Category Archives: Other Theatre Writing

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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Scottish Theatre On The International Stage

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SCOTTISH THEATRE ON THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE for The Scotsman 23.2.19.
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IF YOU HEAD for the Traverse Theatre this weekend – or any evening next week – you’ll have a chance to catch the theatre’s own production of David Ireland’s latest play Ulster American, a smash hit, and winner of a Scotsman Fringe First Award, during last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Born of the #metoo moment, the play deals explosively and outrageously with a crisis in the three-way relationship between a young female Northern Irish playwright, her clueless young London director, and a big male Hollywood star who wants to play the lead in her next show; there is gender politics aplenty, but also a level of sheer, crass cultural misunderstanding, around the politics and history of Northern Ireland, that gives the play an extra vicious topical edge. And the sheer brilliance of the play and production has not gone unnoticed beyond Scotland; its short Traverse run, this month, is a prelude to a tour which will take it to Adelaide in Australia and Auckland in New Zealand, as well as to Dublin and Belfast.

Nor is Ulster American alone, in hitting the international trail over the next few weeks. The Royal Lyceum’s recent production of mountaineering classic Touching The Void, for example – co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, the Royal & Derngate in Northampton, and London producers Fuel – is on stage tonight at the City Hall Theatre in Hong Kong, as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Anything That Gives Off Light, the National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production with the New York based company TEAM, is about to start a short American tour; the 2018 Traverse hit What Girls Are Made Of, written by and starring Cora Bissett, will be seen in Sao Paulo, Brazil, later this spring.

And beyond the costly business of whole productions from Scotland touring outside the UK, there is also the growing international reach of the latest wave of new writing from Scotland. A Scottish Playright’s Studio/Scottish Society of Playwrights survey covering 2016-2017, for example, found that in those two years 69 existing plays, by 26 Scottish-based playwrights, had had productions outside Scotland, most of them outside the UK. In January this year, the leading Scottish playwright and director Zinnie Harris had three different plays opening across Europe in a single weekend, at the Royal Dramaten in Stockholm, in Rome, and in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Stef Smith, whose new take on Ibsen’s Doll’s House, called Nora, is set to open in a Citizens’ production at the Tramway on 15 March, has seen her 2015 Traverse play Swallow run for three years in Istanbul; Swallow, a study of three troubled women in a 21st century urban landscape, has also had productions in six other countries, and has been translated into a dozen languages. The relationship between Scottish and Turkish theatre is particularly intense at the moment, revolving around a strong connection with DOT Theatre of Istanbul; David Greig’s Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart is currently running there, and Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair’s Fringe First winning 2018 play Square Go has also been seen in Istanbul. And all of this represents only a fraction of the international work in which Scottish-based playwrights are involved, in a scene that ranges from Jo Clifford’s Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven – now a symbol of resistance to the right-wing Bolsonaro presidency in Brazil – to the National Theatre of Scotland’s parkour-based Jump project in Jamaica, celebrated at the Glasgow Film Festival tomorrow in the documentary film Run Free.

So what are we to make of the international reach of Scottish theatre artists? In the first place, it is worth noting just how low-profile much of this work has become; no organisation has any particular responsibility for keeping a record of, or publicising, the global reach of Scottish theatre work, and the vital organisations which underpin Scotland’s strong presence on the international scene – from the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe to the British Council – have other key priorities.

Secondly, though, it is possible that the Scottish theatre community could find more effective ways of celebrating Scottish theatre’s huge international reach, and of sharing the experience with their home audiences. A once-a-year event at a major Scottish theatre venue, featuring film and stories, visual images and debate, and involving some of Scottish theatre’s international partners, might help to raise awareness of existing projects, and to create new possibilities for creative co-production and two-way traffic, including more Scottish productions of new plays from elsewhere.

As for the impact on writers of seeing their work performed internationally, all playwrights and theatre-makers seem to agree that the effect can be incalculable. Both Stef Smith and Zinnie Harris have noted the intensity of the current Turkish response to plays featuring gay or transgender characters, as the Erdogan government moves to ban such plays completely; and both feel they have learned a great deal from their experience of director-led theatre cultures, more likely to play fast and loose with text.

