Daily Archives: September 19, 2015

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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Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 19.9.15.
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2 stars **

THE SETS are gorgeous, the dancing is slick, and the 20-strong cast work their socks off to make it go with a swing. For all that, though, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – first seen in New York in 2004, and now at the Playhouse in this British touring production – is the musical that taste forgot; and not in a good or an interesting way.

The problem arises, I think, from the desire of everyone involved – songwriter David Yazbek, scriptwriter Jeffrey Lane, and a galaxy of producers – to make this show combine two different types of appeal. Based on the 1988 film starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, the show often looks, and even occasionally sounds, like a gorgeous Cole-Porter-style musical of the 1930’s or 40’s. There’s the French Riviera setting, the elegant hotels and train carriages, the occasional fine set-piece song-and-dance number with a rattle of tap shoes; and the outlines of the story sit easily against this background, since it’s all about a suave English con-man making his way along a Mediterranean coast full of lonely, rich widows, accompanied by his French policeman side-kick, Andre, and a shambling but ingenious young American trickster called Freddy.

The words the characters are called upon to speak and sing, though, are something else. Essentially, they’ve been given the crudest kind of update to our own unlovely times, when the f-word flies freely around the stage, the second act consists of an increasingly tasteless extended joke about Freddy trying to seduce an heiress by pretending to be a war hero in a wheelchair, and the delightful Gary Wilmot, as Andre, and the charming Geraldine Fitzgerald, as a wealthy widow, are not allowed simply to strike up an elderly romance, but have to exchange morning-after pleasantries while describing their antics of the night before in the joyless, impoverished and just plain ugly language of a cheap soft-porn novel.

The obvious clash between the language and the look of the show certainly raises the odd laugh; and it’s impossible to fault the cast’s commitment to delivering the show in style, with Michael Praed in fine form as the suave hero, and Carley Stenson gorgeous and talented as the presumed heiress. Yet in the end, despite one brief burst of melancholy romance instantly undermined, all this forgettable show has to say is that people are nasty pieces of work; and that it’s therefore not only right but amusing to give them lyrics and language that match the ugliness of their minds.

Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 26 September.

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