Category Archives: Edinburgh 2010

Jack The Knife

THEATRE
Jack The Knife
Assembly@George Street (Venue 3)
3 stars ***

WHAT IS THE BRILLIANT Fringe veteran Jack Klaff up to, in his latest solo show?  At one level, he seems to be telling us a story about his life in showbusiness, and the bullying and abuse of power he has sometimes encountered in his own profession.  Yet at another, he seems to be giving us a 60-minute monologue about energy itself – about the dark energy of those who abuse and hate, and the positive energy of those who seek to walk to a different rhythm, perhaps including storytellers like himself, the people who, in order to tell a good tale, have to be both “selfless” and “disobedient.”

At any rate, this range of thematic concerns allows the remarkable Jack – still a powerhouse of charisma and good looks  at 60, with a shock of white hair – to explore not only his experience of theatre, but elements of his South African family history, of contemporary micro-politics, and of cutting-edge scientific theory.  The style is sometimes free-form to the point of being difficult to follow; the text could perhaps use a slightly stronger thematic or narrative backbone.  Yet as an account of the ways in which our control-freak culture tries – and fails – to crush free spirits, this is a show well worth seeing; and may become more so, as Klaff processes his voluminous audience feedback, and moves on.

Joyce McMillan
Unilt 30 August
p. 262

Jacobite Country

THEATRE
Jacobite Country
Udderbelly’s Pasture (Venue 300)
3 stars ***

AS THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND is about to learn, Edinburgh in August is not the most sympathetic environment in which to explore the wilder reaches of the Scottish national psyche.  Half of the audience don’t care, and the other half are often seeking a holiday from the arduous business of Scottishness; which makes it all the bolder of Matthew Zajac’s Dogstar Company, of Inverness, to choose one of the trendiest venues on the Fringe for the launch of Henry Adam’s Jacobite Country.

Set in Adam’s version of post-modern Caithness – a nightmare country that combines the rural trauma of an early Sam Shepard play with the grotesquery of a northern Little Britain – Jacobite Country tells the tale of one Haggis McSporran, who aspires to be a successful stand-up comic despite being confined in the local mental hospital.  The rest of the cast involves a hatchet-faced nurse who morphs into a London comedy promoter, Haggis’s hard-drinking associate Eddy, and his decrepit Uncle Angus, a wheelchair-bound figure wrapped from top to toe in white bandages, who nonetheless plays a rousing lament or two on the bagpipes, and seems to represent the living corpse of true Scottish nationalism.

The story leads us ever further into the fevered dreams and imaginings of Haggis, as delusion melts into reality and vice versa; there are reels and laments and garish stand-up comedy sequences.  And every one of the characters is played by a woman, with Sarah Howarth giving it best as Haggis himself.  The result is a memorable shambles of a show that throbs with life even when it seems to be falling apart, and actually has things to say about the death of national identity and the rise of an insane celebrity culture.  And it will be more than interesting to see what audiences across Scotland make of it, as it sets off on a five-week tour that will take it from Peebles in the south to Kirkwall in the north, and to the Tron Theatre in Glasgow.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p. 263

Vieux Carre

EIF THEATRE
Vieux Carre
Royal Lyceum Theatre
4 stars ****

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A RELAXED night at the theatre, don’t go to see the Wooster Group’s astonishing version of Tennessee Williams’s Vieux Carre, a show that demands almost as much of its audience as it does of its extraordinary six-strong cast.  Written in 1939, when Williams was living in a battered rooming house in the old quarter of New Orleans, Vieux Carre is one of his earliest works, an apparently shapeless impressionistic drama about the strange cast of characters who live in the house. They range from  lost New Yorker Jane Sparks, through the rapacious transvestite dying of tuberculosis next door, to our hero himself, a young, troubled gay writer working towards the point where he can capture the life of the building in words, battered out on his keyboard.

The Wooster Group’s version, directed by Elizabeth Le Compte, strips the material of picturesque period detail, setting it on a dark stage with a few bed-like platforms, and expressing the drama through a post-modern visual symphony of live action, framed video imagery on multiple small screens, and superb  sound, both live and recorded.  At the centre of the show is Ari Fliakos’s memorably quiet and subtle performance as the writer.  And although the other characters constantly move through his space – providing scope for an outstanding performance from Kate Valk as Jane – we are left with a sense of having spent two arduous hours inside the writer’s complex, troubled and transforming mind; and also with an image of a society where people live on the very edge of destitution and death, and sometimes simply vanish, into the dark.

