Category Archives: Edinburgh 2008

Review Of The Year 2008

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2008 – THEATRE for Scotsman Review 26.12.08
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IT’S BEEN A STRANGE, tense year in Scottish theatre. On one hand, it’s been packed with activity; over the year, I saw and reviewed 263 professional or near-professional shows, more than half of them them conceived and made in Scotland. Yet at the same time, the year has been shadowed both by the continuing uncertainty over the coming of the new arts agency, Creative Scotland, and – increasingly – by the threat of an economic collapse that could push many art organisations over the edge of oblivion. And it’s notable that the strongest survivors, this year, seem to come in two categories: those organisations so big and internationally-linked that the national climate has less impact on them, and those so small, lithe, and left-field that they can creep under the funding radar, and continue to create regardless of trying times.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that, with hindsight, Jonathan Mills’s great 2008 Edinburgh Festival – and an accompanying Fringe full of creative intensity, for all its administrative mightmares – seems to dominate the landscape of the year. Mills’s theme, Artists Without Borders, was perfectly chosen for the times; and with searching and often stunning contributions from Iran and Palestine, Bosnia and Flanders, Scotland and Poland, his programme provided a dazzling range of cutting-edge theatre, demanding, challenging, and sometimes mind-blowing.

The Fringe, too, did itself proud, with a slew of fine documentary dramas on themes of peace and war led by Sherman Cymru’s Deep Cut, one of the finest shows in a superb year for visiting work at the Traverse; and there were some fabulous experiments in stage poetry – visual and verbal – from companies as well-known as the Abbey Theatre of Ireland, or as new to the scene as Ontroerend Goed from Belgium. Two emerging Scottish-based companies also picked up prestigious awards this year. Edinburgh University Theatre Company are heading to New York with Ella Hickson’s Eight, winner of the Carol Tambor Award; and Dogstar’s Tailor Of Inverness visits the Adelaide Festival as winner of the new Holden Street Theatres award.

The other organisation big enough to ride the recession, of course, is the National Theatre of Scotland, which produced a year of work that was more interesting and meditative than spectacular, despite a rip-roaring revival of The Bacchae, starring Alan Cumming, that famously toured to Aberdeen, Inverness and New York. There was a searching, ambitious Festival show in David Harrower’s 365, about 16-year-old kids struggling to emerge from local authority care; there was more major investment in children’s theatre, featuring co-productions with leading kids’ companies Catherine Wheels and Wee Stories – this in a year when home-grown children’s theatre made a memorably strong contribution to the annual Imaginate festival in Edinburgh. And in the autumn, there was the NTS/Traverse Debuts season of four new plays by brand-new writers, which produced two serious hits, in John Tiffany’s belting production of Paul Higgins’s extreme family drama Nobody Will Ever Forgive Us, and Vicky Featherstone’s immaculate, brilliantly-acted staging of Cockroach by Sam Holcroft, the most exciting new writing talent to emerge in Scotland this half-decade.

Elsewhere, though, it was a slightly muted year on Scotland’s main stages. These are not vintage times at the Royal Lyceum, where even the best shows have been slightly lacklustre; and the Citizens’ has struggled to maintain its main-house audience whenever it moves away from a curriculum-friendly repertoire, although this year did produce two fine Citizens’ productions of mid-20th century classics, in Guy Hollands’s beautiful Waiting For Godot, and Phillip Breen’s subtly brilliant take on The Caretaker. Even the famously inventive Andy Arnold, moving on from the Arches to the Tron this year, has struggled to bring his main stage to life; his finest show so far has been an exquisite, passionate small-scale studio production of three tiny Tennessee Williams shorts, for this year’s fascinating Williams-themed Glasgay! Festival.

The main exceptions to this mild blight of the main stage were at Pitlochry, where the Festival Theatre staged a memorably ambiitious 2008 programme, including fine productions of Shaw’s Heartbreak House, Bennnet’s Habeas Corpus, and David Greig’s Outlying Islands; and in Aberdeen, where the new Aberdeen Performing Arts initiative was launched in fine style with a large-scale production of Sunset Song. Even the Dundee Rep ensemble failed to raise many sparks this year; until, come December, it suddenly produced an outstanding Christmas show, and an uplifting, foot-stamping revival of its Proclaimers musical Sunshine On Leith, at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh.

