Monthly Archives: September 2015

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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One Year On From The Independence Vote, The Ability To Ignore Siren Voices Talking Up A “Second Indyref” Will Be A Key Test Of Nicola Sturgeon’s Leadership – Column 18.9.15.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 18.9.15. 
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ONE YEAR ON from the day of Scotland’s historic referendum; and the political landscape is changed forever, in ways that no-one could have predicted twelve months ago. Essentially, the story so far is this: that the “no” side won the vote, but all the momentum and enthusiasm remained with the “yes” side, which, instead of collapsing, went on to make the SNP perhaps the biggest political party per head of population in Europe – with 2% of Scotland’s entire population now signed up – and to win 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats in this year’s UK general election. As I write, the party is riding high in opinion polls, 25% ahead of its nearest rivals, and is apparently set for another overall majority in next May’s Holyrood elections; while the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, enjoys popularity ratings at which other European leaders can only gaze in envy.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that among many of the SNP’s own members – and among those in the unionist camp who want to portray the SNP as a permanent threat to calm and stabililty – the siren song of the “second indyref” is being heard ever more loudly in the land. For some “yes”supporters – committed online hypernats, lifelong SNP members, genuine ideological nationalists – this is a matter of passion; they cannot bear what seems to them to have been a narrow defeat suffered on a very uneven playing-field, and simply ache for another chance to free Scotland from what they see as the intolerable yoke of Westminster goverment.

Then beyond that, there are Westminster MP’s like Alex Salmond and the party’s deputy leader Stewart Hosie, who – working in a Commons environment where only the immediate threat of secession compels the governmment and media to pay any attention to Scotland at all – find themselves unable to resist the temptation to rattle the cage a bit, and talk up the chances of a second vote. Working hand-in-glove with them, of course, are those media organisations which are bored by the nuances of detailed constitutional discussion, but find the idea of a second indyref both easy to grasp, and likely – if anything – to dent the SNP’s approval ratings; so every mention of a new indyref receives substantial coverage, however speculative it may be. And then, in the more analytical reaches of unionist opinion, there are those who – despite their victory – seem to have sunk into a profound mood of defeatism, repeating the mantra that Scottish voters are now not to be found on the old left-right political spectrum, but are all voting solely on grounds of national identity, making a second indyref much more likely.

Yet despite this cacophony of voices talking up the idea of an imminent second referendum, the ability largely to ignore them, and to get on as effectively as possible with the busines of governing Scotland, will be one of the msjor tests of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership over the next few years. it is fairly evident, after all, that none of the groups involved in promoting the idea is very large, or very likely to speak for the great mass of Scottish voters.

On the contrary, enthusiasts for the second referendum – and for the idea that Scottish voters will be incensed into demanding one, if the unionists’ pre-referendum “Vow” is not kept – represent only a tiny politically-obsessed segment of the population. The average Scottish voter has apparently never even heard of the two new top-down sets of powers – known as “Calman”and “Smith” – that are currently being bestowed on the Scottish Parliament; the idea that failure to implement them would cause mass popular outrage is therefore as foolish as the assumption that most Scots ever cared about them in the first place.

For in truth, and as ever, most Scots are not that interested in matters constitutional, except as a means to an end; contrary to the rumour put about by depressed unionists, they mostly continue to vote – insofar as they can – for whatever party seems likely to deliver competent government that actually cares about social justice, about long-term sustainability, and about mapping out a viable future for Scotland in increasingly crisis-ridden times. So long as Nicola Sturgeon maintains her focus on those demands – and her famously instrumental view of independence as a means for achieving them – her popularity is likely to remain high.

If she is seen, though, to be toying with the idea of a second referendum at a time when most Scots have no appetite for it, she wil be perceived not only as having doctrinaire nationalist priorities that set her apart from mainstream opinion, but as lacking simple political judgment: for if one thing is clear, it‘s that the SNP would be very unwise to attempt a second indyref unless they can be absolutely sure of winning it, a situation that will not be achieved until support for independence is routinely running at least 10% higher than at present.

None of this means, of course, that independence sometime in the next 15 years is impossible, or even unlikely; the Westminster government’s obvious and increasing indifference to Scotland, combined with the weakness of all three unionist parties at Holyrood, suggests the opposite.