Joyce McMiilan
Until 24 August
EIF p. 25

ENDS ENDS

The Gospel At Colonus

THEATRE
The Gospel At Colonus
The Edinburgh Playhouse
4 stars ****

IT’S EASY ENOUGH to understand the concept behind Lee Breuer and Jim Telson’s mighty Gospel At Colonus.  On one hand, there’s the grandeur of Sophocles’s last Theban play, which shows an aged, blind and broken Oedipus arriving with his daughters in the village of Colonus, and recognising it as the place where he will die, provided he can first make peace with the gods.

On the other hand, there’s the magnificent, ecstatic tradition of gospel worship in the black churches of the southern United States, with its similar traditions of choral singing and response, and similar themes of release and redemption.  Then there’s the theatrical imagination of Breuer and Tilson, who decided 30 years ago to bring these old-world and new-world traditions together; and who have been developing and expanding the idea ever since a studio version of the show first appeared in Edinburgh in 1982.

What’s more difficult to absorb, though, is the sheer force, colour and complexity of the spectacle that unfolds on the huge stage of the Playhouse.  Part church service, part classical drama, part rousing gospel jam session, the 2010 version of the show is a spectacular business, staged against a ruined amphitheatre wall that flickers with images of gods and angels, and featuring a cast of more than 40, led by the legendary singers, The Blind Boys Of Alabama.  It’s also deeply counter-cultural, in that many of the performers are now old and slow-moving, and none of the fabulous women on stage are slim.

Yet the force of the music and singing is often staggering, adding a whole new dimension of inventive freedom, hard-lived experience and sheer soul to the range of Festival sounds.  I’m not sure whether the collision with the gospel tradition finally reveals much that is new about the story of Oedipus.   I’m certain, though, that the collision with Oedipus reveals a great deal about the gospel tradition; about its vocal and musical complexity, and its profound moral wisdom, in raising people up from their suffering, and setting them free at last.

Joyce McMillan
Until 23 August
EIF p.26

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

THEATRE
Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
T5
5 stars *****
Quartet
4 stars *****
This Is Water
4 stars ****
My Friend Duplicity
4 stars ****
All Is Vanity
3 stars ***

IT FEATURES FIVE NEW HALF-HOUR BREAKFAST  PLAYS by leading British and Irish writers, fabulous actors, and a ground-breaking experiment that involves the intensive filming of the rehearsed readings, with interviews and background material, before this evening’s live transmission of all five plays to cinemas across the UK.

The Traverse’s Impossible Things Before Breakfast, in other words, is the festival project that has everything, including a bacon roll and a cup of coffee for each audience member before each morning show even starts.  The plays, though, are a strangely introverted bunch.  Given the whole world to range over, at least three of the five focus tightly on the affluent middle classes of Britain and Ireland, their angst, their relationships, and their attempts to come to terms with their own mortality; yet what they lack in thematic breadth, they tend to make up in metaphysical depth.

By far the strongest play is Simon Stephens’s haunting monologue T5, performed by Meg Fraser with a truly heart-stopping brilliance.   The speaker is an ordinary wife and mother, living in London, whose life becomes derailed after she witnesses the murder of a young boy by a gang of thugs on waste ground near her home.   Her marriage is rocky, her world  seems meaningless; and one afternoon she simply leaves her life, and heads for Terminal 5 at Heathrow.  After a while, the story becomes surreal; but never in a way that breaches its fundamental integrity, as a vision of a woman whose mind can simply no longer bear the denial and the lies – political, personal, moral – on which her apparently “normal” life is based.

Marina Carr’s Quartet is that rarest of things, a dramatic hymn to love, in all its complexity.  The central character is a middle-aged Irish diplomat, whose well-heeled and well-travelled life allows him to maintain a wife in Washington, an ageing mistress in Ireland, and young lover in New York, all of whom know about, and even like, one another.

The situation is slightly improbable, but it unleashes a torrent of superb lyrical writing about the real nature of sexual love, and its stubborn refusal to conform to the rules we try to lay down for it, even in the face of old age and death.  Vicky Featherstone’s beautifully-paced production features four rich, and profoundly grown-up performances from Andy Gray as the diplomat, with Irene Macdougall, Anne Kidd and Cora Bissett as the women.   And as a dramatic experience, it’s both more optimistic and, in a sense, more original than the other quartet in the series, David Eldridge’s All Is Vanity (Or With Apologies To Nathalie Sarraute),  a profoundly depressing and slightly old-fashioned anatomy of upper-middle-class alienation and self-hatred set in a garden in Kent, where middle-aged boss Roy, and his barren and furious wife Ursula – brilliantly played by Jane Bertish – are entertaining Roy’s new sales manager and his young wife.