So where has the theatrical energy gone? Into the small spaces and back rooms, is the answer; into the bars and music venues, and the debatable borderlands where art-forms meet and collide. It’s in depths of the Arches, where the wonderful Jackie Wylie took over from Andy Arnold as Artistic Director; it’s in the backrooms of the Tron, where a new strand of political cabaret and off-the-wall piano performance is fast developing. It’s at the Tramway, where Ed Robson of Cumbernauld Theatre co-produced a stunning November production of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis. It’s at Oran Mor, where more than 30 new lunchtime plays a year are churned out on a shoestring, and where old Wildcat stager David MacLennan now seems better placed to survive the recession than almost any other Scottish producer. And it’s in the off-the-wall Traverse Too strand at the Traverse, which produced the biggest surprise hit of the autumn, in David Greig’s lovely two-handed romantic comedy Midsummer, with music by Gordon McIntyre of Ballboy.

The coming year, in other words, could see some real devastation on the Scottish arts scene, with institutional pillars tottering, cash-strapped audiences staying at home, and talented people once again threatening to leave in droves. But to paraphrase Hugh MacDiarmid, I have faith in Scottish theatre, and its hidden powers. It’s down there in the cellars, blazing with heat and light; and it will not be quenched, even in the toughest times.

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Wolpe!

EIF THEATRE
Wolpe!
4 stars ****
The Hub

HOW MUCH YOU ENJOY THIS magnificently ragged cabaret from Muziektheater Transparant of Ghent will depend on how much you care about the tremendous, swirling tide of utopian hope and totalitarian disaster that was the European politics of the 20th century.   Born in Berlin in 1902, Stefan Wolpe was a musician, composer and idealistic Marxist whose early life was entirely bound up with radical movements in politics and the arts; and in this cabaret, the magnificent Belgian actress Viviane De Muynck – with tenor Gunnar Brandt – not only sings his fierce songs of working-class revolt, but also reflects, in her own improvisatory style, on what the death of so much intelligent hope and idealism means for our society today; while Johan Bossers at the piano offers a glimpse of  Wolpe’s later modernist piano music, still full of the same bold, unyielding radicalism that shaped his early life in 1920’s Berlin.

The result is a profoundly rewarding and unsettling 90 minutes of theatre, startlingly transgressive in its willingness to name and explore the importance of a revolutionary radicalism now so suppressed and forgotten; and richly entertaining in its wise, world-weary view of the strange combination of “agitation and sterility” that characterises our world today, with so much frenzied activity, and so little hope of real political change.

Joyce McMillan

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Three Weeks On The Cutting Edge – EIF Theatre 2008

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on EIF THEATRE PROGRAMME 2008 for Scotsman Review, 29.8.08
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LAST SATURDAY NIGHT, I took an evening off from my theatre reviewing schedule, and headed for the King’s Theatre to see Matthew Bourne’s new dance version of the story of Dorian Gray.   It’s a great show, witty, timely, beautifully designed, sometimes chilling, hugely entertaining; and well worth the four-star reviews bestowed on it by many critics, including The Scotsman’s own Kelly Apter.

But as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking how straightforward, how easy to understand, how conventional a piece of storytelling it was, compared with anything that I had seen and reviewed in this year’s Edinburgh International Festival theatre programme.  Whatever the critical response to it – and it was generally favourable – Dorian Gray is clearly a piece of popular theatre, easy to sell to any audience not offended by its strong homoerotic storyline.  Whereas this year’s theatre programme, by contrast, from the start, has presented fans of the art-form with a relentless, arduous, and deeply demanding course of theatrical brain-gym, with every show  pushing and thrusting at the  boundaries of the art-form, challenging the very idea of coherent narrative, spilling over into the realms of music and installation art, and presenting even familiar stories in profoundly fragmented and reworked forms.

The Festival theatre season opened, after all, with TR Warszawa’s beautiful, profound but intensely dark and demanding version of The Dybbuk, structured round a deliberate collision between two matching narratives, and difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the old Jewish legend on which the story is based.  It continued with a fascinatingly fragmented and visually thrilling take on Edgar Allan Poe’s surreal psycho-drama, The Telltale Heart.  The National Theatre of Palestine’s Jidariyya was a complex, dream-like staging of the words of Mahmoud Darwish’s great epic poem about the moment of death, and the intensity of memory.  TR Warszawa bowed out with a magnificent version of Sarah Kane’s haunting suicidal tone-poem 4:48 Psychosis, the most abstract of all recent British theatre texts