What the SNP leadership should remember, though, is that for Scotland, independence is likely to be one of those experiences that come best, not because we aim directly for them, but because, in aiming for something else – in this case, for a restored commitment to real social justice, and for an end to the failed economic orthodoxy that lies behind the current cult of austerity – we find ourselves there, almost in spite of ourselves. This is something that has been said about happiness, of course, and about love. And although independence, if and when it comes, is likely to be a more arduous experience than either of those, it seems to me that it is more likely to work well, and to win wholehearted consensus support, if we reach it by striving to do what seems politically right, and by gradually claiming all the powers we need to achieve that; rather than by making a fetish of independence itself, or of the referendum we would finally need to hold, in order to make it a reality.

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The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CHEVIOT, THE STAG, AND THE BLACK, BLACK OIL at Dundee Rep Theatre, for The Scotsman, 14.9.15.
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5 stars *****

IT’S BEEN A MIGHTY late-summer theatre season for Scots who care about the range and brilliance of their recent cultural inheritance, with new stage versions of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Alan Warner’s The Sopranos taking audiences by storm.

And now, at Dundee Rep, comes Joe Douglas’s glorious revival of what’s arguably the single most important show in the whole history of Scottish theatre: important not only because of its angry, hilarious, brilliantly-researched political content, still almost frighteningly relevant today, but because its ceilidh form, and its passionate commitment to touring to communities large and small, galvanised an irreversible change in what Scotland thought theatre was, what it could do, and who its audience might be.

The task of reviving 7:84 Scotland’s great 1973 masterpiece The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil is therefore a hugely complex one, charged with cultural meaning. And what Joe Douglas and his Dundee company have done is to find a powerful, joyful and hugely effective middle way between a faithful revival of the original text and songs – which they cetainly deliver – and the kind of full-scale updating that this show could certainly take, and may one day get.

There are moments when the sheer scale and luxury of the production seem slightly startling, compared with the rugged original. The stage at Dundee Rep is a comfortable and spacious place, opened out, in Graham McLaren’s design, into a warm, wooden-floored arena surrounded on three sides by cafe tables. The band – under the direction of MD Alasdair Macrae – features cello, clairsach and double bass as well as the more traditional accordion and fiddle; the ten-strong cast is bigger, and includes a higher proportion of women.

If the staging is more lavish, though, the force of the material remains the same, as the show charts the story of the use and exploitation of Scottish land and resources from the clearances of the 18th century to the 1970’s oil boom and beyond. The stage rings to the sound of Gaelic song, beautifully owned and sung by the women of the cast, Irene Macdougall, Jo Freer, Emily Winter and Christina Gordon. Young John Macaulay makes a superbly absurd Duke Of Sutherland, Billy Mack is a fine top-hatted villain as the hated Sutherland factor Patrick Sellar.

And if the roars that greet Macaulay’s fleeting appearance as David Cameron, or the odd reference to the independence referendum, suggest an appetite for updating that this memorable production doesn’t quite fulfil, those responses only point the way to a great continuing future for this vital play. In the opening scene, the script points out that the story of Scotland’s land and people is one with a beginning, a middle, and as yet, no end: what this fine, dynamic revival achieves is to ensure that 7:84’s great play will reach out to a new generation, and continue to evolve, develop, and live, along with the story of Scotland itself.

Dundee Rep, until 26 September.

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Theatre With A Purpose – Threat, Opportunity, Or Both?

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THEATRE WITH A PURPOSE – THREAT, OPPORTUNITY OR BOTH? for the Scotsman Magazine, 12.9.15.
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THE FIRST WEEK of September, and a friend asks me what’s on my post-Festival schedule. She glazes over a bit as I talk about the beginning of the new lunchtime season at Oran Mor, and about Rapture Theatre’s new production of All My Sons, one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.

She begins to look more animated, though, when I talk about a new show by Solar Bear, Scotland’s theatre company specialising in work aimed at both deaf and hearing audiences, including children. Because here’s something, after all, that any compassionate, engaged citizen can immediately relate to; a theatre company doing something obviously useful to society, linking itself to a generally acknowledged good cause, and not just pursuing the ephemeral and difficult notion of artistic achievement, beauty and truth.

As it turns out, of course, Solar Bear’s new show Kind Of Silence does both at once, in impressive style; it’s a beautiful, exquisitely crafted show. Yet i’m still brooding on the growing need for shows and companies to claim this kind of “useful” function, as the brochures arrive for two more arts festivals with powerful health-related themes: Scotland’s Creative Ageing Festival, Luminate, which runs throughout October, and the increasingly impressive Scottish Mental Health Arts And Film Festival (SMHAFF), which runs this year from 10-31 October.

