on which she tries to record his oddly unplaceable accent.

There are plenty of neat jokes about class and nationality in Greig’s play, of course; it’s almost immediately obvious to any Scottish audience where Keith – for that is his name – comes from, and what an ambiguous attitude he has to that truth. In true Ibsenesque style, though, there’s also something primal in play, as the other lady guest at the inn – loving wife, or, as Anna suggests “old witch” – gradually closes in on Keith, and tries to reclaim him to the life from which he has fled. Basienka Blake and Dougal Lee act out these final scenes with a sense of inevitability that’s both bleak and shimmering; while Mark Elstob’s baffling hotel proprietor circles around them, changing nationality by the hour, as if to demonstrate that identity is never simple, and always – even for those who can remember their past – an endlesssly moveable feast.

In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 14 October.

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Playwright In Charge At The Lyceum

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PLAYWRIGHT IN CHARGE AT THE LYCEUM for the Scotsman Magazine, 19.9.15.
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IN THEATRE, THERE’S a time-honoured tradition of the industry’s front-line workers – the writers and actors – striking out and forming their own companies, when they want to see real change in the way the art-form works. John McGrath did it in the early 1970’s, when he left behind a successful career in television to form 7:84, whose greatest hit The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil is currently being celebrated in a terrific revival at Dundee Rep. Moliere did it, running, writing for and acting in his own company for decades, until he collapsed and died during a 1673 performance of his comedy The Hypochondriac.

Shakespeare was one of a collective of nine actors incorporated to form the King’s Men in 1603. Alan Ayckbourn, perhaps the most successful of all living playwrights, ran his beloved Stephen Joseph Theatre at Scarborough for more than 35 years; and playwright James Bridie and actor Tom Fleming both did it, when they launched the Citizens Theatre Company in the Gorbals, and the Lyceum Theatre Company in Edinburgh, 70 and 50 years ago this autumn.

What’s still much more unusual, though, is to see a practising playwright appointed to the helm of a major existing theatre company, and appointed not as part of a collective leadership, but in his or her own right: which is why ripples of excitement have been running through the Scottish and international theatre scene since the announcement, last week, that from the summer of 2016, leading Scottish playwright David Greig will take over from Mark Thomson as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. In his appointment statement, Greig said that he was “thrilled and flattered” by the confidence the Board has shown in his vision; and he will now say no more until early next year, when he launches his first Lyceum programme.

Yet already, the news of his appointment is raising a series of exciting questions. Is there, for example, any chance that Greig’s appointment will lead to a reversal of the huge Creative Scotland grant cut set to hit the Lyceum from next summer? Will it encourage the closer relationship with the neighbouring Traverse Theatre, for many years Greig’s second home, that Creative Scotland wants to see? Will Greig want to write new plays of his own for the Lyceum stage, or concentrate on the other aspects of the role?

And will the presence of a playwright in the artistic director’s office present a challenge to the surprisingly rigid hierarchy of modern theatre, in which directors and producers can aspire to run large organisations from an early stage in their careers, whereas actors and playwrights – and other creative workers – increasingly find themselves treated as poorly-paid freelance labour, rarely involved in core decision-making?

All of this remains to be seen: for now, David Greig will be concentrating on putting together his first 2016-17 season, while the Lyceum Company throws itself into a year of 50th anniversary celebrations, starting with this month’s all-star Waiting For Godot. It’s worth remembering, though, that Greig himself is no novice at theatrical multi-tasking; he often directs his own work, and for almost 20 years, from 1990, he and Graham Eatough were artistic directors of their own highly successful company, Suspect Culture.

So perhaps Greig’s career at the Lyceum will mirror the complex experience of two poet-playwrights who did take on directing roles in major cultural institutions, at a time of national upheaval – Henrik Ibsen in the Norway of the 1850’s, and William Butler Yeats, who was one of the founding directors of Ireland’s national theatre at the Abbey; or perhaps he will succeed in resolving some of the tensions that baffled them. For David Greig himself, though, there’s no doubt about one question that will always be uppermost in his mind: how to ensure that he remains a playwright first and last, no matter what other roles he chooses to play, and how much success he may enjoy in them.

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To Hell And Back

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on TO HELL AND BACK at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 19.9.15.
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3 stars ***

THEY’VE BEEN working together for several years, the group of 14 mainly young writers and performers who come together, twice a year, to produce one ot the Play, Pie And Pint season’s hot-off-the-press political cabarets; and now they’ve christened themselves the DM Collective, in honour of their founder and presiding genius, the late David MacLennan.

It’s difficult, though – despite the range of talent involved in the writing – not to sense the absence of MacLennan somewhere in a show like To Hell And Back, a witty but slightly apologetic modern Glasgow take on Dante’s Inferno, in which our hero’s midlife crisis takes the form of exhaustion and depression after decades of fruitless campaigning against the evils of capitalism. in no time at all, our hero Dan Tay (geddit?), played by the ever-suave Dave Anderson, is being led by his wise young guide (the excellent Kirstin McLean) down through various circles of a modern Tory hell, where greed, lust and purgatorial squalor hold sway, with songs and bon mots to match.

The final message – well delivered – is that heaven is other people; the kind of ordinary conviviality to be found in Oran Mor of a lunchtime, and the chance to carry on working and fighting for what we think is worth defending. And if the satire is less sharp and hilarious than it might once have been, the heart of the show remains absolutely in the right place, as it waits for a new theatrical polemicist who can roll out these ideas not only with feeling, but with a truly incisive cutting edge.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

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The Notebook

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE NOTEBOOK at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 19.9.15.
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4 stars ****

IT’S A MARRIAGE made in heaven, or in some very eloquent circle of hell, this collision between the direct, bare-bones performance style of British experimental company Forced Entertainment, and Agota Kristof’s brilliant and chilling 1986 novel, which takes the form of a wartime notebook written in the inseparable single voice of twin boys evacuated to their grandmother’s house in the country during the Second World War in central Europe.

The trauma they suffer – not least the initial cruelty of their rage-filled old grandmother – not only drives them into an ever-closer bond with each other, but also forces them to clarify their view of the world around them; they not only train themselves not to respond to ordinary experiences of pain or happiness, but lay down strict rules for the notebook, which is to “avoid feelings, and stick to the faithful description of facts”.

And it’s this distanced, Brechtian and almost list-like quality in the writing of The Notebook that links it so powerfully to Forced Entertainment’s recent work with fragmented texts, and provides the huge, unobtrusive surge of energy behind this two-and-a-quarter-hour performance by Forced Entertainment artists Robin Arthur and Richard Lowdon. The story the boys have to tell is a horrific and timeless one, full of the random violence of war, and the deliberate abuse of children caught up in it; but the intense discipline with which it is told, on a simple bare stage by two men in suits and sweaters, forces the audience to think, to interpret, and to make up their own minds, about this unflinching portrait of what happens to humanity, in the face of war.

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, last performance tonight.

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