Between these plays, though, come two slightly more left-field offerings, in terms of form.  Linda McLean’s This Is Water is simply a well-shaped series of quotations from the words of random New Yorkers whom she interviewed, as part of a recent project, about their views on uncertainty in their lives.  This is the one play of the four that, in a sense, speaks with the voice of ordinary people; and what emerges is an oddly beautiful and moving  piece of theatre, sharply directed by Stewart Laing, that offers terrific creative scope to a fine cast featuring Meg Fraser, James Anthony Pearson, Nalini Chetty, and Gary Lewis.

And finally, there’s Enda Walsh’s My Friend Duplicity, a 21st century Waiting For Godot set off the Kilburn Road in London, but featuring two Irish people (“Are we Irish?  Yes, thank god.”) trapped in a room, arguing about the relative merits of reality and imagination.  He is an ageing writer, perhaps; she is his young secretary, or amanuensis, or muse.  Niall Buggy starts off with astonishing charm and charisma as the man, Fergal, although he seems to lose his way as Walsh’s complex script unfolds; Olga Wehrly is briliantly sceptical as the woman.  And the whole play shimmers on a strange cusp between the real world – with all its banality and possible magic – and an imagined world where magic can be created and repeated at will; as if Ireland itself was a place caught between these two worlds, in a limbo that Sam Beckett would have recognised, and that Enda Walsh fills with his own inimitable poetry.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August, with live cine-cast performance of all five plays this evening, 23 August, 7.00 p.m.
p. 261.

ENDS ENDS

Caledonia

EIF THEATRE
Caledonia
King’s Theatre
4 stars ****

THE DARIEN EXPEDITION of 1696 was Scotland’s first and only attempt to establish an overseas colony and trading-post of its own; and the enterprise was such a comprehensive disaster – involving death, disease, and the outright loss of more than half of Scotland’s capital wealth – that it effectively finished Scotland as an independent nation, and left psychological scars that remain visible today, in the strange mixture of vainglory and self-contempt with which many Scots still view their national identity.

And it’s straight into this morass of unresolved patriotic feelings, as well of roaring post-crash scepticism about the whole model of high-risk venture capitalism on which the Darien project was based, that this latest production from the National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival boldly marches.  Scripted by Alistair Beaton and directed by Anthony Neilson, Caledonia is both spectacular in staging and satirical in tone, and comes across almost as a comic-book linear narrative of the Darien disaster.  Many of the characters – from Edinburgh MP’s to English king – are presented as Viz-magazine grotesques of greed and venality; jokes about bankers abound, and while some of the show’s satirical comedy is effective, some is over-pitched and cack-handed.

What’s increasingly clear, though, is that these uncertainties of tone reflect a deep ambivalence within the play itself about the story it tells.  If it merely satirises Scotland as a backward dump with foolish delusions of grandeur, it does nothing but flatter  familiar metropolitan prejudices; yet if it takes too seriously the evidence that Scotland’s legitimate attempt to join in the global trading boom was directly scuppered by the machinations of the English government, it risks looking like a piece of nationalist agitprop, an outcome which Beaton and Neilson seem anxious to avoid.

It’s therefore a tribute to the skill of all those involved – including a fine cast, led by Paul Higgins as William Paterson, the visionary financier behind the project –  that what Caledonia finally achieves, in its closing scenes, is a kind of profound  elegiac lyricism about the sheer human cost of the enterprise, expressed in brilliantly theatrical terms.  The play probably insists too much on making the link between crazed venture capitalism and Scottish national aspirations, a link which misrepresents the character of Scottish politics.   But this new NTS show fits superbly, and revealingly, into the “new worlds” theme of Jonathan Mills’s 2010 Festival.  And three centuries on, it makes an interesting, debatable, and hugely theatrical start on the long collective process of coming to terms with a decisive national disaster; a process on which Scotland has perhaps only just begun.

Joyce McMillan
Until 26 August.  EIF p. 29

Edwin Morgan, Jimmy Reid, And The Need For A 21st Century Politics That Reflects Their Values – Column 21.8.10

______________________________________

JOYCE McMILLAN for The Scotsman 21.8.10
______________________________________

LET’S BEGIN WITH THE WORDS of Sir Alex Ferguson, spoken on Thursday in Govan Old Parish Church, at the funeral of Jimmy Reid.   “The thing that impressed me most,” he said, “was that Jimmy gave the shipyard workers hope.  It was the mothers and wives I remember.  They depended on jobs in the shipyards.  They had to keep the house, make ends meet.  And they will never forget Jimmy for that – for giving them hope.”