Once again, there’s no question that both festivals will contain work of tremendous quality. In Edinburgh alone, Luminate is providing a platform for more than 30 events across half-a-dozen art-forms, ranging from new Lung Ha’s show Thingummy Bob, by award-winning writer Linda McLean, to a debate with the Royal Lyceum’s Waiting For Godot stars, Brian Cox and Bill Paterson, about the portrayal of ageing on stage.

And SMHAFF, which always reflects one of the great central themes of art and performance through the ages, brings together a new Vision Mechanics show, In Her Shadow, directed by National Theatre of Scotland associate Cora Bissett, and Rapture Theatre’s second Arthur Miller play of the autumn, The Last Yankee, which deals with the impact of depression, alongside more than 300 other events across Scotland.

Yet for all the sheer power and quality of these events, I still can’t help feeling a vague twinge of unease at the growing need for arts projects to label themselves in this utilitarian and easily-legible way. At the moment, after all, the main creative excitement in Scottish theatre is rippling around the great Citizens’ Theatre/Edinburgh International Festival stage version of Alasdair’s Gray’s Lanark, now playing in Glasgow, and John McGrath’s 1973 ceilidh masterpiece The Cheviot, The Stag And The Black, Black Oil, about to open at Dundee.

And what’s clear about those two great works is that they utterly defy any officially-approved idea of “usefulness”: the Cheviot because it is an explicitly radical piece of agitprop that seeks to put a metaphorical bomb under existing power-structures, and Lanark because its roots and purposes are far too vast and mysterious, even to its own author, ever to be summed up in any such obvious way.

It’s striking, after all, that both Luminate and SMHAFF are often at their best when they are at their angriest, raging against the official neglect and general prejudice that darkens the lives of vulnerable people everywhere. And it’s also worth remembering that great art finally tends to speak to us not because we belong to some particular interest-group, but because we are human, bound up in the big story of humanity that sings through a novel like Lanark; and it’s a lazy culture, and a lazy funding-system, that ever loses sight of that truth, and begins to use obvious utility as a criterion for interest and support, instead of striving to recognise the deep and often unnameable undercurrents of creative energy that power the greatest work, whatever its theme.

Solar Bear’s Kind Of Silence on tour to Aberdeen, Ayr, Greenock and Glasgow, until 24 September. Luminate opens across Scotland on 1 October, and SMHAFF on 10 October.

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The Quiet Land

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE QUIET LAND at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 12.9.15.
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4 stars ****

WHEN DAVID MACLENNAN launched A Play, A Pie, And A Pint, 11 years ago, the first international connection he struck up was with Bewlay’s Cafe Theatre in Dublin; and now here, in Malachy  McKenna’s The Quiet Land, is the latest fruit of that relationship, a show about as far from the cutting-edge of 21st century Irish theatre as it could possibly be, and yet full of a deep seductive charm, and a quiet sense of mourning for lost times.

So as the play opens, we see one of the classic scenes of Irish drama; a field, a broken gate, an old man in a battered, mossy hat, a faint trill of traditional pipe-music in the distance.  The man is Nashee, an old farmer; but as soon as he’s joined by his equally ancient friend and neighbour Eamonn, it becomes clear that this is a very contemporary tale of what happens to the land, and the people who used to farm it, in an age when only cash matters.

Eamonn is just back from a month in hospital after being beaten up by a gang of burglars, a wonderful, spirited old man determined to get his mobility back and battle on; but Nashee, left alone on the hill, has lost his nerve, and decided to give up the fight.  The scenario is simple enough, and Nashee’s reticence about what’s going on a little overplayed.  But Des Keoch and Derry Power deliver a glorious, perfectly-pitched pair of performances in a show seems to promise little, but finally deliver a picture of the world we live in that is sharp, teling, surprisingly complete, and very troubling indeed.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.

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Papermoon – Mwathirika

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on PAPERMOON PUPPET THEATRE – MWATHIRIKA at THE CCA, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 12.9.15.
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4 stars ****

STAGED AS part of a rich week-long festival of Indonesian arts curated by the Glasgow-based Cryptic company, Papermoon Puppet Theatre’s Mwathirika shook its audiences at the CCA this week with the sheer force and bleakness of its political vision, delivered through the puppet-drama of 10 year-old Moyo and his little sister Tupu, who is only four, and a little bit spoiled by her doting Dad and older brother.