Haris Pasovic’s Class Enemy, from Sarajevo, played havoc with Nigel Williams’s original 1978 text, and subjected audiences to a hundred-minute crash-course in the fury, alienation, sexual self-abuse and sheer violence of rejected young people in postwar Bosnia; a large contingent of the audience walked out after ten minutes, affirming that they would rather get back to drinking champagne.  Ruhe, from Muziektheater Transparant of Ghent, used Schubert lieder and monologues by Nazi collaborators to force a tough contemplation of the enduring – perhaps terminal – damage done to European culture during the Nazi era.  And as I write, Edinburgh is preparing for the world premiere of Heiner Goebbels’s latest music-theatre piece I Went To The House But Did Not Enter, from which audiences can expect much thrilling imagery and sound, but little resembling a plot.

And then there was the most controversial and hotly-anticipated  show of them all, in the shape of the National Theatre of Scotland’s 365, at the Playhouse.  What director Vicky Featherstone and her team produced was a bold, if not wholly successful, attempt to tell the story of young people emerging from care not through conventional narrative, but through dream-like sequences of stunning large-scale design, haunting music, and brief, telling fragments of monologue and dialogue; but the show was dismissed by many critics, some arguing that since it had no story worth the name, it was inevitably dull and uninvolving.   “Playwrights today should be prepared to explode realism, and to recognise that in some situations there is no narrative,” said 365’s writer David Harrower in one interview.   “But they don’t do that any more.  It’s almost as if Beckett had never happened.”  And Harrower’s feeling that theatrical tastes and assumptions remain fairly conservative, half a century on from the first performances of Waiting For Godot, seems to have been borne out by at least some of the reaction to his show.

So as the Festival approaches its final weekend, it’s perhaps worth asking what is going on here, when audiences for classical music and dance are offered a rich mix of the cutting-edge, the popular contemporary, and the traditional, while theatre is used as a kind of battering-ram for exploring the outer limits of performing art, and forcing audiences to face up to the toughest of subject-matter, including the catastrophe of genocide, the disintegration of the mind, and the experience of death itself.  For ardent enthusiasts of theatre, and at least some professional critics, it’s all exhilarating, challenging, mind-expanding stuff; and  of course, it would be a disaster if the Festival director, Jonathan Mills, were to abandon the sheer intellectual and creative force of this year’s theatre programme for a diet of stuffy popular classics, or routine issue-based contemporary plays.

But in order to survive, any art-form needs a heartland, as well as a cutting edge.  This year in Edinburgh, I felt almost as if theatre had no credible heartland any more; as if it had become a kind of experimental fringe to the more popular elements of the International Festival, a laboratory in which other art-forms can test themselves to destruction against the possiblities of the spoken word.  And I began to wonder whether I was watching the idea of theatre being reborn; or whether I was seeing it finally disappear into that great gulf between outworn traditional forms on one hand, and self-conscious modernist experimentalism on the other, that first appeared in our culture more than a century ago.   For it’s a gulf that still, in theatre, too often remains unbridged; save by the occasional, brilliant, once-in-a-decade show that blows all these old categories apart, and offers us a brief glimpse of how to reinvent a whole art-form, for a new age.

I Went To The House But Did Not Enter at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, and Dorian Gray at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until tomorrow, 30 August.   Class Enemy on tour to the MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 2 September, and Cumbernauld Theatre, 4 September.   365 at the Lyric Theatre,  Hammersmith, 8-27 September.

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The Devil’s Ship

EIF THEATRE
The Devil’s Ship
3 stars ***
The Hub

THIS LATEST WORK by the controversial Iranian director Attila Pessyani is a single, sombre, elegant brush-stroke of a show, which makes its point slowly but with absolute clarity, over a muted yet ground-breaking hour of Iranian theatre.   Recalling and reworking some of the most profound archetypal images of women in drama, from Greek tragedy to Synge and Lorca, The Devil’s Ship portrays a group of five women – a middle-aged mother, two young widows, two teenage younger sisters – living on a remote island, and mourning the loss of the mother’s son, evocatively called Ismael.  His young widow – beautiful, restless, educated – has fallen in love with another man, who is to come for her tonight, while the Persian moon forms its once-in-fifteen-years image of a “devil’s ship” sailing on the horizon.  But there are rumours that her lover caused the death of her husband, and she increasingly questions whether her happiness lies with him, or with this family of women.

