Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

The Macbeths

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE MACBETHS at Dundee Rep, for The Scotsman 6.10.18.
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4 stars ****

WHEN LUCIANNE MCEVOY took the Traverse stage by storm as the furious young Northern Irish playwright Ruth, in this year’s festival smash-hit Ulster American – or appeared there this spring, as the desperately anxious young mother in Frances Poet’s Gut – few in the audience might have imagined that their next chance to see her would be in the role of one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, Macbeth.

In 2018, though, the tide of cross-gender casting is sweeping through the Shakespeare canon, celebrated in shows like the current joyous Seventies-style Twelfth Night at the Lyceum; and in creating this touring revival of his acclaimed 70-minute nightmare version of Macbeth, first seen at the Citizens’ last year in a breathtakingly intense studio performance by Keith Fleming and Charlene Boyd, Dominic Hill has decided to transform the Macbeths into a female couple, with Boyd reprising her award-nominated performance as young, beautiful, ambitious yet strangely naive Lady Macbeth, and McEvoy stepping into the role of the warrior leader whose fatal act of ambition finally takes her life.

Set entirely around the Macbeths increasingly bloodstained bed, this brief, taut and unforgettably vivid version of the play, adapted by Hill and Frances Poet, focusses brilliantly on the nightmarish world of moral darkness conjured up in the Macbeths’ great soliloquies; so that although much of the play is cut, we miss almost none of its most memorable moments. Beneath the bed are four drawers containing, like mementoes, the objects that link the Macbeths to the world beyond their room; the tiny clothes of their lost child, the surveillance tapes recording the growing horror of Macbeth’s rule, and one drawer full of dark, clotted blood.

And if the relationship between the couple on the bed lacks some of the animal ferocity of the union between Fleming’s big, testosterone-charged Macbeth and Boyd’s sensual lady, McEvoy’s performance – still a little tentative both physically and vocally – is already brilliant in capturing the intensity of Macbeth’s imaginative inner life, and his or her deep vulnerability to it. It’s not clear, at this stage, whether much is gained by the occasional adaptation of the text to suggest that Macbeth is a woman, rather a man played by a woman. What is clear, though, is that McEvoy is a superb actor, with much to bring to one of Shakespeare’s great tragic roles; and that Boyd’s performance in this extraordinary adaptation has lost none of its rich, knife-edge glamour, as the Citizens’ company – currently in exile from its Glasgow home – sets off on tour across Scotland.

Paisley Arts Centre tonight and on tour until 27 October, including the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 16-20 October.

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McGonagall’s Chronicles, This House

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on MCGONAGALL’S CHRONICLES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and THIS HOUSE at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 31.3.18.
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McGonagall’s Chronicles 4 stars ****
This House 4 stars ****

IT’S A STRANGE fact about William Topaz McGonagall that although he is acknowledged as Scotland’s worst-ever poet, he is also one of the best known; and it’s an irony not lost on award-winning writer and performer Gary McNair, as he sets out to chronicle McGonagall’s strange life for Play, Pie And Pint audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Born in Scotland or Ireland some time around 1825, McGonagall grew up in Dundee, followed his Irish parents into the weaving trade, and took to poetry only during the great weaving slump of the 1870’s, when he was already over 50. And if he could not earn money by being a good poet, it seems he was prepared to earn it by being a notoriously bad one – even if that meant standing on stages across the land, being pelted with rotten vegetables by ruffians in the stalls.

This is the ineffably sad yet defiant tale told by McNair in his latest brilliant theatrical monologue, enlivened on this occasion by on-stage exchanges with musician and actor Brian James O’Sullivan, while fellow-musician Simon Liddell keeps his own counsel at the keyboards. With even the programme notes – as well as the entire play – written in McGonagall-esque rhyming doggerel, McNair is clearly in explosively creative mood; and what he produces, in the end, is a portrait of a man so desperate for any scrap of monetisable recognition that he will literally tolerate any humiliation to achieve it.

Although McGonagall is an extreme case, there is something painfully recognisable about his plight, not only to any artist, but to anyone who has ever suffered the pains of unemployment and socio-economic oblivion. And although the story is a sad one, McNair also captures his subject’s tremendous, vivid energy, as he defiantly pursues his chosen path. There are songs, there is verse, there is a perfectly-pitched production by Joe Douglas; and behind the story of McGonagall, there is a backbeat of sadness about the struggle of Scotland’s working class people to achieve any real recognition in a literary culture that is never quite their own, and in which McGonagall – a painfully poor Scotsman of Irish origin – enjoyed the kind of triple disadvantage that would have silenced many a man with more talent, and less purblind determination.

One of the tragic threads in McGonagall’s story concerns his touching faith in the wisdom and bounty of Queen Victoria, to visit whom he once walked from Dundee to Balmoral, and back again, after being refused entry. And for all its superficial satirical energy, there’s something of the same mystical attachment to fabled British institutions in This House, young playwright James Graham’s acclaimed play – first seen at the National Theatre in London in 2012 – about the high drama played out at Westminster between 1974 and 1979, when the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government, with a parliamentary majority of just three, was trying to fend off the resurgent Tories, and prevent the arrival of the Thatcher era.