Their bright, light-touch family story is unfolding, though, against a backdrop of political turmoil, conveyed throught powerful filmed sequences featuring images of machine-like chaos, and through the use of the colour red – a red balloon, red flags, a fatal triangle of red paint daubed on the house. And as Dad is marched away – and the neighbours shrink in fear, terrified to help the abandoned children – Mwathirika (the word mean victim) develops into a devastatingly angry and sorrowful drama about the terrible suffering of the half million who were victims of the country’s great anti-communist purge of 1965-66.

There’s something undeniably rough about the storytelling in Mwathirika, as if the pain of the subject had somehow overwhelmed director Maria Tri Sulistyani and her company; there are long fades to black between scenes, the pace is often very slow, and the ending is so sudden that its meaning almost escapes us. The impact of the show is immense, though; and it suggests that we need to see more of this passionate, questioning Indonesian theatre in Scotland, as soon as possible.

Run completed. Discover Indonesia continues at the CCA and across Glasgow until 13 September.

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The First Minister’s Borders Railway Trip With The Queen Epitomises The SNP’s Successful Balancing Act: But The Political Landscape Is Changing, In Ways That May Soon Make It More Difficult – Column 11.9.15.

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JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 11.9.15. 
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ON MY SCREEN, snapped at Waverley Station on Wednesday, sits a wonderful Evening News picture of one of those inimitable, unrepeatable momentsin British public life. The Queen – in a deep turquoise blue – has just arrived at the station for her inaugural journey on the reopened Borders Railway; she is smiling broadly, and being greeted by the First Minister, smartly suited in a rather festive shade of orange. Nicola Sturgeon’s head is bent in a respectful half-bow, as she shakes the Queen’s hand, and presumably congratulates her, on the day when she is about to become the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

And as ever, a step or so behind the Queen stands the Duke of Edinburgh, now 94 years old, and apparently still in full possession of his wits. Writ large across his face, though, is a look of frank puzzlement. When on earth, he seems to be thinking, did Scottish Nationalists start to look like that? Where are the hairy knees, and the heather coming out of the ears? And why on earth do she and the Queen seem to be getting on so well? Don’t they hate us? Isn’t that what it’s all about?

And on that last score, at least, the Duke’s puzzlement is likely to be shared by at least some SNP members; not least many of the party’s new members, who joined after the radical anti-establishment baptism of fire that was last year’s “Yes” campaign, and who – with the zeal of converts from other radical movements down the years – just want Scotland free of that corrupt old British state and its trappings, as soon as possible.

None of this, though, is likely to cause the First Minister much anxiety, as she scans the pictures of herself and the Queen chatting amicably on the train down to Tweedbank. For Wednesday’s events – to which Buckingham Palace must have agreed, in every detail – mark yet another example of the SNP’s silky-smooth political positioning, in which they appear simultaneously as a party of near-revolutionary change – threatening to break up the British state, and utterly rejecting the austerity narrative of the present British government – and a safe-pair-of-hands party of government, the new Scottish establishment, eager to retain the Queen as Scotland’s head of state, whether the country becomes independent or not.

Nicola Sturgeon may have risked – and did take – some flack from online hypernationalists who think it matters that she was seen on Wednesday singing God Save The Queen. Fundamentally, though, the calculation of the SNP leadership is that for every dyed-in-the-wool nationalist or republican who turns away in disgust from this kind of establishment schmoozing, there will be several ordinary voters who find it sensible and reassuring; particularly from a party whose core policy of independence might otherwise seem likely not only to rock the boat, but to capsize it completely.

Yet despite the soaring political success of the SNP’s strategy over the last decade, the scenes played out on Wednesday do invite questions about just how long this impressive balancing-act can be maintained. The SNP now certainly faces a huge problem of party management and internal democracy, as the massive new membership which has signed up during the last year seeks to have its say. The party is already embroiled in a serious internal row about the tight control the leadership is exercising over debates at this autumn’s party conference, ruling out discussion of the second independence referendum which has become a kind of holy grail for some elements in the party; and it’s not difficult to imagine SNP policy on the monarchy becoming a subject of similar controversy.

Then there is the wider question of unpredictable change in public attitudes. So far as the monarchy is concerned, it might take only one major scandal lapping at the doors of the Palace to cause a seismic shift in public opinion. And in the same vein, there is the shifting ground of wider UK politics, which may be about to take a completely unexpected turn. For a dozen years now, after all, the SNP has benefited greatly from a situation where it has only had to take small and relatively uncontroversial steps towards traditional social-democratic positions – for example on the NHS, or university fees – in order to outflank all three major UK parties on the left, and, over time, capture the huge Scottish centre-left vote that had traditionally belonged to the Labour Party.

If Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader this weekend, though, that policy will have to be sharpened up considerably; essentially, the SNP will have to develop the knack of occupying the comfortable ground of the social-democratic centre-left, while stepping up its arguments against the kind of further leftward move that a Corbyn-led Labour Party, and many of the SNP’s own members, might well like to see. Given the general caution and small-c conservatism of most Scottish voters, the chances are than once again, the SNP will only gain at the ballot box from appearing as the moderate choice, somewhere between the new-old left of Jeremy Corbyn, and the extreme austerity policies of the present Conservative government.

Yet public opinion is never immutable. Anyone who knows Scotland well can see clearly how opinion here could move further to the left, under the influence of a changed political debate south of the Border, or could harden to the right, as the nation’s middle income earners are faced with the tough realities of Scotland’s limited new tax powers. The Queen, who is a constitutional monarch and a pragmatist, recognises a profound shift of political allegiance when she sees it, and seeks to accommodate it; hence, presumably, her decision to spend Wednesday visiting the Borders with the First Minister.

Nicola Sturgeon, though, is a political leader, bound not only to recognise public opinion, but to lead and shape it. And if she wants, as I believe she does, to lead Scotland towards an effective 21st century social democracy, then the chances are that from this weekend, she will have to be developing, re-focussing and sharpening that vision every day; making new arguments for it, and clarifying how her party intends to achieve it, even as the political ground constantly shifts beneath her, in increasingly turbulent times.

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Kind Of Silence

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on KIND OF SILENCE at Platform, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 7.9.15.
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4 stars ****

THE WORLD IS SILENT, and music is everywhere; so says the  front cover of the programme for this latest show from Solar Bear, Scotland’s theatre company specialising in work for both deaf and hearing audiences.  And although the word “experimental” is often over-used in the world of theatre, there’s a sense of a genuinely ground-breaking experiment going on in this new response to the legend of Echo and Narcissus, created and directed for Solar Bear by one of Scotland’s leading sound designers, Danny Krass.

On Kai Fischer’s exquisitely-lit stage containing just one cube-shaped room without walls, and a high tree-branch above, performers Charlene Boyd, Jacob Casselden and James Anthony Pearson walk, talk, mime, dance and gesture their way through a modern version of the ancient story of self-absorption and love rejected, while to one side, musician Alon Ilsar uses intensely vibrating instruments – mainly drums and theremin-like “air sticks”,  mediated through a technology that delivers sound vibrations direct into the body rather than through the air – to reflect and drive their actions.

There are times when the show seems a little unsure of its direction, as it makes its way through sequences titled Silence, Music, Noise, and Kind of Silence; some of Chisato Minamimura’s choreographed sequences seem over-extended, even in a show barely an hour long.  Kind Of Silence features three tremendously vivid performances, though, treading fearlessly through the danger-zones of  attraction, intimacy, loss and solitude; and in the end, this fascinating show opens up whole new worlds of possibility, based on the recognition that the thing we call music is written into our bodies, and that even for those who cannot hear in the conventional sense, both rhythm and melody pulse through their lives, creating the kind of silence that is full of shaping energy – heard, unheard, or suddenly made visible.

On tour to Inverness, Aberdeen, Ayr and Greenock, until 19 September, and the Citizens’ Theatre Progression 2015 event, 24 September.

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Stones In His Pockets (2015)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on STONES IN HIS POCKETS at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh, for The Scotsman, 7.9.15.
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4 stars ****

THE USE AND OWNERSHIP of land is one of the topics of the hour, in Scotland this autumn: campaigns are afoot, and later this week, Dundee Rep Theatre opens its eagerly-awaited revival of John McGrath’s great 1973 cabaret-history of Highland land and resources, The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil.

If you’re looking for a sadder, funnier and more subtly post-modern take on the same subject, though, you could do a lot worse than catch up with the current Mull Theatre touring production of Marie Jones’s smash-hit 1996 two-hander, lovingly directed by the theatre’s director, Alasdair McCrone, through the firestorm of popular protest that has broken out on Mull following the attempted dismissal, by the Comar arts organisation, of both McCrone and Gordon McLean, the force behind the exhibitions and music programme at An Tobar Gallery.