“The whole experience makes the world seem both much bigger, and much smaller,” says Stef Smith, “in very positive ways. You get a sense of all these huge cultural possibilities, but also of the fact that if you write from the truth of your own vision, then people everywhere will respond.”

And Harris agrees. “The bottom line, really, is that by allowing the play to be staged elsewhere, you have to trust the creatives working in a different theatrical culture to stage it in the way that will resonate best. It means you have to let go of your vision a little; and that’s why this part of my work has been so important to me. It’s the chance to connect and learn from theatre makers and audiences across the world, and – through the medium of theatre – to become more outward looking and responsive, in every way.”

Ulster American at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 March; Touching The Void on tour to Perth and Inverness from 6 March.

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Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 – A Feast Of Irish Theatre

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on the DUBLIN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL for Scotsman magazine, 14.10.17.
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IN THE MAIN auditorium of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, the audience is gathering around a space that seems to have shifted slightly on its axis. Where the stage usually sits, there are extra rows of seats facing towards us; and the stage itself has become an oval, chequered pub floor somewhere near the centre of the room, with a few audience members sitting on stage, at the pub tables and chairs.

This is the set for Graham McLaren’s production of Dermot Bolger’s stage adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, first produced at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow in 2012, and now revived as the Abbey’s main contribution to the 2017 Dublin International Theatre Festival, this year celebrating its 60th birthday. And as McLaren’s first show created for the Abbey’s main stage since he and Neil Murray left the National Theatre of Scotland in 2016 to become joint artistic directors of Ireland’s revered national company, it sends out signals that are already becoming closely associated with the new regime; signals about inclusion, about a friendly, convivial and welcoming style of theatre rather than a formal one, and about an approach to the great canon of Irish writing which suggest that the great writers of the past will be honoured, in future, in a manner more robust and comradely, and less reverential.

The show itself is a vivid and sometimes slightly rambling affair, far less sombre and tightly-focussed than Andy Arnold’s 2012 production. If any two-hour stage version of Ulysses can only offer one or two facets of that huge, infinitely rich novel, then this one specialises in the bawdy, the rude, the humorous, and the straightforwardly emotional, wrapping Leopold Bloom’s day-long journey through early 20th century Dublin in layers of song, broad comedy, and puppetry, both poignant and satirical; and although Dublin’s response to the show has been genuinely mixed, this show sits firmly in the tradition of a nation that – unlike Scotland – naturally talks to itself through theatre, not least about about how bold, brilliant and taboo-busting this iconic Irish novel is, and always has been.

In that sense, it’s appropriate that the Abbey stage should be largely occupied, during this Dublin Festival, by the big brass bed on which Molly Bloom – perhaps the most gloriously and uninhibitedly sexual woman in all of literature – takes her ease and thinks her thoughts; for all around the Festival, this year, there are Irish companies arguing, dramatising, imagining and creating around the continuing struggle for sexual freedom. Out at the old Ringsend power station, Ireland’s female-led site-specific company Anu present a haunting, fragmented and powerfully inconclusive promenade show called The Sin Eaters, which arraigns the Irish state for the way in which it has historically pressurised women to take on, absorb, and endure the suffering caused by, the sins of the whole society.

The Corn Exchange’s Nora, at the Project Arts Centre, is an elegant and terrifying new version of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House written by Belinda McKeown with Annie Ryan, and set in a near future when – with a nod to The Handmaid’s Tale – women are once again having to accept a world of patriarchal laws forbidding them from owning property, running businesses, or being legally equal with their husbands.

Two new shows from Landmark Productions ponder on the recurring story of women murdered by their jealous menfolk. Camille O’Sullivan acts and sings up a storm of emotion as the victim Marie in Conall Morrison’s beautiful Woyzeck In Winter, co-produced with the Galway Festival, which marries Buchner’s drama with music and words from Schubert’s Winterrreise; Sharon Carty sings the role of the murdered 21st century wife Amy in The Second Violinist, co-produced with Wide Open Opera, a strangely unsatisfying new opera-with-film by Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh, partly set in the badlands of modern internet sex. And at the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire, Sebastian Barry’s On Blueberry Hill offers an exquisite pair of entwined prison monologues about a cycle of violence that begins in the heart of a good man unable to accept his own homosexuality, and ends in a redemption as beautiful and moving as it is improbable.