There’s no faulting the huge energy and sharp choreography of Jeremy Herrin’s spectacular production, which takes place on a wood-panelled stage lined with audience members sitting on Commons-style green beaches, under a huge Big Ben clock-face; and there are a series of fine, vigorous performances from the half-dozen actors playing the party Whips, in whose offices most of the drama unfolds. Martin Marquez and James Gaddas are outstanding as chief Labour whip Bob Mellish and his deputy Walter Harrison, Matthew Pidgeon excellent as future Speaker Jack Weatherill, and Natalie Grady all too convincing as first-ever woman whip Ann Taylor, who just wants to be one of the boys.

The minor characters, though, are played as such a series of grotesques, with extreme regional accents and dreadful Little Britain wigs, that the overall effect is – as usual with British establishment drama – to make the posh chaps in the Tory Whips office look like the voice of reason and constitutional wisdom, when in fact they are often anything but. It’s an entertaining evening, in other words; but in the end, it treats the real issues dividing British society in the 1970’s a little too lightly for comfort, and therefore has far less to say than it should, about the grim political plight in which we find ourselves today.

McGonagall’s Chronicles at Oran Mor today, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-7 April. This House at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, final performances today.

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Ceilidh

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CEILIDH at the Tron Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 12.3.18.
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4 stars ****

AMID ALL the mayhem of the recent Creative Scotland funding round, Scotland’s fairly-new Gaelic-language touring company Theatre Gu Leor emerged as one of the winners, newly raised to regularly funded status. So it’s perhaps fitting that the latest show from this woman-led ensemble is about nothing less than the return of the repressed, in the shape of a Gaelic language and culture so despised and marginalised over the centuries that by the start of the story, it has dwindled into little more than a cheap advertising slogan in the arsenal of global capitalism.

The scene – well impersonated by the Tron’s Victorian Bar – is an executive function suite in Glasgow, where anxious-looking Lisa, all designer tartan and perfect make-up, is trying to flog off shares in a planned corporate leisure resort on the Harris landscape where she was born. The proceedings are soon interrupted, though, by a rowdy revenant from the 17th century, one Mairi Ruadh, a mouthy storyteller and poet who isn’t about to let this desecration pass, without some stout cultural resistance.

What emerges is a surprisingly complex tale – given its 75-minute length – about women’s lives then and now, about mothering children not our own, and about the obligation to pass on and cherish our own stories, rather than let them be silenced by harsh economic pressures. There’s plenty of song, and four richly enjoyable performances from Mairi Morrison as Lisa, MJ Deans and Calum MacDonald as young folk Eilidh and Eddie, and the mighty Muireann Kelly as Mairi Ruadh; along with a final burst of ceilidh storytelling from the next generation of Gaelic speakers, to remind us that the old language is not dying, but showing signs of new life.

On tour this week to Islay, Lochaber, Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh; and across northern Scotland until 31 March.

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The Brothers Karamazov

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

IT’S THIRTY-SIX years since playwright Richard Crane and director Faynia Williams were commissioned to create a stage version of The Brothers Karamazov for the 1981 Edinburgh Festival; and if Dostoevsky’s great 1880 novel is itself a timeless classic, then over the years Crane’s adaptation has also acquired a certain classic status, enjoying many revivals, from America and Australia to Russia and Romania.

Now, to celebrate its 35th birthday, the Tron has invited Faynia Williams – its founding artistic director in 1982 – to create a new production for Glasgow, in 2017.  And the result is a beautiful, thought-provoking, but sometimes slightly baffling show, in which the novel’s great and ever-relevant themes – the clash between religious faith and scientific rationalism, the nature of morality itself – swirl powerfully round and through a cast of four who sometimes rise magnificently to the challenge, and sometimes seem almost overwhelmed by the complexity of a narrative in which all four Karamazov brothers take turns to play their corrupt old father simply by donning his great fur cloak, and also play many other characters of dream and nightmare. 

Sean Biggerstaff is impressive in the key role of the middle son Ivan, increasingly contemptuous of faith in a savage world; Tom England gives the play a compelling moral centre as the youngest, Alyosha.  And with Carys Hobbs’s towering lecture-theatre set providing a fitting arena for Dostoevsky’s dissection of human lives and morals, Stephen Boxer’s fine choral music helps to propel the play to a climax of fierce humanistic passion for its characters; despite some moments when drama seems about to be crushed by theory, and by Dostoevsky’s mighty avalanches of prose.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 28 October.

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Love Song To Lavender Menace

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on LOVE SONG TO LAVENDER MENACE at the Lyceum Theatre Studio, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 16.10.17.
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4 stars ****

THE PART of Edinburgh where I live is changing; rents have soared, and the dead hand of air b&b creeps up the street, gradually corroding community. Yet in this area around Broughton Street, change – both intensely local, and linked to much wider global trends – has always been the name of the game; and that was never more true than in the 1970’s and 80’s, when it became home first to the headquarters of the Scottish Minorities Group, campaigners for homosexual rights, and then to the Lavender Menace Bookshop in Forth Street, now celebrated in this nostalgic, slightly rambling and yet absolutely life-packed play by James Ley, at the Lyceum Studio in Grindlay Street.