Performed in whispered, irritatingly inaudible Farsi, with English surtitles, the show proceeds through a mixture of simple, direct dialogue, tremendously powerful gesture, and occasional haunting plays of cinematic flickering light over the faces of the women, as they turn towards the possibility of change and escape.  Moving around the stage in their heavy veils – although usually with their faces fully visible – the women brush and tend the sandy graves that surround them, unwind pieces of fabric, bury their hopes; sometimes, startlingly, they produce a little radio or i-pod, harbingers of the fast-changing world beyond.  The performances are hauntingly powerful, the conclusion as moving a statement of female solidarity and hope as I’ve seen for many a year; and if the style of the show is too funereal and restrained to appeal to more than minority tastes, to see The Devil’s Ship sail is still a hugely enriching experience.

Joyce McMillan
Until 27 August

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Gergiev In South Ossetia And The Return Of Big-Nation Nationalism – Column 23.8.08

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.9.08
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ON MONDAY, the great Russian maestro Valery Gergiev is due to arrive in Edinburgh, to conduct his Mariinsky opera of St. Petersburg in three performances at the Festival Theatre; but alas, his visit now seems certain to be far more controversial than anyone could have guessed, three weeks ago.  For on Thursday, Gergiev travelled to his family’s native region of South Ossetia, on the border of Russia and Georgia, to give a concert in the battle-scarred capital Tskhinvali, now devastated by a fortnight of military conflict.   His mission was to offer  support to the Russian forces in the region, and to the majority of South Ossetians who want to separate from Georgia, and restore closer links with Moscow; and he spoke of how in his view, without the Russian intervention of the last few weeks, the death toll in the region, and the abuse of human rights there, would have been much, much worse.

It’s hardly a message that is likely to sound musical to the ears of western governments, currently giving full support to Georgia in her battle against the presence of Russian forces on her soil; and it provides a stern warning about the re-emergence, in what we once dared to hope was a “new” post-Cold War world, of a very old-fashioned kind of big-nation nationalism, often linked to the use of overwhelming military power.   By coincidence, this week also marks the 40th anniversary of the day in August 1968 when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, just as the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was about to play a major concert of Russian and Czech music at the London Proms.

But in 1968, despite its military might, Soviet communism was already a dying beast, its systems discredited, its young people turning away towards the west, many of its artists and writers in open revolt.  Today’s resurgent Russian nationalism, by comparison, is a vigorous, youthful force, powered by the nation’s booming energy and mineral wealth, and hungry to reverse the humiliations of the last 18 years.  It commands the largely unquestioning support of people who, a generation ago, would have been among the nation’s leading dissidents.  And if you want a glimpse of another  mighty nation in similar mood, then just take a glimpse at the Olympic coverage currently monopolising your television screen; for no matter how liberal their views or westernised their style, most young Chinese people are passionately nationalistic in their attitudes, and willing to support any action, in Tibet or elsewhere, designed to defend their country’s territorial integrity.

All of which poses profound questions about how the west can possibly respond to this resurgence of big-nation nationalism in our time; because if one thing is clear, it’s that for our societies, there can be no going back to that mood of uncritical patriotism, and unquestioning support for our armed forces.   All across the Edinburgh Festival this year, there are shows which set out, five years after the beginning of the Iraq War, to interrogate the relationship between our military and the ordinary families who become caught up in its operations.  At the Underbelly, there’s Motherland, in which a young company from Newcastle give a powerful voice to the mothers and wives of ordinary British soldiers who have served, and sometimes died, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At the Assembly Rooms, there’s In Conflict, in which seventeen superb young actors from Temple University of Pennsylvania call the US authorities to account for their treatment of servicemen and women returning from Iraq.  And at the Traverse, there’s the magnificent Deep Cut, from the Sherman Cymru company of Wales, which seeks truth and justice for the families of four young British recruits killed in unexplained circumstances at the Deepcut training camp in Surrey.

In Britain and the US, and throughout the west, in other words, the struggle continues to hold our armed forces to account, and to make them  live up to the high democratic values they are supposed to represent; and on both sides of the Atlantic, there are voices ready to argue that this culture of open debate about the conduct of our armed forces makes us weak opponents to nations still wedded to a culture of unquestioning patriotism.  In learning to be relatively rigorous critics of our own institutions, they will argue, we have “tied the hands” of our fighting forces, and deprived them of that useful haze of patriotic blind faith within which they can operate freely.