For there are certainly some familiar political resonances in Jones’s brilliantly-told story of a small rural town in the west of Ireland taken over, used, and abused by the management elite of the global movie industry, when a Hollywood cast and crew arrive in town to film a sentimental historical romance about a 19th century peasant revolt against poverty and evictions.  The story is told primarily through the eyes of Jake and Charlie, a pair of middle-aged local extras on the film who both find that life has left them with few other options; but one of the pure theatrical joys of this play lies in the ingenuity with which Jones has the same two actors also play a myriad of other parts, from the film’s gorgeous Hollywood star Caroline Giovanni, to young Sean, the troubled boy with drug  problems whose fate gives the story a profound edge of tragedy and anger.

In McCrone’s fine production, the parts of Jake and Charlie are played with real feeling and skill by McCrone himself, and Barrie Hunter.  And if it takes some time, on Alicia Hendricks’s slightly over-busy  set, to sort out Jones’s galaxy of supporting characters, the story still powers on in fine style, offering a vision not only of a society where the loss of a farming way of life causes profound despair, but of one in which the endless reflection and retelling of these stories, through media with a global reach, is itself fast becoming a factor in the game of power and powerlessness.

Kemnay Village Hall, 8 September; Webster Theatre, Arbroath, 9 September; and on tour in the Highlands and Islands until 24 September.

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The Year Of The Solo Show – Edinburgh 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on 2015 – THE YEAR OF THE SOLO SHOW for the Scotsman Magazine, 5.9.15.
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IT WASN’T obvious to me at the time: but when Simon McBurney of Complicite opened the Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme, four weeks ago tonight, with his superb audio-driven monodrama The Encounter, he was signalling a Festival and Fringe more dominated by solo performance than any I can remember. In the international festival, McBurney’s show was followed in short order by Robert Lepage’s 887, a beautiful and absorbing solo account of a childhood shaped by the reviving Quebec nationalism of the 1960’s, and by Untitled Projects’ Paul Bright’s Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner, a bravura solo lecture-performance by actor George Anton.

And meanwhile, out on the Fringe, there were moments when it seemed as though the show witth more than one performer was becoming an endangered species. There were plenty of big shows, of course, in the musical and entertainment sections of the programme; also among student companies, and among companies based in Edinburgh, who can avoid soaring festival accommodation costs.

In the part of the Fringe programme where the Scotsman Fringe First awards operate, though – seeking out high-quality new work brought to the Edinburgh Fringe from all over the world – the solo show now dominates the field. In recent years, the proportion of solo shows among our Fringe First award winners has been hovering just below the 50% mark. This year, though, almost two-thirds of our winners were solo performers. Show after show that promised – and often delivered – big drama on big themes turned out to feature only one actor; and the Amnesty International Freedom Of Expression Award chose an outstanding, Fringe-First winning solo show – the wonderful A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, unforgettably performed by Aoife Duffin – as its winner.

So what is going on here? The obvious answer lies in the high cost of staging a Fringe production in Edinburgh, particularly when cast accommodation costs are taken into account. Theatre-makers have observed the huge success of the Fringe’s leading comedy stars, and have realised that if the quality of the show is high enough, audiences are willing to pay as much to see one performer as they are to see six, or even 20.

There’s no doubt, though, that however brillliant many solo performances are, there’s something wrong with a cost structure that increasingly limits the range of theatre available, particularly where new and more high-risk work is involved; and those who have successfully launched other initiatives to support companies on the Fringe – such as the Made In Scotland initaitive – should perhaps be thinking about how to help ambitious companies bring shows with the full cast size the work demands.

Even if thoses practical issues were resolved, though, it seems to me that there’s something about the mood of our time that seeks out the solo show, regardless of cost. Indeed the presence of those three huge solo theatre pieces on the Edinburgh International Festival programme, where resources are relatively plentiful, shows that the decision to perform alone is not only a practical one, but one that reflects a profound shift in the aesthetic of 21st century theatre.

It’s perhaps partly a question of theatre carving out a distinctive “live” role, in an age when multi-character drama is increasingly defined by television and film; audiences seem to have an increasingly low tolerance for live theatre in which no-one speaks to them directly, as solo performers always do.

In the end, though, I think there’s also a shift that goes even deeper than that. And I suspect that even if a special stream of funding to support larger casts appeared tomorrow, many writers and producers would still choose the solo show; because at some level, this is the voice of our time, the theatre of the age of the “selfie” – telling stories, playing with perceptions, and dismantling and reassembling the self, as it’s reflected back to us not only by other people, but also by the live electronic screens, large and small, that increasingly dominate our lives.

ENDS ENDS