Monthly Archives: June 2019

Ben Harrison On A Game Of Death And Chance

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: BEN HARRISON ON GAME OF DEATH AND CHANCE AT GLADSTONE’S LAND for The Scotsman magazine, 29.6.19.
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WALK UP Edinburgh’s Royal Mile from St. Giles Cathedral to the Castle, and you might just miss Gladstone’s Land, standing among the jostle of buildings that crowd up the hill. Look more closely, though, and you’ll see one of the most remarkable houses in Edinburgh; stretching upwards over six creaking wooden floors, it was first built in 1550, but modernised around 1620 by wealthy merchant called Thomas Gledstanes, who gave the house its name.

Along with much of the historic Old Town area – then a byword in some quarters for filth, immorality and slum conditions – it was scheduled for demolition in 1934; but it was saved by the National Trust for Scotland, and today operates as a museum and gift shop, offering tours that instantly evoke the atmosphere of Edinburgh’s Old Town in the centuries when it was famous for the height of its buildings, the squalor of the vennels between them, and the jumble of rich and poor folk living on top of one another on the various floors. It’s therefore not surprising that following the success of last winter’s theatre show Enlightenment House, staged at the Georgian House in Charlotte Square, the National Trust has chosen Gladstone’s Land as the next site for its experiment in bringing together history, theatre, and one of the city’s tourist attractions; and once again, the Trust has commissioned Edinburgh-based writer and director Ben Harrison to create the show.

Ever since he graduated from Edinburgh University in the 1990’s – and, together with Jude Doherty, founded the legendary site-specific theatre company Grid Iron – Harrison has been intrigued, inspired, exasperated and thrilled by Edinburgh’s cityscape, and its many unexpected nooks and corners. One of Grid Iron’s earliest successes was the remarkable show Gargantua, which opened up the then unused floors of space now known as the Underbelly in the Cowgate; over the next 15 years, the company’s work ranged across the city, seeking inspiration for shows that, in different forms, often went on to tour the world. And although the focus of the company’s work has moved on – and Harrison now has a wide-ranging international career as a director – he still feels the special fascination of bringing live theatre to a space in Edinburgh that has not seen anything like it before, and of moving an audience through that space, rather than simply sitting them in rows as passive watchers.

“When I first know that I’m going to create a show for a particular space,” says Harrison, “I just go and sit in it for a very long time. I try to immerse myself in its atmosphere, and see what images come to mind. I also do a fair bit of research, particularly with buildings like the Georgian House and Gladstone’s Land. It’s not that I’ve been bound by the factual history in any way that limits the work; the National Trust are great to work for, very open and flexible. The history of these buildings is so fascinating, though, that you don’t have to look far for brilliant characters, and real drama.”

For Gladstone’s Land, Harrison has therefore created a show of just under an hour that takes place in four spaces across the building, and is set in the troubled century between the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Union of Parliaments in 1707. The story features five characters, including a female publican based on real-life character Isobel Johnston, a wealthy investor who loses his all in the Darien disaster of the 1690’s, the writer Daniel Defoe – who was an English government spy in Edinburgh before 1707 – and two symbolic characters, one representing Scotland herself, to be played by the magnificent Wendy Seager, and another, played by the show’s musician and composer David Paul Jones, representing Death, a force that, according to Harrison, truly stalked Scottish life at the time; hence the play’s title, A Game Of Death And Chance.

“It really is difficult not to feel sorry for Scotland at this point in its history,” says Harrison. “It had lost its king and court to London, and many of its writers, musicians and artists along with it; the church became the most powerful force in Scottish life, and the whole century was scarred by conflict between Episcopalians and Calvinists. In addition, there was plague, foul weather, poor harvests, and the final catastrophe of the Darien Scheme, a massive colonial enterprise that soaked up capital from across Scotland, and ended in utter failure.”

In order to capture the role of blind chance and ill luck during this turbulent time, Harrison has therefore written three versions of each scene, giving each audience an opportunity – the roll of a dice, or the choice of a different drink – to make a decision which will determine which story emerges. And Harrison hopes that the contemporary resonances of the play, as Scotland moves towards the dramatic moment of Union with England, will not be lost on audiences.

“The play ends in Defoe’s drawing-room at the back of the building, with a very English cup of tea,” says Harrison. “There’s a huge irony to it, though; a sense of a nation being driven towards Union by a fierce range of forces, some internal, some external, some just random. I suppose a kind of rebellion against the excesses of Calvinism and Puritanism has been a thread through my work from the beginning; that was certainly the theme of Gargantua, and I hope this show will also have that sensual energy and rebelliousness, bringing this old building back to life. But I hope it will also capture the complexity of what was happening in Scotland at that time; and make people think about the decisions we face now, about the nation’s identity, and its future.”