What Dublin mainly offers this year, in other words, is a mighty feast of Irish theatre, with many of its greatest makers and creators in full flow, angry, engaged, passionate and lyrical. There is still international work to be seen in Dublin of course; some eight of the 20 shows for adult audiences on this year’s programme come from outside Ireland, and Scotland is the most prominent visiting country this year, with Lyceum shows The Suppliant Women and Wind Resistance opening and closing the Festival, and children’s show Poggle playing at the Arc.

Yet although White would like – after ten years of relative financial austerity, since the crash – to restore the Dublin Festival to the glory days when it could host huge main stage international productions by leading world directors, he is also conscious that the whole idea of internationalism in theatre is changing. “It really is a different atmosphere from the 1980’s or 1990’s,” says White. “So many of our companies – like Dead Centre, who are doing Hamnet this year, and who had such a huge international success with Lippy – now have very strong international links of their own, which have a huge impact on the aesthetics of their work.

“So in a sense, the whole idea of an international festival is evolving, along with everything else. Yes, I’d love to have the money to bring, say, a great big Ariane Mnouchkine show one day. For the moment, though, we’re working with what we have; and with most Festival shows either selling out or selling extremely well, we seem to be creating a celebration of theatre that works for our audience, and for the moment we’re in.”

The Dublin International Theatre Festival runs until tomorrow, 15 October, with Ulysses at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until 28 October.

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Fringe First Winners 2016

WEEK 1

ANGEL Pipeline Productions at Gilded Balloon
COUNTING SHEEP Lemon Bucket Okestra & Aurora Nova at Summerhall at King’s Hall
EXPENSIVE SHIT Adura Onashile & Scottish Theatre Producers at Traverse Theatre
HEADS UP Kieran Hurley and Show & Tell at Summerhall
THE INTERFERENCE Pepperdine Scotland at C Chambers St.
WORLD WTHOUT US Ontroerend Goed at Summerhall

WEEK 2

DAFFODILS (A PLAY WITH SONGS) Bullet Heart Club at the Traverse Theatre
FABRIC Robin Rayner etc. at Underbelly Cowgate until 28
FASLANE Jenna Watt in association with Showroom at Summerhall
MARK THOMAS: THE RED SHED Lakin McCarthy in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse at the Traverse Theatre
TANK Breach at the Pleasance Dome
TWO MAN SHOW RashDash at Northern Stage at Summerhall
US/THEM BRONKS, Big In Belgium etc. at Summerhall

WEEK 3

THE DUKE Hoipolloi, PBJ Management & Theatre Royal Plymouth with Save The Chlldren at the Pleasance Courtyard
GROWTH Paines Plough at Roundabout@Summerhall
JOAN Milk Presents with Derby Playhouse and Underbelly Untapped at Underbelly, Cowgate
LETTERS TO WINDSOR HOUSE Shit Theatre with Show & Tell at Summerhall
ONE HUNDRED HOMES Yinka Kuitenbrouwer, Big In Belgium etc. @ Summerhall
SCORCH Prime Cut Productions at Roundabout @ Summerhall

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Mystic McMillan 2016!

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JOYCE MCMILLAN: MYSTIC MCMILLAN ON THEATRE IN SCOTLAND 2016 for Scotsman Magazine 26.12.15.
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JANUARY

The year begins in a mood of confusion, with theatre companies still scratching their heads over the Scottish governent’s enigmatic budget, which appeared to slash cultural funding by 9.4% – the biggest cut of any area of government spending – but was followed by briefings to the effect that no-one was actually being cut by much more than 3%.