Lavender Menace – run by the double-act of Bob Orr and Sigrid Neilson – grew from humble origins as a book stall in the SMG office to become one of the true centres of Edinburgh gay life during the vital early-80’s years of the AIDS epidemic, the club dance boom, and the emergence of the modern LGBTQ movement; and Ley’s two-handed play seeks to capture its story through a multi-stranded narrative set mainly on the day in 1987 when Lavender Menace finally closed, and moved out of the basement to become West & Wilde in Dundas Street.

Young Lewis, who works in the shop, can’t believe this isn’t the end of a rare moment of gay liberation; his friend Glen is more optimistic. And as they work through a long night to pack up the remaining books, they both act out the story of the bookshop’s origins (and its sci-fi and disco inspirations), and receive some strange hints of a future when full gay equality will at last become possible.

In a reminder of why the bookshop was so sorely needed, Ley’s two-hour play also includes a series of poignant monologues by an outwardly straight young Edinburgh man who gains strength just by walking past the Lavender Menace sign. And if director Ros Phillips and actors Pierce Reid and Matthew McVarish sometimes adopt a throwaway, diffident performance style that weakens the play’s pace and impact, this is still a play for our time that speaks volumes about cities and change, about the freedom they offer and the price they demand, and about those magic, unrepeatable moments when a social revolution is in the air, and some people find themselves at the living centre of it, in San Francisco, in London, or in a basement off Broughton Street, here in Edinburgh.

Lyceum Theatre Studio, until 21 October; also at Dundee Rep 23 October, Lemon Tree Aberdeen 25 October, MacRobert Stirling 26 October, Paisley Arts Centre 28 October, and Platform, Glasgow, 29 October.

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Coriolanus (Botanics 2016)

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on CORIOLANUS at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 27.6.16.
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5 stars *****

THE PEOPLE have voted, and the ruling elites are aghast at what they have done. The people demand not only relief from hunger, but the immediate punishment of arrogant rulers who have scorned their opinions for too long; including one who dismisses their views as “the yea or no of general ignorance”, and demands that the Senate ignore or reverse their decisions.

This is the high political drama that plays out in Shakespeare’s mighty 1609 tragedy Coriolanus; and it’s perhaps not surprising that the atmosphere in the Kibble Palace was electric, on Friday night, as the audience began to feel just how powerfully Shakespeare – apparently still a living playwright, 400 years on – had imagined, understood and dramatised exactly the kind of clash between elite opinion and ordinary voters that is shaking the British state this weekend.

In normal times, the main talking-point in director Gordon Barr’s spare, intense and unforgettable two-hour version might have been the fact that the great general Coriolanus is here a woman, played with breathtaking skill and passion by the magnificent Nicole Cooper. This weekend, though, the question of gender is simply overwhelmed by a tide of mighty poetry about statecraft and its perils that could hardly be more timely and absorbing if it had been written yesterday. Janette Foggo is superb as Coriolanus’s lion-hearted mother Volumnia, Alan J. Mirren full of warrior glamour as her great enemy Aufidius. And will the state “cleave at the midst and perish”, as Shakespeare’s desperate senators fear? Perhaps; but in the meantime, here is a piece of theatre worthy of the historic moment in which we find ourselves, and one that demands to be seen.

Until 9 July.

Ring Road

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on RING ROAD at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for the Scotsman, 9.4.16.
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4 stars ****

IF THE PLAY were a situation comedy, the scene would be about as familiar as they come. Lisa and her brother-in-law Mark, who have always liked each other, have sneaked away to an unromantic hotel on a ring-road, to spend an illicit couple of hours together; and the atmosphere of nervous anticipation, as they look around the room, is exactly what we would expect.

The situation is not quite what it seems, though, in this latest Play, Pie and Pint drama by actress and playwright Anita Vettesse; and the genre is not comedy but quiet contemporary tragedy, as a tale unfolds of lives that have lost their joy, and of people who – unable to find the courage to start all over again – are trying to patch things up as best they can, and simply trying to bear the damage that results.

The play, in other words, is quite painfully true to life; and although elements of the sex comedy survive – and are cheerfully carried throughout by Martin Donaghy as Mark – it’s the underlying grief and desperation of Lisa’s situation that burns itself onto the mind, in a terrific performance by Angela Darcy. And there’s also a bonus, in the form of an unseen voice-over performance from Robbie Jack as Lisa’s absent husband, Paul, each of his mobile phone calls more poignant than the last. It’s a short play, in other words, but one that contains a little slice of the real music of humanity; and just a couple of years into her writing career, Anita Vettesse is proving herself a playwright well worth watching.

Oran Mor, Glasgow, today; and the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Tuesday-Saturday next week.

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