A Game Of Death And Chance at Gladstone’s Land, Lawnmarket, 16 July-8 September.

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Blithe Spirit, The Crucible, Amélie

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on BLITHE SPIRIT and THE CRUCIBLE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and AMELIE THE MUSICAL at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman, 29.6.19.
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Blithe Spirit 4 stars ****
The Crucible 3 stars ***
Amelie The Musical 4 stars ****

THERE’S A POWERFUL initial shock, in seeing Noel Coward’s great 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit briskly moved forward into the age of mobile phones and i-pads; yet in this second show of Pitlochry’s summer season, the theatre’s former associate director Gemma Fairlie, and a terrific seven-strong cast, make a brilliant job of demonstrating just how how much Coward’s searing insights into love, sex and marriage still have to tell us,about the way we live now.

So on a crisply minimalist set by Adrian Rees, a modern-day Ruth and Charles Condamine, dressed like the owners of a successful tech start-up, start to dabble with spiritualism in a recognisable 21st century spirit of slightly reckless cynicism. Enter Deirdre Davis as the medium Madam Arcati, like a former Scottish schoolteacher gone full new-age; and enter also, after an experimental seance, the pouting blonde ghost of Charles’s late wife Elvira, brilliantly clad by Adrian Rees in a searing scarlet that cuts straight across Ruth’s tasteful range of green-blue smart-casual outfits.

Cue some brilliantly well-observed marital by-play, as Ruth at first believes she is being gaslit and lied to as part of some ploy to end the marriage. Claire Dargo is superb as Ruth, bringing a whole 21st century feminist awareness to her struggle to grasp what is happening; Ali Watt is equally impressive as a young but brilliantly observed Condamine. Add a male assistant called Eddy – played with flair by David Rankine – in the role of the blundering maid, Edith, and you have a Blithe Spirit to remember; one that gives full weight to the epic battle of the sexes at the centre of the drama, and is all the more powerful for it.

This year’s Pitlochry production of The Crucible – directed by new artistic director Elizabeth Newman – is even more ambitious. Featuring a cast of 17, and a set by Adrian Rees based around a full-size model of Pitlochry’s Shoogly Bridge, the production tries to give both a local edge and the occasionally riff of contemporary rhythm to Arthur Miller’s great 1953 drama, set in 17th century Massachusetts, about the psychology of the witch-hunt, and how quickly such attempts at moral “cleansing” can descend into homicidal madness.

At a moment when the need to understand this kind of thinking has never been greater, though, this Pitlochry production achieves many moments of high drama, without finally bringing as much clarity or insight as it seems to promise. The production is exceptionally strong in evoking the village community of Salem, and its shocked reaction to the sudden violence of the threat from the young girls who have begun to denounce local women as witches. It’s less effective later, though, in finding its way towards the full significance of farmer John Proctor’s final sacrifice; and often visually confusing, not least in a final image which seems to consign Proctor and the heroic Rebecca Nurse to the flames of hell, before sending the audience home to the spectacularly incongruous sound of high Anglican Victorian hymns being sung, in some English cathedral.

In Edinburgh, meanwhile, Amelie The Musical, at the King’s Theatre, involves absolutely no attempt to engage with reality, in this century or any other. Instead, the show – based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much-loved 2001 film – offers a soft-focus millennial dream, set in 1997, of a world in which people are always falling towards each other, guided by the force of love; and where even super-shy Amelie, a waitress in an eccentric Montmartre cafe, is inspired to perform anonymous acts of kindness, which eventually lead to her own happy ending.

All of this is ravishingly staged, in a production originally from the Watermill, Newbury, on a magically romantic Parisian set by Madeleine Girling, and by a company of 16 brilliant actor-musicians, hammering their way through Daniel Messe’s score on a wonderful collection of 20th century European instruments. For myself, I ran out of patience with the show’s long-drawn out romantic story well before the end, and found the warbling sub-Sondheim lyrics of some of its 35 songs increasingly hard to take. But I seemed to be in a minority of one, among a delighted audience; and the infinitely talented cast, led by the lovely Audrey Brisson as Amelie, certainly deserved every moment of the loving and rapturous ovation they received.

Blithe Spirit and The Crucible in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until September; Amelie The Musical at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today, and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 19-24 August.

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