Rumours circulate that for reasons unknown, the government wishes to appear to be tough on arts funding, while in fact not being all that tough; and they begin to spread like wildfire after the opening night at the Lyceum of Conor McPherson’s pensive modern ghost tale The Weir, when a man in a heavy winter coat, bearing a strange resemblance to finance minister John Swinney, is seen at the stage door handing wads of grubby fivers to the cash-strapped theatre’s executive director, while muttering “Don’t tell them I gave you this.”

FEBRUARY

In the first week of February, Rona Munro’s huge trilogy of James Plays returns to the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, at the start of a global tour . At the after-show party, NTS boss Laurie Sansom and artistic director designate of the Lyceum, David Greig, call for the Scottish theatre community to be inventive about generating new income, in the wake of the govermment cuts, and to remember that government can also provide the arts with help in kind; a senior civil servant in the crowd is inspired to announce that in future, all such Scottish theatre gatherings will be provided with a supply of government-issue sausage rolls, freshly delivered from Victoria Quay.

MARCH

In March, the Citizens’ Theatre presents a new version of Get Carter by Northern Stage, and puts out an innovative call for funding from those in the city who know exactly how it feels to be a local gangster returning to former haunts; the response is muted. At the end of the month, the entire Scottish theatre community boards a fleet of buses to Cardross, west of Dumbarton, where Angus Farquhar’s NVA organisation is staging an event called Hinterland, as part of its restoration project at the old St. Peter’s Seminary, Kilmahew, an outstanding neglected masterpiece of Scottish modernist architecture. Asked how he finally managed to raise the money for this long-cherished project, Farquhar replies that it was simple: he just stopped using the word “theatre”, and the cash started to pour in.

APRIL

In April, Edinburgh theatre is almost all about nostalgia and escapism, as screaming crowds of middle-aged women besiege the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh for performances of Jackie The Musical – about the famous girls’ magazine of the 1960’s and 70’s – and queues form at the Festival Theatre for the spectacular stage version of Mary Poppins. Meanwhile legendary director Michael Boyd – former boss of the Tron and the Royal Shakespeare Company – returns to the Traverse with his production of eerie Quebec ghost story Right Now. Asked how Scottish theatre can generate more income, Boyd suggests that companies try doing some Shakespeare, since 2016 is the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death; but apart from a one-day celebration at the Citizens’ on 23 April, no Shakespeare productions are forthcoming.

MAY

On 5 May – Holyrood election day – David Greig holds his last Two Minute Manifesto session at the Traverse before taking over as boss of the Lyceum, and the SNP wins another impressive overall majority in the Scottish Parliament; the John-Swinney-like figure immediately appears at the Citizens’ Theatre with an entire suitcase of Royal Bank of Scotland notes, which he says is an anonymous contribution to the theatre’s current building project. Meanwhile, Liz Lochhead’s new play Thon Man Moliere, about the life of the great 17th century French playwright, opens at the Lyceum. In a pre-show talk, an audience member suggests that since Moliere’s main source of funding was Philippe Duke Of Orleans, the brother of Louis XIV, a bit of royal patronage for Scottish theatre might not come amiss; but despite attempts to follow up this inspired suggestion, the palace remains silent.

JUNE

In June, the National Theatre of Scotland tours revivals of two briliantly successful recent shows, Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour – about a group of riotous Oban schoolgirls travelling to Edinburgh for a choir competition – and The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, David Greig’s post-modern Border ballad, best performed in a pub. In an effort to provide Scottish theatre with help in kind, the Scottish government offers to buy a pub where the NTS can stage Prudencia Hart in perpetuity, like Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap; NTS boss Laurie Sansom politely declines.

JULY

In July, as is traditional, nothing happens in Scottish theatre at all; apart, of course, from the Pitlochry summer season, which does not rely much on public subsidy. Asked what Scottish theatre should do to enhance its income, artistic director John Durnin says, ”Get yourself a gorgeous Highland location and a big restaurant, and you’ll find your problems melt away like snow off Ben Vrackie.”