But before people becomes carried away with the idea that we ought to leave our armed forces alone, and stop subjecting them to ethical and legal scrutiny, they should at least look into the faces of people like Des and Doreen James, the Deepcut parents on whose story the play is based; and ask themselves what long-term damage is done to any society that denies its people basic justice, and a chance to live in the truth.   If the Soviet system began to weaken in the 1960’s, it was precisely because its military strength increasingly concealed a sense of moral failure, brutalism, unaccountability; if the new Russia of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev takes the same route, then sooner or later its strength, too, will become shallow and brittle.

And as for us, we cannot strengthen  ourselves by returning to the old myths of infallible British – or American – virtue on which so many of us postwar babies were brought up.   If we are to have strong societies, capable of defending serious human values, then we have to find a new basis for that strength; founded not on myths and half-truths, but on the capacity to see ourselves steadily and whole, and to understand that freedom and democracy come at the price of a constant struggle to make those values real, and to bring them right back home, to the ordinary citizens who need them most.

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365

EIF THEATRE
365
4 stars ****
Edinburgh Playhouse

FOR THE THIRD TIME in ten days, Edinburgh audiences find themselves confronted with a small stage army of young people, not yet 20, whose sense of self seems so disrupted and deconstructed that the task of presenting it on stage strains at the very boundaries of the art-form.   The National Theatre of Scotland’s 365 is a show about eleven vulnerable young people seeking to make the transition from life in a care home to an independent existence; it boasts a script by leading playwright David Harrower, choreography by the great Steve Hoggett of Black Watch, and a range of stunning performances from a superb young cast.

What emerges from this high-powered collaboration, though, is not so much a play as a kind of scenic meditation on the inner journey of these youngsters, utterly dominated – on the huge Playhouse stage – by the beauty, the shifting shapes and the sheer scale of Georgia McGuinness’s spectacular set, exquisitely lit by Coln Grenfell.   From early scenes set in vivid  fragments of a small starter flat, through a dream-sequence in which one of the kids breaks down and transports the whole cast to a fairytale forest, Vicky Featherstone’s production often reads like an installation for a big set and small human actors; and only briefly, from time to time, does the energy and initiative pass either to the performers, or to David Harrower’s intermittently powerful script.

The effect could be irritating, featuring as it does transient visual effects which could probably keep one these youngsters in food and cigarettes for a year.   But in fact, it seems more like a brave, beautiful, complex attempt to imagine the inner landscape of a generation who have been failed by language, and by our old ways of structuring drama; beautiful, haunting, exasperating, drenched in sadness, but also with a sweetness, and an ache for lost dreams of love, that breaks the heart.

Joyce McMillan
Until 25 August

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Ruhe

EIF THEATRE
Ruhe
5 stars *****
The Hub

IN THE MAIN HALL AT THE HUB, about 150 chairs are arranged in a rough cluster.  On a dozen of those chairs, men in everyday clothes stand and sing with the voices of angels, as the audience gathers.  They are members of the Collegium Vocale of Ghent, one of Europe’s leading male voice choirs; and they are singing the first group of Schubert lieder that lead us into this extraordinary show from Muziektheater Transparant of Ghent, which interweaves this music with extracts from the memories of Dutch people who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.

Through two separate monologues – one for a female hospital assistant, magnificently played by Carly Wijs, the other for a confused, enthusiastic SS soldier, recreated with terrific force by Dirk Roofthooft – we listen to their explanations of how ordinary people became caught up on the losing side in that war, and of how they lost twice; not only physically and politically, but morally.

It’s an immensely sad, powerful, and disturbing show, in which the music sometimes seems to rebuke the crude self-justifications of the speakers, and sometimes seems cheerfully complicit with it; until the end, when Schubert’s rhythms give way to a magnificently deconstructed, questioning coda by modern Flemish composer Annelies Van Parys, sung against an oddly chilling black-and-white image of the kind of idyllic European rural scene which could never, after 1945, look quite the same again.

What’s painful and magnificent about Ruhe is its openness to the possibility that with the wars and atrocities of the 20th century, our old continent inflicted moral wounds on itself which can never be healed, despite the best intentions of artists like the founders of the Edinburgh Festival.  But this act of reflection and remembrance is so rich, so intelligent, so profound, that its effect is not depressing; but full of the sense of a great truth, told with a subtlety and integrity that lifts the heart.

Joyce McMillan
Until 24 August

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