In the last ten days, two great titans of Scottish life have passed away; not only Jimmy Reid, hero of the 1971 sit-in at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, but Edwin Morgan, Scotland’s Makar-in-chief or poet laureate, a great poet, essayist and playwright, a magnificent translator of the work of poets from Pablo Neruda to Vladimir Mayakovsky, and a much-loved man, famed for his deep and humorous humanity.

And if there is one thing these two men had in common – apart from a Glasgow upbringing, a love of learning, and a deep sense of belonging to the ordinary people of Scotland – it is their humour, their kindness, and their deep and optimistic belief that humankind, at heart, tends towards good rather than evil.   Like many of the finest men and women of their generation – Morgan was born in 1920, and Reid in 1932 – they tended to express that belief and hope through a kind of socialism that is out of fashion today; you will travel a long way, now, before you will find an MP, an MSP, or a trade union leader who talks in public about a universal “right to work”, as Jimmy Reid did in his legendary rectorial address, given at Glasgow University in 1972.

Yet still, it is a joyful and uplifting experience to read Jimmy Reid’s words, delivered on that day; and to be in the presence, even retrospectively, of a big, articulate, generous-minded public figure who does not give in to the miserable mantras of the all-powerful market that now largely shape our society.  “From the depth of my being,” said Reid, “I challenge the right of any man  or group of men to tell a fellow human being that he or she is expendable;” and as we stand on the brink of an ill-advised orgy of deep cuts in our public services, and mass redundancies among the workers who deliver them, we will have many hundreds of thousands of occasions to remember those passionate words, over the coming years.

If Reid and Morgan are now being canonised as secular saints, though, it is worth considering just what kind of shift it would take, in our political culture, to generate a 21st century movement that might actually advance their commitment to human dignity, and their optimism about our capacity to create a better future.  All across the current Edinburgh Festival – on the Fringe and elsewhere – there is a passionate dialogue between optimistic and pessiminstic views of human nature; but it’s noticeable that the optimists are often apolitical writers, interested in the gentle minutiae of everyday life, while those with a strong political perspective often seem driven by levels of anger and disgust that threaten a new world even more frightening than the one we inhabit now.

There are a few outstanding shows, though – like the magnificent sex-trafficking drama Roadkill, or David Benson’s powerful evocation of Jim Swire’s fight for justice in Lockerbie: Unfinished Business – that strike a balance between displaying the horror of a world gone wrong, and expressing the positive human passions – love, compassion, the desire to be free, the need for justice – that can help change that world for the better; and it’s those profound positive passions that we need to focus on now, if we are to stand a chance of taking forward the values embodied by these two men.

For the magic of Reid and Morgan lay in the fact that although they could express a powerful rage against injustice, cruelty, and exploitation, their lives were finally always driven more by love than by hate.  Today, we live in a world where political optimism – “things can only get better” – has become a kind of public-relations veneer thrown over a set of policies that in fact assume the worst about human nature; that people only appreciate what they pay for, that competition is the only effective spur to good performance, and that people – when the chips are down – always respond better to material incentives than to any other motivating force.

Yet in the end, none of these propositions is true; and most of the policies based upon them have failed, and will fail again, because they take account of only one half of human nature, and that the least creative and interesting half.

So if we want to honour the legacy of Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan, this should be our starting-point; that we no longer accept, vote for, or nod our passive assent to, policy that is based on a negative and reductive view of human beings, and of their vision, capacity and power.  As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, and move towards a resource crisis beyond anything humankind has known before, we should understand that nothing will get us round this tightest of corners except our optimism and courage, our richness of imagination, and our love for other people, that will not let them go.

And that means that we should consign to the dustbin of politics all those petty, mean-minded mantras that invite us to hate, to blame, to fear, and to punish those worse off than ourselves. We should re-dedicate ourselves instead to the ideals of equality, fraternity, and love embraced by Jimmy Reid and Edwin Morgan in their heyday.  And we should do it not because we are starry-eyed fools; but because we have before us the powerful example of two great men who lived by those values, and who, in giving so much of themselves to others, also gave themselves lives that were rich beyond measure, in everything that matters.

ENDS ENDS

Teenage Riot

THEATRE
Teenage Riot
Traverse Theatre (Venue 15)
4 stars ****

THE BELGIAN company Ontroerend Goed have become true stars of the Fringe over the last four years, with a series of fierce alternations between intensely adult one-on-one theatre, and shows created with a teenage cast that try to embody the emotional, political and erotic chaos of post-modern teenage experience.