AUGUST

The Edinburgh Festival takes place amid cries of astonishment, as culture secretary Fiona Hyslop leaves politics to become the new Chief Exedutive of the Edinburgh Fringe. “Well, I’ve leanred a lot about it over the years,” says Ms Hyslop, “and I thought it looked like more fun than being in goverment.” Meanwhile, the Scottish Government buys up the Royal High School in Edinburgh – still the subject of bitter disputes about its future – and offers it to Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan as help in kind, and a perfect future location for his spectacular start-of-festival outdoor events; to everyone’s amazement, Linehan accepts.

SEPTEMBER

The National Theatre of Scotland moves to its new shed-like home at Rockvilla in Port Dundas, billed to become a base for all NTS backroom activities and educational projects. Within weeks, though, NTS boss Laurie Sansom shocks the Scottish government, Glasgow City Council and the Glasgow Licensing Board by announcing that following the sad demise of the Arches in May 2015, he has decided to launch Rockvilla as a late-night club and music venue, and to use the commercial proceeds to support the NTS’s work with young artists. Crowds flock to the Rockvilla club nights, and for the time being the GLB fails to think of a reason not to give it a licence.

OCTOBER

Excitement is intense, as the acclaimed new touring version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – produced by former Festival Theatre boss John Stalker, and directed by former Dundee Rep artistic director James Brining – arrives at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh. A Scottish government representative turns up with a bag of Clydesdale Bank tenners, but is politely turned away; this is one show, he’s told, that can wash its own face, and fly its own magic car out over the audience, too.

NOVEMBER

Wind, rain, panto rehearsals. Nothing happens.

DECEMBER

A mood of festive cheer sweeps over Scotland’s theatres, as the Scottish government offers in-kind support to Jack And the Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh in the shape of a giant beanstalk specially cultivated at the Royal Botanic Gardens’ outpost in Galloway; sadly, it collapses under the combined weight of panto stars Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, and is never seen again. “It was an unfortunate incident,” says diplomatic Duncan Hendry, boss of the Festival and King’s Theatres, “but we still very much appreciate any support the Scottish government can give us. And of course, like everyone else in Scottish theatre, we’re still searching for the magic beans that will bring us fame and fortune, in 2017.”

All shows featured in this column will take place at the places and times mentioned, as will the NTS’s move to its new headquarters. Everything else, of course, is pure fiction!

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Review Of The Year, 2015

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on REVIEW OF THE YEAR 2015, for Scotsman Magazine, 19.12.15
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ANY YEAR IN Scottish theatre tends to offer a strong sense of contradiction, and of suddenly shifting moods; perhaps it’s the old Caledonian antisyzygy in action, playing itself out across our stages. Yet I doubt if there has ever been a theatre year so beset as this one by contrasts between rich achievement and celebration on one hand, and – on the other – a mounting feeling of apprehension and loss, as Scotland’s theatres look to a future which seems set to be dominated by ever deeper cuts in public funding.

In Scotland, at national level, those cuts have hardly happened yet, as culture minister Fiona Hyslop continues the fight to avoid the reductions in arts spending that have already swept England. Yet the pressure on local authority spending is already visible everywhere, not least in a capital city besieged by developers, and struggling to maintain its global festival city status. And the mood of gloom found its most visible outward expression in the sudden closure in May, after the highly debatable withdrawal of its late-night club licence, of the Arches theatre, gallery, music and club venue in Glasgow, for 25 years an outstanding symbol of Glasgow’s cultural gains from its year as European City of Culture in 1990, a pioneer of a new model of arts funding, and a city-centre hotbed of rehearsal, development and performance for generations of young Glasgow artists.

If the Arches closure embodied the dark side of 2015, though, then the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh was the place that most brilliantly reflected the year’s stark contrasts, with one of the most brilliant programmes of work in the history of the Lyceum Company – founded under Tom Fleming’s direction 50 years ago this autumn – shadowed by the announcement that from April 2015, Creative Scotland would be slashing the theatre’s annual grant by a stinging 17%.

On stage, though, the litany of achievement was magnificent, as the year opened with a heart-stopping John Dove production of Faith Healer by Brian Friel (the mighty Irish playwright who died this year, aged 86), continued through a breathtakingly timely and brilliant staging of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle by artistic directort Mark Thomson, and culminated in a 50th anniversary autumn season that featured Thomson’s world-class production of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, with great Scottish stage and screen stars Brian Cox and Bill Paterson.

Following the negative funding news, Mark Thomson announced in the spring that he would leave the Lyceum next summer, after 13 years in the job; and in September, in a strikingly bold move greeted with huge excitement, the Board announced that the next artistic director would be Scotland’s leading playwright David Greig, the first playwright to take on the solo role of running one of Scotland’s major building-based companies since James Bridie at the Citizens’ 70 years ago.

The Citizens’ itself celebrated its 70th anniversary in the Gorbals with a remarkable year of west-of-Scotland-based work, ranging from a revival of John Byrne’s The Slab Boys in February, to new musical The Choir in October and November. The highlight of the Citizens’ year, though, was David Greig and Graham Eatough’s mighty stage version of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, co-produced by the Citizens’ and the Edinburgh International Festival, and designed to introduce a new generation to one of Scotland’s defining novels of the last 35 years. And there were other anniversaries this year, too. The Citizens’ celebrated the 50th birthday of its famous, shortlived studio theatre, The Close – destroyed by fire in 1973 – with a memorable autumn season of studio productions; and Lung Ha’s, the ground-breaking Edinburgh-based company working with adults with learning difficulties, marked its 30th anniversary with fine productions of Morna Pearson’s take on Jekyll & Hyde, and Linda McLean’s new play about ageing and dementia, Thingummy Bob.

At the National Theatre of Scotland, this seemed a relatively muted year, as the company planned its 2016 move to a new production centre at Rockvilla in Glasgow’s Port Dundas basin, and learned that two of its leading figures, Executive Producer Neil Murray and associate director Graham McLaren, would move on in 2016 to become joint directors of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. And the same was true at the Traverse, also facing a serious Creative Scotland funding cut, although the company continued to develop its strong working relationship with the lunchtime new-short-play powerhouse of A Play, A Pie And A Pint at Oran Mor, and scored a significant Festival hit with artistic director Orla O’Loughlin’s impeccable production of Stef Smith’s Swallow, a powerful piece about women in the 21st century city by one of Scotland’s most gifted young playwrights.

The Traverse and the NTS came together, though, in one of the most explosively successful first nights of the year, when the Traverse hosted the Edinburgh Fringe opening of Vicky Featherstone’s brilliant NTS touring production of Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour, an adaptation by Lee Hall of Alan Warner’s fine 1998 novel The Sopranos. In a year when Scottish theatre often seemed to be drawing new inspiration from the nation’s recent theatrical and literary history – and mourned the death of 7:84 co-founder Elizabeth MacLennan – Dundee Rep scored a massive hit with Joe Douglas’s revival of John McGrath’s mighty 1972 agitprop classic The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, a production greeted with acclaim by most of those who saw it, and by complaint from those who didn’t, and who felt it should be touring the Highlands & Islands, as the original 7:84 production did 43 years ago. In fact, many shows toured extensively in 2015, from Rapture Theatre’s Arthur Miller season of All My Sons and The Last Yankee, to Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour itself; but the impression persisted that Scottish touring theatre now lacks the impact and coherence that it had, in the days when there was more ideological heft and radical theory behind the whole concept.

And here in the capital – well, despite funding threats, the grasroots theatre scene continued to thrive on the slimmest of shoestrings, from the Village Pub Theatre in Fort Street to Discover 21 at Jock’s Lodge. In the summer, Leith-based Vision Mechanics staged an exquisite seaside installation-with-soundtrack called Drift, on glorious beaches from Fife to Shetland; throughout the year, the King’s and Festival Theatres continued to offer a memorably rich diet of visiting theatre, from Regent Park’s wonderful To Kill A Mockingbird back in February, to Kneehigh of Cornwall’s fabulously inventive version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, in the autumn.