In Teenage Riot, playing in the big space of Traverse One, a cast of eight young people retreat into an onstage cube which they call a shack, a kind of den decorated inside with a fierce Sixties-style collage of cut-out images and painted patterns, toy-sized drawings and (for furniture) brightly-coloured babies’ car seats.  Inside the shack, they squirm and wriggle and snog and talk, often about sex, but also about the shameful mixed signals they receive from the adult world around them on everything from drugs to lies.

Images of what is going on in the shack  are projected live onto its front surface, as the kids talk, writhe and perform for a hand-held camera.  And occasionally, they emerge from the shack – sometimes through a trapdoor on top of it – to talk to us directly, inviting us to “at least solve some problems, before you land them on my plate”; at one point, they even turn the camera onto the largely middle-aged audience, so that they can splatter the images of our smug and jowly faces with tomatoes.

The whole show lasts only 55 minutes, and is followed by an invitation to inspect the shack from the inside; it’s a formidable little installation, to add to an already fairly mind-blowing combination of live performance and screen imagery.  In the world of theatre, there’s plenty of work created by adults for children and young people, and plenty created by young companies for audiences of their own age.  This, though, looks like that rare thing; a show created by young people for adults, to both challenge and disturb them.  And for all the risks it takes – not least by exposing so much young teenage flesh to the rheumy eyes of the older generation – I think it works.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p. 294

ENDS ENDS

Uber Hate Gang

THEATRE
Uber Hate Gang
Underbelly, Cowgate (Venue 61)
3 stars ***

THERE ARE EXPLOSIVE quantities of talent on stage in Philip Stokes’s latest play Uber Hate Gang, presented by Horizon Arts of West Yorkshire.  Best known on the Fringe for last year’s hit Heroin(e) For Breakfast, Stokes is a playwright who take no prisoners; and this new show is in-your-face theatre with a vengeance, as it takes us into the bunker of a four-man white terrorist gang with a charismatic, domineering leader called Andrew – powerfully played by Gareth Webber – plus a classic sidekick character, and two blonde women in Nazi-babe gear who compete for Andrew’s favours.  The drama begins by roundly abusing the audience for its feebleness in not walking out (“they think it’s a play”, yells Andrew, as if it somehow wasn’t), and then veers towards the surreal when the gang’s  plans for a major bomb blast are interrupted by a children’s entertainer called Uncle Ted, who wanders into their bunker.

The potential here is huge; but the brute fact about the play is that most of its theatrical energy comes from the reification and imitation of the kind of behaviour it claims to condemn.  If a play aims, as this one does, to make people ashamed of adopting violent and fascistic attitudes, then it should find ways of expressing alternative world-views that are equally compelling, sexy and beautiful; rather than reducing them to a surreal joke, embodied by a gormless kids’ entertainer.

Joyce McMillan
Until 29 August
p.301.

ENDS ENDS

Lockerbie: Unfinished Business

THEATRE
Lockerbie: Unfinished Business
Gilded Balloon Teviot (Venue 14)
4 stars ****

IT’S 22 YEARS since the terrible night, just before Christmas 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the sky above the Borders town of Lockerbie, killing 270 people; yet still, the shock-waves from that explosion ripple on, through British and global politics.   In David Benson’s new solo show about the unfinished story of the Lockerbie bombing, he adopts the character of Jim Swire, the Worcestershire GP who became the leading British voice of the victims’ families, after his 24-year-old daughter Flora died in the bombing; and who still campaigns today for the truth to be told about the Lockerbie case, and for justice to be done.

There is nothing fancy about Benson’s show: it’s delivered in the style of a brusque, forensic lecture, with projected images, about the state of the evidence.  It’s not that Swire’s grief and anger over his daughter’s death is suppressed, in this version of the story; the character Benson creates is far too intelligent a man not to recognise that his long campaign is in part a way of coping with the crushing agony of Flora’s loss, and the show uses some desperately poignant real-life recordings of Flora  as a child, over images of her short life.

The heart of the show, though, lies in Swire’s rage at the abject  failure of  British – and Scottish – justice even to try to expose the truth about the bombings.  In meticulous detail, Benson’s script stacks up the detail which suggests that the story of Libyan involvement in the bombing was fabricated, that the conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi was a shocking miscarriage of justice – Swire actually fainted when he heard the guilty verdict – and that the men who probably did murder his daughter have never been brought to justice.  And although the play occasionally loses pace and dramatic edge, and could perhaps be five minutes shorter, there’s no denying its stunning final impact; as it combines a respectful, subtle and profoundly moving performance with a mighty and unanswerable indictment of cover-up and injustice, in a show that every thinking citizen of this country should see, and act upon.

Joyce McMillan
Until 30 August
p.267

ENDS ENDS ENDS