And the Edinburgh International Festival, the first under the direction of Fergus Linehan, began a dynamic new phase by not only realigning its dates with the Edinburgh Fringe, but also opening up a brand new relationship with Scottish theatre, offering an international platform both to large-scale new work like Lanark, and to existing Scottish shows that deserve a wider audience. 2015 was not a smooth or easy year for Scottish theatre, in other words, and it had its deep shadows. But there was a creative annus mirabilis at the Lyceum, a promising new era at the Edinburgh Festival, a determined effort by other theatres – notably the Tron – to pick up the suddenly-severed loose ends of the Arches’ creative effort; and a pattern of sudden, unpredictable bursts of briliance everywhere, in a year that drew strength and inspiration from the past, but also offered a glimpse of a troubled, energetic, and hugely productive future.

ENDS ENDS

After The Storm – Arts On Mull

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on AFTER THE STORM – ARTS ON MULL for the Scotsman Magazine, 12.12.15.
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IT’S BEEN A STORMY SEASON ON Mull, and not only in terms of the weather. Back in July, something like a popular rebellion broke out on the island, after Comar – the new organisation combining the island’s two arts institutions, Mull Theatre and An Tobar gallery and music centre – announced a new management plan which involved maintaining the posts of creative director and chief executive, but getting rid of the organisation’s two long-standing artistic leaders, Alasdair McCrone of Mull Theatre, and music man Gordon Maclean.

So protest meetings were held, an elected shadow board was set up, the previous board resigned, and last week the Transition Board announced that McCrone and Maclean would be reinstated, with Alasdair McCrone taking over the job of Creative Director, and acting Chief Executive. Now, the grassroots Comar members’ organisation has begun the process of electing and appointing a new board; and as McCrone – a talented actor as well as a director – takes the stage as the Dame in the Tobermory community panto this week, it’s tempting to see the whole story as something of an island fairytale, in which the good people of the village triumph over the dark forces of modern management-speak, and top-heavy administration.

As he settles into his new role, though, Alasdair McCrone is under no illusions about an easy happy ending; on the contrary, he is well aware of the financial pressures that led the previous board to conclude that top jobs in the organisation had to go, and is clear that the levels of spending that were possible during the founding phase of Comar – when the organisation benefited from transition grants – cannot be built into its long-term plans.

“Essentially, we have a Creative Scotland grant of £416,000 a year, which represents between 70% and 80% of our income,” says McCrone, “and that’s just a little bit more than the total the two organisations had, before the merger. So my starting-point is that we should be able to maintain our level of creative activity, across theatre, music and the visual arts, and then look for ways to improve our income and expand Comar’s work, in a gentle, organic way. We’re hoping, for example, that Mull will start to benefit greatly from the new road equivalent tariff that’s just been introduced, which will slash car-ferry fares; so one priority for me would be to reinstate some kind of summer season on Mull, to meet demand from visitors.”

The idea of a summer season, of course, represents a nod to the history of Mull Little Theatre, founded at Dervaig in 1966 by actors Barrie and Marianne Hesketh; but as director of Mull Theatre – now based at Druimfin, near Tobermory – McCrone’s pride and joy is his programme of newly-commissioned plays, funded by Creative Scotland to tour throughout the country, which in 2016 is set to include Peter Arnott’s new play Unspotted Snow, about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic, and Robert Dawson Scott’s The Electrifying Mr. Johnston, about wartime Secretary of State Tom Johnston, the visionary founder of Scotland’s Hydro Electric Board. First up, though, will be a revival of a gorgeous nostalgic play, Movietime, written by the late island bookseller David Pitman, and set in the projection booth of a 1940’s Glasgow cinema.

“I think the point about this organisation is that to make it work, everyone has to multi-task a bit. Gordon Maclean, our music director, is also a working musician, and a great technician. I’m happy to take on the responsibility of being Chief Executive, but I also direct plays, act and write; the same applies to the visual arts. And hopefully, if we keep our focus on the organisation’s creative output, we’ll be able to come together to make the idea of Comar work really well, both for Mull, and for the whole Scottish arts scene. Because in the end, the work we produce is the only reason we’re here; and so long as we remember that – well then, I’m optimistic.”

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